After an eight-week regular season, local esports teams have qualified for the state championships from all three Central Kenai Peninsula high schools, and in each of the three video games being played in official Alaska School Activities Association action.
Esports, or competitive video gaming, is a relatively recent addition to the ASAA stable of high school sports. They are included and accredited alongside any other sport in competition in Alaska.
ASAA provides support for three video games, League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Rocket League, through a partnership with the national organization PlayVS, which facilitates the matches and keep records.
Playoff qualification is determined by taking the top 50% of teams, rounded to the nearest bracket size — 4, 8, 16, 32 or 64 — per PlayVS rules. That gets a little messier than expected when so many teams have been disqualified and removed from the total count by either forfeiting two matches or failing to field a team entirely.
For that reason, League of Legends, with 15 teams registered, will only be a top 4 tournament. Smash, with 37 teams in the state, will be a top 16, and Rocket League, which has 16 teams, will also be a top 4.
League of Legends
League of Legends is a fantasy video game where two teams of five compete in a strategic battle for territory — advancing up three lanes and controlling the jungle between them. Kenai Central High School enters the playoffs ranked third in the state, with a record of 6-2. Their two losses came at the hands of top-ranked team Mat-Su Central School Black and fourth-ranked Anchorage Christian Schools.
Team Captain Silas Thibodeau was feeling entirely confident during practice on Tuesday, a couple of weeks away from the start of the playoffs.
“Our team has gotten so far from starting out with three new people. We’ve gotten to third place — and we’ve beaten the second place. In all honesty, I think we can win it,” he said.
Mat-Su Black is “very good,” he said, but he attributed their loss earlier in the season to early game map control, something concrete that the team can work on.
A unique challenge facing esports players is a midseason patch — or update — that changes the game. League of Legends received patch 12.22 on Nov. 16, two days after the last regular season matches in Alaska. Not every patch results in a seismic shift in the accepted strategy — or metagame, but 12.22 caused a shift that the Kenai team was actively working to adjust to this week.
“It was jungle-specific,” Thibodeau said. The jungle, which is the space between the three main lanes of the arena, is generally the domain of one player from each team, the “jungler,” who fights computer-controlled monsters to empower their teammates. Fairly significant adjustments were made to the contents of the jungle, and Thibodeau said new items were added that improve the resilience of different characters to damage.
Qualifying for state, Thibodeau said, “is kind of my legacy.” This is the first year for Thibodeau with the Kenai esports team, and for League of Legends at the school entirely. As a senior, it’s also Thibodeau’s last. The success of the team, he hopes, will be a beacon drawing in new players as esports programs at Kenai and in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are only starting to grow.
“Taking these guys to state, hell, even getting the first place, that would be phenomenal, and I think that would allow the next year to really shine.”
Kenai’s coach Shane Lopez said that the playoff qualifications, for all of the teams, would be big to get the word out and increase exposure — something that has been on his mind with a few seniors already looking at graduating out.
“We’ve had a couple of games during lunchtime and had 20-30 people in the room,” he said. “Them playing in the state tournaments and people hearing about it, helps build the program, bring more people in that have seen what they’re doing.”
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Smash is a platform fighting game with a roster of characters licensed from other video games including Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter and Kingdom Hearts. Three local teams, two from Kenai and one from Nikiski, will be competing in the playoffs, and there is a good chance that the Kardinals and the Bulldogs end up head to head — the first esports match between two local teams this year.
Lopez said that, fortunately, the two Kenai teams are on opposite sides of the 16-team bracket, so they won’t end up challenging one another unless they were both to make it all the way to the title match.
Kenai 1 enters the playoffs ranked third in the state, with a record of 6-2, their only two losses being to Hutchison High School and Service High School, the first- and second-ranked teams.
“Those were some close matchups there,” Lopez said. “They certainly have a chance to run through and make it far in the tournament.”
Nikiski enters at sixth, with a 5-3 record. One of those losses was a forfeit, the other two to Hutchison and to Chugiak High School, which currently sits at fifth rank.
Kenai 2 comes in at eighth in the league, a 4-4 record.
Kage Adkins, Kenai 1 Smash team captain, remains undefeated. Smash games are played with a team of three, for three separate one-on-one matches. Players win the game by knocking the opposition off of the map.
Lopez said the pressure would definitely be on with the stakes of elimination, but that the teams have been looking to play the best all season. They’ll be excited for the opportunity to take another swing at the top-ranked teams.
Rocket League is visually very similar to soccer, with two teams of three giant rocket-powered cars chasing a ball around the field and shooting for goals.
Soldotna High School qualified for the playoffs in the fourth and final slot with a record of 6-2 — after holding at the top of the rankings for much of the season. They’ve only lost one game to top-ranked Nome-Beltz Jr/Sr High School last week, the second blemish on their record was a week one forfeit.
In the top four bracket, the Stars are in the unfortunate position of being faced with a rematch against Nome right away. Coach Jonus Kaponus-Angleton said the prospect of facing off with Nome would be a significant mental hurdle. He said Nome was an issue for the team last season as well, and his players already carried a defeated mentality when they were faced with the team.
“I’m gonna bring a little bit more upbeat attitude this next week with practice, and just get them to get as good as they can get,” he said. “We’re just gonna practice hard and do our best.”
Building out esports at Soldotna and in Alaska is something Kaponus-Angleton said can bring a lot to the community. It adds that incentive that has always existed in athletics to perform better academically.
“We’re gonna promote as hard as we can for SoHi. Hopefully get a lot more interested to come in, field more teams,” he said. “See how far we can go with it.”