High school students from around Wisconsin will compete in a state esports championship at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls this weekend. The event comes as a growing number of high schools and colleges are embracing competitive gaming.
The Saturday championship is organized by the Wisconsin High School Esports Association, or WHSEA, which has grown from seven teams in 2017 to more than 150 this year. Esports is a broad term for organized, team-based video game competitions featuring popular titles like Rocket League, Fortnight and Super Smash Bros.
Random Lake High School senior Talon Wilterdink is a varsity esports team member who will compete in River Falls. He said competitive gaming has taught him about teamwork, discipline, time management and critical thinking. Wilterdink said he's ready for the weekend.
"Our coach is calling it the 'revenge tour' because the three teams in our division that we could possibly play against, they are the three teams that beat us in the regular season," Wilterdink said.
Esports might be the greatest thing that's happened to him in high school, Wilterdink said.
"I didn't know if I fit in that well going into high school. But when I came into the esports team, it immediately gave me a bunch of people that I knew I could hang out with. And it really gave me a place where I felt like I fit in," he said.
WHSEA President Mike Dahle coaches a varsity high school team at Elkhorn Area High School. He said Saturday's championship is the culmination of the winter season. Dahle said whether it's club or varsity level competition, students get many of the same skills they do in more traditional varsity sports.
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"My biggest push with this is that the students are getting that teamwork, communication, accountability, responsibility," Dahle said. "For many of them, this is their first and only extracurricular activity connecting them to schools."
A growing number of colleges and universities are also getting into the esports game. There are five varsity teams at campuses like UW-Stout, UW-Whitewater, Carthage College and Lakeland University.
UW-River Falls will launch its varsity esports team this fall. The school recently unveiled a new esports arena, which features 26 seats and a host of powerful computers for competitors and recreational players.
Coach Dylan Gentilcore was hired to create the team after leading the nation's most successful high school esports program in Carmel, Indiana.
"Already, within this first year at UW-River Falls, I have players committed from around the country coming to UW-River Falls that wouldn't be coming here otherwise," Gentilcore said. "Players from Texas, North Carolina, Virginia — so we are able to bring in more students than if we were to just stick at the club level."
Gentilcore pushed back against the idea that esports are somehow less impactful for students than things like football or basketball. He said his players will get opportunities unique to competitive gaming.
"If these students were to play basketball out of high school, very few of them would also be involved with designing their jerseys, making merchandise for their team, being the ones live-streaming and casting their games, right?" Gentilcore said. "These are all things that uniquely they can do within esports that they don't really have an opportunity to pursue through more traditional competitions."