CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Zama Middle High School’s esports team recently wrapped up its inaugural season, which had players competing virtually against other schools in a multiplayer video game.
In November, Pacific-region schools launched the first-ever varsity esports program at Department of Defense Education Activity. Throughout the season, students battled it out behind computer screens in the soccer-like video game, “Rocket League,” in which players use rocket-fueled vehicles to propel a large ball and score goals in timed matches.
The ZMHS team finished the season at around .500, a positive mark for a young team mainly comprised of middle school students, said Sentwali Helton, a math teacher who coaches the team.
“I want to commend our kids, because they did well competing on the varsity level against high schoolers,” Helton said. “We only had one high schooler who came consistently. So there’s a lot of potential; the future looks bright.”
The eight-person team vied in several matches, sometimes twice a week, against other schools in the region.
“It’s exciting, but nerve-racking,” said Brody Kuchera, a seventh grader and member of the team. “There’s a lot of pressure, because these teams were really good.”
Marcelo Escalera, a ninth grader, said he had years of experience playing the game but still enjoyed the challenge of adapting to the play styles of his teammates.
“It’s a team effort,” Escalera said. “It’s one goal we’re trying to get to; not anyone is specifically on top.”
As the season progressed, Kuchera said the team got better as they used more strategy in their matches. While the final outcome wasn’t what they necessarily wanted, he said it was a great time and believes the team will come back stronger.
“It’s fun,” he said of the sport. “My friends and I would run from our class just so we could get our seats [in the computer room].”
Helton was also optimistic in how the young team will perform next season.
“I hate to sound like a Dallas Cowboys fan, but I think next year will be our year,” he said, jokingly, but still believes the team has a chance to win it all.
Besides notching wins, Helton said another benefit of the sport is that it teaches players valuable life lessons, such as teamwork and confidence.
“Since they’ve been playing esports they have become a lot more confident around school,” he said, “because they feel like they are part of something.”
Held in partnership with USO Indo-Pacific, the esports season had many of the matches livestreamed on the Twitch video platform with play-by-play commentators to draw spectators in.
An officially sanctioned high school sport, esports was recently named the fastest-growing high school sport by the National Federation of State High School Associations, according to a DODEA Pacific news release.
In 2020, DODEA Pacific initially held a pilot program with clubs at Humphreys, Kadena, Kubasaki and M.C. Perry high schools to gauge interest. The pilot proved successful, the release said, and esports became a varsity sport in the region’s 12 high schools.
DODEA then invested in the sport with nearly 100 computers, 100 gaming mice, 100 controllers, over 60 headsets, software and network configurations, as well as team jerseys, the release said.
“Gaming is becoming more and more popular,” Helton said. “I think it gives a lot of the kids that we may have missed in the traditional sports an outlet.”
Esports is able to reach everybody, he added, even if a student plays another sport, which many of the team members do.
“I think what draws people in is that everybody can play,” he said. “A lot of sports may have some exclusion, but with esports it has a lot of inclusion. It’s not gender-based, it’s not age-based. I really feel like it breaks down barriers.”
Even if the matches were played virtually, the stress was also similar to that of other sports. But when the team had its first livestreamed match, the players accepted the challenge.
“I’m extremely proud of our team being young and competing,” he said. “That first time they had the butterflies ... but they handled the pressure well.”