The Kenai Central High School esports program began its 2022-2023 season Tuesday, opening with the debut of its new League of Legends team in a match against Anchorage Christian Schools.
Esports is competitive video gaming, an increasingly common activity in which players compete in matches just like they would in traditional sports.
The Alaska School Activities Association has sanctioned esports as a full sport, with teams and coaches.
In the KCHS Vocational Building on Tuesday, five players spent around two hours clicking furiously and calling out opponents. The match ended in defeat, with a final score of 2-0, but spirits were unflagged.
The ball started rolling for esports at KCHS a few years ago, when a 2019 esports event at the University of Alaska Anchorage caught the eye of Kenai esports coach Shane Lopez.
“We saw that, and I was like, I want to do this,” he said.
The biggest hurdle was getting new computers for the players to compete with.
Lopez worked with the district and got new computers purchased for KCHS, allowing for both the esports program as well as a new computer programming class being offered this year.
The computers were expected to show up in August of 2021. Ongoing supply chain issues, especially with the graphics cards included in the computers, delayed their arrival until April, Lopez said.
For that reason, students in the program met and practiced from home last year. This season, the games starting this week were the first time Lopez got to see his players compete in the same room.
Aside from the issues getting computers set up, the program has had to work to overcome other hurdles, like bringing in enough players to field teams and making sure that the games would work over the school networks.
Lopez said there are blocks on the school wifi to make sure students aren’t playing video games at school. Now the esports program has to get around them for practice and tournament play.
Through it all, Lopez said the support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and ASAA has been there.
“Our athletic department, (athletic director) Settlemeyer has been great. He sees this as a sport. This is an ASAA sanctioned sport.”
Because esports is sanctioned by ASAA, Lopez said, his players are held to all the same standards as any other high school athlete, like eligibility requirements.
Lopez said coaching esports is an interesting challenge.
“In reality, I just kind of facilitate,” he said. “I rely on these guys for the skills that they have.”
Each of the esport titles are mechanically dense. Lopez said he doesn’t have the time to sink enough hours into each game to become proficient at them. His focus is more on identifying the players with the knowledge and doing what he can to help the teams grow.
Lopez said he’s trying to find a way to broadcast the competitions so people can see the team at work. He said that maybe something more elaborate could be done for championship games later in the season.
“Imagine playing Kenai versus SoHi and being hooked up in the gym,” he said. “Being able to actually have people coming in and watching the game, cheering for these guys.”
In-person matches were happening in Anchorage before the COVID-19 pandemic, though Lopez said he doesn’t know if there are any plans to have local events again.
“I’ll probably ask them, and bring it up and see if there’s any other coaches that are interested in that kind of thing.”
Unlike traditional sports, contemporary video games are, almost without exception, playable online and against people anywhere else in the world. Competition in Alaska is played entirely distant. ASAA has partnered with a service called PlayVS to handle connecting teams and keeping records.
Esports teams competing in Alaska don’t know who they’re competing against until right before the match starts.
Lopez explained that this is because last year, many games were canceled because people couldn’t connect, or had computers crash. This year, teams just log on at scheduled times — 4 p.m. on Tuesdays for League of Legends — and PlayVS generates matches from available teams.
That’s why, minutes before the game started, KCHS players saw the name Alaska Christian Schools come up, and moved into a frenzy.
KCHS League of Legends Team Captain Silas Thibodeau said ACS was one of the top contenders in the state — finishing second place last season.
ACS also took second place in spring 2021 and third in the fall.
Get’cha head in the game
League of Legends — by Riot Games — pits two teams of five against each other in a competition of tactics. Teams are tasked with managing three lanes between two bases, as well as the wild jungle between them. The first team to push all the way through their opponents and destroy the crystal nexus at their base claims victory.
The game is set in Summoners Rift, where champions from across a sprawling fantasy world are called to competition. The larger setting is used for many of Riot’s games, as well as for Netflix’s critically acclaimed “Arcane,” which debuted on the service in November and earned the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program. That show was based on the mechanical city of Piltover, but there’s also the mystical Ionia, the milataristic Noxus, the spooky Shadow Isles and the frigid Freljord.
