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Let the (video) games begin!

A new sport has been added to most of the MAAA conference schools, but it doesn’t require a ball, glove, bat, helmet or even a racket. No protective gear is needed.

It’s called Esports – or eSports – and it’s gaming that has gone from what was a casual hobby to an organized sport. And the world of competitive video gaming is a fast-growing phenomenon.

Esports is competitive, organized online video gaming played in a team setting or player against player. Competitors are usually divided into different leagues, or teams, and face off in the same games with other gamers.

Streaming services have turned casual gamers into competitive gamers. The best players advance to earn college scholarships or even play on professional teams.

Some of the area’s best players will converge at Mineral Area College on Saturday for the Missouri Scholastic Esports Federation (MOSEF) Region 1 Tournament. The event begins at 10 a.m. in the college’s technology building. The top teams will be awarded trophies.

Area districts competing at the Region 1 competition include West County, North County, Central, Richland, Windsor, Fox, Bernie, Jackson and Clearwater.

West County has had an Esports team for three years. The team is coached by Darren Cordray, who is also the district’s band director. The team is part of the after-school gaming club where any high school student can participate. The dedicated Esports lab has 14 gaming PCs and three 40-inch TVs with a Nintendo Switch.

The district has 16 high school students on its Esports team. The Varsity Smash Brothers team consists of Captain Reid Payne, Devin Cox, Olivia Smith, Zeke Barlow, Zach Barlow and Levi Robison. The Varsity Valorant includes Co-captain Reid Payne, Co-captain AnnaMae LaHay, Jared Skaggs, Ashton Dashner and Jackson Buxton. The Valorant Junior Varsity team includes Co-captain Cole Laird, Co-captain Kenneth Godat, Quinten Flint, Karter Walter, Malachai Beck, Austin Barbey and Jaxson Dunn.

The students are divided into the three teams based on their skill levels. Students practice, or scrimmage, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for two hours each day. Game time is usually 4:30 p.m.

According to Cordray, for the game Valorant, this first-person game is where the operatives – or characters that the players choose to be – set the spike, similar to a bomb. The other team tries to prevent that from being set off. Each match only takes a few minutes to either set off or stop the spike.

Cordray said the Region 1 Esports students have been playing against each other all season so they’ll finally be putting “a face with the name” and see how other schools operate their Esports program at Saturday’s event.

Senior Reid Payne will be playing on both of West County’s varsity teams.

“It’s a neat thing for him to be able to represent and play at both games,” said Cordray.

He said sometimes students learn how to play the games quickly and easily. While some students play at home, others are limited to play only at school.

As for Esports practices at West County, all team members begin with a quick 15-minute cardio-related warmup such as walking, jogging, pushups or sit-ups. After that, the team typically reviews previous matches and games to discuss what did and did not go well. They talk about mistakes to hopefully avoid them in the future. They devote the remainder of time to practicing or match playing.

The idea of Esports in the MAAA conference evolved after a few local district technology directors came together. Now, there is a definite push among schools throughout the state to have MSHSAA-sanctioned Esports.

Cordray said the Region 1 coaches communicate through Discord to make contact, agree on a time to play, create an online arena, and join in to play. Through MOSEF, they have randomized brackets so they match up each week with a different team.

Although Region 1’s regular games have already been completed, after Saturday’s tournament at MAC there is still the MOSEF Super Smash Brothers State Championship. This event takes place May 7 starting at 10 a.m. at the Saint Louis Science Center. Tickets are on sale through the science center for $10 per person. Games are streamed in the Omnimax Theater.

“At this event, you’ll see the same screen that the students will be playing but it will be projected onto a much larger screen,” said Cordray. “You’ll watch them play the game with various Nintendo characters battling it out.”

This is one of the first in-person finals tournaments for MOSEF. Each region sends their top three teams to represent their region.

“Throughout the season, we were able to beat enough of the other teams to make it into the top three for our region,” said Cordray. “It will be us, Farmington and Richland competing against other teams at this competition.”

Cordray said Esports is a continually growing activity, with more and more districts and people becoming involved.

“It’s going to be coming to many more schools in the next five years,” he said. “I will say it’s going to be a very dominant activity, especially as more games are added and more kids are involved.”

Cordray believes Esports is a great opportunity for students because it gives them a chance to do something they enjoy and earn scholarship money.

“It’s a good avenue for our kids to be recognized for doing something they’re already doing well and it gives them a place to belong,” he said. “They can find a group of friends, work together, and have the opportunity to meet other people.”

Cordray added that more and more professions are based on computers or technology.

“The comfortability of technology and using that technology is a good skill for our kids to learn and cultivate,” he said. “This type of skill isn’t going away. Any advantage we can give our kids is great for them.”

Cordray said he knows some things about the games his Esports team members play, but most of them are better at it than him. He said his role is more of an organizer of the competitive play, as well as making sure the students communicate clearly and concisely. He helps them with basic strategies.

West County’s Esports team members are already looking forward to their upcoming fall season. Practices will begin in September.

West County Esports team members pose for a photo outside Southeast Missouri State after the Region 1 competition last year.

West County Esports team members pose for a photo outside Southeast Missouri State after the Region 1 competition last year.

Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal

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