By Linda Dillman
Video games have made the leap from pure entertainment to the realm of sanctioned sports with the development of school-level E-sports competition teams and Canal Winchester is jumping on the gaming bandwagon.
When asked what makes electronic gaming a sport, Canal Winchester High School Athletic Director Pat Durbin felt gaming is competitive because, not only can a player compete against the game, but they also compete against each other online as well.
“Before E-sports started, it was already competitive,” said Durbin. “Now they compete as teams as well. It especially became popular at the high school level after the popularity of it at the collegiate level. Maybe a student doesn’t want to play a (field, etc.) sport or they have physical limitations. E-sports gives them a chance to become involved.”
Currently E-sports at Canal Winchester is considered a club organization. However, Durbin expects it to be eventually recognized as a sport with the opportunity for players to earn a letter.
Ben Wyatt is head coach of the high school’s E-sports team, which just ended their second season by claiming the state title for League of Legends play, which, according to Wyatt, is the world’s number one E-sports game.
“League of Legends, other than the Super Bowl, is the most watched sporting event in the world,”said Wyatt. “We didn’t have expectations for state, just go in and play the best we can play and they (team members) beat Hilliard Davidson, then St. Johns Jesuit and we eventually were able to beat Oberlin for the state title.”
The state competition in December was a surreal, unexpected, nail-biting experience for Wyatt. The team was down three games in their first round against Hilliard in a best of six series before rallying and winning a seventh game tie-breaker.
Canal Winchester teams hold weekly practice sessions, which are typically split between game titles. There are approximately 35 personal computers in the lab with enough space for players to spread out and focus on individual games.
Wyatt talks with his captains beforehand and then turns the practice over to them, which consists of in-house and remote scrimmages with other schools. The coach said, as an educator, it is important to him that his players have the opportunity and room to lead and help each other grow.
Players—who must maintain academic eligibility—frequently review video footage from past competitive matches and critique each other as well.
“We have a really nice lab over at the high school,” said the coach who became involved in E-sports in late 2020 early 2021. “In our first year, we tried to figure out what’s the best way best way we can make it. We had a plan during the 2019-20 school year to roll out an E-sports program, but those plans were initially placed on hold due to the pandemic and the restrictions that came with it.”
According to Wyatt, the team started with 20 students in 2021 and now includes almost 50 teenage gamers who play four different games. The coach said E-sports is becoming more important as the years go on and students are now able to apply for scholarships.
“Initially, we saw $500 to $1,300 in scholarship money,” said Wyatt. “Now we’re seeing partial to full scholarships in just two years of advancement. E-sports is only going to continue to grow. We even talked about trying to get it to the middle school level and elementary level and even rec.”
Wyatt said the Ohio High School Athletic Association is now involved in E-sports and working toward officially recognizing it as a sanctioned sport. The district club is now part of a state-run league with over 300 participating schools with spring and fall seasons.
“I have always been interested in gaming and playing competitively,” said Wyatt, who played video games on various platforms including the Nintendo’s original entertainment system and felt his knowledge and experience with gaming made him an ideal candidate to head up the emerging E-sports program. “Couple this with the fact that I love my students and strive to see them succeed and it became a perfect match. I am also a former student of the district and spent 12 years as a CW Indian.”
Looking back on his time as a student, Wyatt said a program like E-sports would have been a perfect way for him to apply his passion for gaming in a way that could potentially afford him a future as a professional gamer, as a scholarship E-sports athlete at the collegiate level or as a video game creator.
“I wanted to be the person to bring that dream to reality for our students,” said Wyatt.
Future plans include expanding opportunities for students outside of gaming within E-sports such as streaming, commentating and video production.
“There is so much that goes into making E-sports successful and I would love to provide media production opportunities for students interested in gaming, but who may not be comfortable or interested in playing competitively,” said Wyatt. “We have big things in the works and I look forward to seeing where we are five years from now.”