League has more than 140 playable champions who fill different roles and have different play styles. A deep metagame exists where different characters are understood to be better for specific roles, covering lanes — “top,” “mid” and “bot” — or navigating the jungle and slaying monsters to empower their team.
After being matched with ACS, the players only had a few minutes to pull as much information on the opposing players as possible to set their strategy — for example, which champions they were going to bring to the field, and which champions they were going to ban during the ban phase at the start of the match.
Thibodeau explained that League makes a wealth of information available to players. Searching any username can give detailed stats about that player’s performance and most played characters. Full match tapes can even be viewed.
The players were blasting music to hype themselves up and discussing strategies for bans.
The big question ahead of the first game whether or not to ban Tryndamere — the barbarian king of Freljord.
As the match started, it was clear that the ACS Lions had also done their homework, delivering targeted bans at some of the players most played champions.
“Everybody focus up, alright?” Thibodeau said as the first game started. “This is our first game, all right? And it’s against one of, if not the best team in the entirety of Alaska. This is the first game (of the season) for us and for all of Alaska. So let’s show them, alright. Let’s show them that we ain’t messing around!”
Fight to the finish
Communication in games like League is key.
“Information, if you place wards, I want it all. We hear anything, midlane is missing, top lane is missing, I want all of it,” Thibodeau said.
The first game was very close, with Kenai leading in eliminations — thus, leading in power curve — for much of the action. In a game lasting more than 50 minutes, Kenai managed to progress all the way up to the enemy nexus, but an opportunity to win was lost in a late game mistake, and the Lions were able to claim control and shut the Kardinals down.
“What I could do better, that’s all I’m thinking right now,” Thibodeau said after the match. “We could have won that first game.”
Thibodeau said that he was playing as Sivir — who is a fortune hunter from League’s desert region of Shurima — and that she is extremely powerful in the late game, but has very little health.
“We were in the enemy base, and I was auto attacking,” he said. Auto attacks are how characters like Sivir deal damage. Auto attacks in range of enemy turrets draw their attention.
“I didn’t realize I was taking both tower shots,” he said. That combined fire made short work of Sivir’s limited health pool, and opened the door for the Lions to stop Kenai’s push right on the finish line, and Kenai was unable to recover before the game had concluded.
The second game meant an opportunity for a different team composition and a different set of bans, but Kenai was unable to respond to the Lions in the second game.
Lopez said that the team shouldn’t feel frustrated because they got a lot of information from the match.
“We got some good competition, and when it comes down to it, this is going to be one of the better teams that we’ll face, so we learned a lot.”
Lopez said it was clear that the Lions didn’t expect the challenge during the first game, and they worked much faster to shut down Kenai during the second.
The Kenai team, composed of younger players, including two who are relatively new to the game, managed to push ACS to the edge.
Assembling a team — or three
Thibodeau said this year is the first for League at KCHS, though the esports program was started last year. There weren’t enough interested players then to field a full team of five. This year, there are five and one alternate.
Besides League, Kenai fields teams for Rocket League — effectively soccer played with giant cars — and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate — a party fighting game starring familiar characters from other games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Kingdom Hearts.
Lopez said he’s actively trying to recruit to build out the program, saying ASAA supports competition in other games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a party racer, and Hearthstone, a virtual card game.
League of Legends takes five players to a team, Rocket League takes three and Smash takes two, Lopez said. There are actually two Smash teams being fielded by KCHS this season.
ASAA esports competitions are held three days a week with games at 4 p.m. League of Legends is played Tuesday, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is played Wednesday, and Rocket League is played Thursday.
KCHS fell to 0-1 in League of Legends this week. In Smash, Team 1 beat Sitka 2-0 to rise to 1-0. Team 2 had a bye week and didn’t play. In Rocket League, the Kardinals fell 3-0 to Eagle River, starting off the season 0-1.
The regular season runs until Nov. 18, then the playoffs will be held Nov. 28 through Dec. 9, followed by the fall championship on Dec. 12.
Full rulebooks for ASAA sanctioned esports can be found at asaa.org/esports.