Esports growth on display at Maine high school spring championships

Apr. 29—AUBURN — Minutes after winning the League of Legends state title with his Cape Elizabeth teammates, Roan Young spoke about the benefits of playing the video game he enjoys so much in a public setting, rather than online at home alone.

"To put it simply, it's fun. We play as a team. We're friendly, and we've kind of built up our own community," said Young, a senior. "It's really just a great sense of belonging when you play together."

The Maine Principals' Association held its second in-person esports state championships Saturday at Central Maine Community College. Three video games were played: Rocket League, a soccer-like game in which players use cars as avatars; Super Smash Bros., a traditional one-on-one fighting game; and League of Legends, in which teams of five players work to claim the opponent's territory.

Playing in the Kirk Hall gymnasium at CMCC in front of a few dozen onlookers, Noble High of North Berwick won the Rocket League title over Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, four games to one in a best-of-seven series. Freeport earned a 2-0 win over Mount Desert Island to take the Super Smash Bros. crown. The League of Legends title went to Cape Elizabeth, with a 2-0 win over Noble in a best-of-three series.

"It's unreal. I met two of my closest friends on this team, and it's an honor, really," said Rex Vreeland, a Noble sophomore and captain of the Knights' Rocket League team, about playing in front of fans.

While most high school sports in Maine have experienced a decline in participation over the past decade, esports are proving to be an outlet for students to get involved with a team. The video game competition was first sponsored by the Maine Principals' Association in the spring of 2020, with 10 schools taking part. This spring, 31 schools had esports teams, said Mike Bisson, the MPA's assistant executive director, and more schools are expected to field teams in the fall.

"In three years, we've seen tremendous growth," Bisson said.

Brett Saucier, coach of the Noble team, said esports are attracting students who weren't part of other teams.

"Our goal was to provide an outlet for students that did not necessarily participate in other extracurriculars," Saucier said. "We wanted to create a place where they could learn social skills, communication skills, leadership skills; a place where they could compete and do what they love while feeling accepted for who they are and what they love."

Next fall, a fourth game, Mario Kart, will be added to regular-season competition. If at least 10 schools field a team, the MPA is willing to sponsor a championship in that game, Bisson said.

The growth of esports in Maine follows a national trend. Some colleges in Maine, like CMCC and Thomas College, have started teams with dedicated computer labs alongside other athletic facilities on campus. PlayVS, the esports platform that has partnered with the MPA, works with 36 state and regional organizations in the United States and Canada to offer high school esports.

When everything was shut down in the early days of the pandemic, the MPA was able to offer esports in the spring of 2020 because it can be played with teammates spread remotely. That said, the introduction of in-person championships is a positive step forward in the growth of esports, Saucier said. CMCC also hosted high school esports championships last fall.

"There are huge benefits to building relationships with and facing competition in person. Noble hosted an in-person tournament last fall and is frequently looking to set up in-person meets with local schools willing and able to do so," Saucier said.

The growth in high school esports isn't just simply the addition of more schools. The schools with established teams are seeing more participants. Noble began three years ago with three girls and six boys. This season, the Knights have 20 players and expanded from offering League of Legends to Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. At Maine Central Institute, coach Sean Stackhouse has seen similar growth, going from eight players to just over 20.

"I just think it's pretty fun. It's the game I put the most time into. That's why I compete in it," said Jayden Lilly, a Freeport freshman, after his team upset top-seeded MDI for the Super Smash Bros. title.

"You really have to pay attention to what the opponent does. In Game 1, that's really the game you get all your information. Game 2 is where you notice, 'Oh ,they do this,' and then you do (something) to counter that. It's like, whoever can adapt faster wins."

Through the MPA's partnership with PlayVS, Noble's Rocket League team and Freeport's Super Smash Bros. squad advance to national championships (no national title is offered in League of Legends). Fall and spring champions are invited to the national tournament, which is played online in May.