As esports grow, Alaska players face off for first in-person high school state title
May 10—Teenagers from Chugiak High and Kenai Central High School huddled in a semicircle last month at UAA's esports lounge in the student union on campus.
Some looked on stoically while others peered nervously toward the middle of the group. But everyone had their eyes on Kage Adkins and Addison Rains as they played the deciding game of Alaska's first live, in-person esports state championship.
Rains and his Chugiak teammates edged Adkins and the crew from Kenai Central to take the title in Super Smash Bros., a Nintendo fighting game that features dozens of classic characters from games like Street Fighter, Pokemon and the Mario franchise.
The live event came together at the last minute, according to Chugiak coach Mackenna Handeland. Previously, the teams have only slugged it out through ethernet cables. This afforded players a new opportunity.
"I was excited to come here," said Rains, who is a senior. "All of us wanted to come into one location and all hang out and all get to know each other because we've been playing online all season. We're finally able to do a big event in person. If the championship was online, I think it would have — everything would have been different."
Esports are governed by the Alaska School Activities Association. The first state championship was held in the fall of 2019 and the games have expanded to feature two seasons, one in the fall and another in the spring. Rocket League and League of Legends were also contested this school year but played exclusively online.
"It was a good pilot program, and I'm excited to do it next year," Handeland said of the in-person state tournament. "We've been competing online, and we only know each other from our chat and play styles. It's fun to put faces to who we've seen online."
Handeland said while a few of the team members have been active in other sports, being on a team is a new experience for most. The teams have turned something that was traditionally a solitary pursuit into something more.
"That's the magic of esports," she said. "It's something kids are already doing at home. We get to capture that energy and turn it into a positive force. Most of these kids have never had to be accountable to teammates or make grades or show up to practice at a specific time. We're building a lot of life skills."
There was clear camaraderie between Adkins and Rains in the final match, as the two exchanged banter between games.
"I like it whenever we would like play and then communicate and like, be friends while playing," Rains said. "It's a competitive game, but I want to get to know the person I'm playing.
"I think that's a big deal. I've made friends with every Kenai player, and I would have never seen them if we'd played online."
Aside from the social benefits of the in-person competition, there are also technological advantages, with a minimized risk of input lags or internet delays. In a game that rewards quick decision-making and snap reflexes, which can lead to frustration.
"No one really likes (Super Smash Bros.) online with the connection issues," Adkins said. "Really, it was all the coaches that came together to make this possible. Without them, we would still be online yelling at the TV whenever you're hit with a random projectile."
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Adkins played the character Little Mac, the boxer from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out! Rains used legendary gaming character Zelda, and neither was considered especially strong options. An online tier system has Zelda as a C grade and Mac as an F, the lowest tier. Adkins views competing with a subprime character as a badge of honor.
"I love Punch-Out!" he said. "I grew up playing Punch-Out, and I've worked really hard to be able to make Little Mac as good as he is. The championship didn't go my way, but I lost to an amazing player. And I'm very, very proud of it."
Esports growing in popularity
Teams from all over the state compete in esports. That includes schools like Wasilla charter school Twindly Bridge, Steller Secondary in Anchorage and Cyberlynx Correspondence Program in Nenana that aren't household names in other sports.
"The cool thing about esports is there's no divisions," Handeland said. "It's just everybody all in one."
Handeland's introduction to coaching the game was quite incidental. She's an English teacher at Chugiak High and is also the yearbook adviser, and her classroom has computers with multiple screens for students to design the yearbook. So in the fall, she offered it as an after-school oasis for players to practice. It was supposed to be an arrangement that lasted a couple of weeks but has become permanent.
"It's ended up being a big blessing," she said. "I had only ever played Smash Bros. in a fraternity basement."
At Chugiak, the team has grown rapidly this season. When Handeland launched the practice space in the fall, there were only a few kids playing. She had nine kids playing by the end of the fall season, and over 15 for the spring season.
Esports are gaining popularity statewide as well, with 27 teams competing in the spring season for Super Smash Bros. That mirrors a broader trend: Esports have exploded nationally and are now a billion-dollar industry in the U.S.
In 2016, the National Association of Collegiate Esports was launched, and college scholarships are now available in esports. Top players can leverage their success into professional careers.
While Super Smash Bros. is played on the Nintendo Switch, some of the games like League of Legends require more elaborate and expensive gaming consoles. That has caused some equity issues, according to Handeland, but she said with no travel needed for most competitions, it's still an inexpensive activity.
After winning the state title, the Chugiak team was invited to a national tournament, the PlayVS Cup. It features 32 of the best teams in the country and starts this month. But Handeland said that dates conflict with the school's graduation, so it's uncertain if the team will accept the bid.
Players say the growth and success of Alaska esports are a harbinger of the future growth of gaming in the state.
"We're all nerds," Adkins joked. "We're all here because we love this unbalanced mess of a game, and we're here to play and get good at it."