Competing in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association (PIEA) League, the Esports teams at South Fayette Middle and High schools have come out this season with something to prove. And it’s not just that they are beasts armed with game controllers. With the High School teams reigning undefeated, the Lions have found something even better than the thrill of victory – as one player stated, “these are my people.”
Dr. Kevin Maurer, Middle School Associate Principal and Esports Program Director for the district, says that the best part of bringing Esports to South Fayette is the sense of belonging and inclusivity it creates. “We have established a safe, structured environment for the students to be competitive, work together and problem-solve as teams, overcome adversity, and develop leadership skills.”
“It’s cool being able to play something you're passionate about inside of school and with friends,” said seventh grader Rishi Patel. “I’m in a class with five kids who made the club, and they were really accepting and happy to have me on the team. I think we have a good shot at winning some competitions and tournaments.”
Beginning as an incubator project last year, Esports at South Fayette is now in its rookie season. Last year, district administrators were treated to a tour of the Esports facility at CCAC North and were also able to learn more about the activity at the collegiate level and the importance of developing teams in the middle and high school grades. They were able to take what they learned and now, the makeshift Esports lab that got them started has been replaced with two full-fledged Esports arenas complete with gaming PCs and chairs, customized lighting, and Lions Esports branding – one each in the middle and high schools. Players have coordinated South Fayette uniform shirts, and matches are live-streamed on Twitch so that family, friends, and the community can tune in. Live-streams are coordinated by other South Fayette students.
Student-players at South Fayette have written and committed to a Player Oath as well as a list of Values and Principles. Their Oath details their commitment to best efforts in practice and competition, sportsmanship, personal growth, academic balance, pride, and dignity. The Values and Principles expands upon the Oath to define dedication, fair play, respect, adaptability, ethics, and healthy habits.
For the PIEA fall season, teams are competing in two games, either Rocket League®, described as “a high-powered hybrid of arcade-style soccer and vehicular mayhem,” or Valorant, a character-based, tactical first person shooter (FPS) game requiring intense teamwork and rapid problem-solving/decision-making skills.
While forming both the high school and middle school teams, Dr. Maurer sought assistance from local college teams. During tryouts, potential high school players were matched with students on Robert Morris University’s Esports team while the middle schoolers were partnered with players from Waynesburg University. The collegiate players and coaches observed the South Fayette students for their individual talents, team skills, and ability to communicate. They also helped identify potential team leaders.
South Fayette will conduct a new set of tryouts for the spring PIEA season in order to encourage even greater participation and select the most competitive gamers at Super Smash Bros.™ Ultimate and Overwatch.
The notion that gaming encourages isolation is purely a misconception. Though, aside from invitationals and specialty tournaments, teams only meet in cyberspace, each school’s players have come together to display support, camaraderie, and leadership within the arena. These skills, along with creativity, communication, and problem-solving are not just benefiting these students in grades 6 - 12 at game-time, their emerging talents provide tremendous value in the classroom and will carry into their college experiences and future careers.
“I game because it feels invigorating,” said senior Lincoln George, who plans to pursue a career in the field of information technology. He joined South Fayette’s Esports team, “because I wanted to have an excuse to improve my skills. I also love the people on the team – they are very nice and accepting.”
School leaders had already begun investigating the potential for bringing competitive video gaming to South Fayette as a means to foster teamwork, critical thinking, and inclusivity. They knew they were on target when four enterprising sixth graders approached Middle School administration last school year with hopes of hosting an Esports tournament.
Currently, the high school team consists of 17 players comprising three mini-teams – Varsity and JV teams for Rocket League and a Varsity Valorant team. The fall season at the high school level includes a pre-season and eight weeks of matches followed by playoffs. Coached by business teacher Stacey Barth and STEAM coordinator Jim Hausman, each of the mini-teams has been undefeated in their first four weeks of play.
“We have a lot of gaming talent on our team,” said Coach Barth, “which allows me to focus on team dynamics, the social-emotional aspects of competition, and helping them to strategize for future matches.”
“My favorite part about the team is most definitely the coaches,” said senior Brady Hanna. “They add such great energy and assistance for our team. They also show that they really care about our enjoyment and development. I plan to continue to play Esports for the remainder of my senior school year and help pave the path of success for the younger grades.”
The Middle School team competed well in its first match on October 17, launching a five-week season. Week two left them with victories against two of the three competitor schools. The 12 middle school players are organized into three mini-teams and are coached by Dr. Maurer and math teacher Josh Picozzi.
“I love their enthusiasm – it’s contagious,” said Coach Picozzi. “There’s a lot of pride among this group of kids to be part of something new at South Fayette, and while they may not even realize it, they are establishing a legacy that will hopefully continue for decades to come.”
The National Association of College Esports (NACE) has nearly 250 member schools, more than 5,000 student-athletes, and $16 million in available esports scholarships and aid. Career opportunities are on the rise in the growing Esports industry and colleges are offering degree programs like Miami University’s Master of Esports Management program and Harrisburg University’s B.S. in Esports Management, Production, and Performance. Related career options include graphic design, public relations, talent acquisition, and broadcasting.