Esports increases in popularity – Times News Online

Jacob Kemmerer has been playing video games since he was 6 years old.

Now, the Lehighton Area High School student could possibly turn that hobby into a college scholarship thanks to the rise in popularity of competitive esports in the Lehigh Valley.

“I’m just really excited for this opportunity to compete against other schools,” Kemmerer said. “It just gets me out there and now I’ll get to know other people from the school that I didn’t even know before. I’ve been playing games like Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. for fun, but now we get to take that to another level.”

Lehighton got the go-ahead from its board of directors late last year to become the second Carbon County school to sponsor an esports club, joining Jim Thorpe, which is in its second year of competition. Practices began in February and Lehighton’s esports adviser, high school teacher Jimmy Gurka, said the roster has already eclipsed 30 students.

“I started noticing that during homeroom there is about a 20-minute period that the kids have to themselves while they’re eating breakfast and a lot of them would be gaming,” Gurka said. “Same thing would happen during lunch, and I just threw it out there to the class, would you be interested if we started an esports team here? Almost instantly, a bunch of hands went up and the excitement in their faces told the story.”

Michael Heater Jr., the coordinator of curriculum and instruction and educational technologies for Carbon-Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21, coordinates an esports league in the Lehigh Valley along with Tony Mirabito. Five districts had teams in the CLIU’s fall eSports Rocket League, won by Emmaus.

“It was one of the few positive things that have come out of the pandemic,” Gurka said. “Those guys wanted to bring connectedness to the schools during the pandemic, and esports was what they came up with. The initial schools that jumped on were having great success and when they started to expand out, we wanted to be a part of that here in Lehighton.”

Lehighton students practice around twice per week from their homes. The Indians are preparing for their first competitive tournament coming up in mid-March.

“I am involved with track and field during the spring season, but joining the esports team gave me something to do at home,” said Waylon Bodisch, LAHS student. I’ve been gaming since I was 7 and had an old Super Nintendo, where I played Dr. Mario and the original Super Mario. There are a lot of scholarships out there and this is something you can always fall back on if whatever I choose to do as a career doesn’t work out.”

Gurka said the esports offering is unique because of the diverse group of students it brings together.

“We have students who are taking college scholars courses, athletes, students who never participated in an extracurricular activity before, and students from various walks of life,” he said. “A lot of them never interacted with each before and now here they are bonding over this.”

One of the first students to get involved with esports at Lehighton was Braden Bartholomay. He helped set up the Discord channel, which is the platform through which the players practice.

When matches begin, Gurka said, they will be streamed live through the Twitch app, which specializes in esports competition broadcasts, but viewers can also see the stream by going to the LAHS esport Twitter account.

“I had been hoping for it, but I never thought I’d see it started here during my time at Lehighton,” Bartholomay said of the team. “From a competitive standpoint, I’m interested to see the kind of scholarships we can get out of this and what kind of future this can provide for the people on the team.”

Many colleges around the area, including Moravian and DeSales universities, and Albright College in Reading, have added varsity esports programs.

“This is not just about playing video games,” Gurka said. “This is opening doors for college opportunities and careers. There are $2.8 million in scholarships right now out there for everyone. With the computer programming and computer science jobs that are going to be out there after college, this is just the beginning for these students.”

Lehighton senior Sophia Foreaker said she’s hoping to head to Kutztown University in the fall and would welcome the opportunity to extend her esports career by a few years.

“It’s great to get an opportunity here in high school to do what my friends and I do every night, but on a competitive level,” she said.

Neighboring Jim Thorpe Area School District is in its second year of esports competition. Olympian coach Diane Gabrielle said the team has its first High School eSports League tournament on Thursday.

“Our program is really growing,” Gabrielle said. “This year our students competed in the CLIU 21 fall tournament, Pennsylvania Scholastic eSports League winter tournament, attended the Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo and Conference for a small tournament, and are currently competing in HSEL spring tournament and our local CLIU 21 spring tournament.”

Lehighton Area School District students Aiden Barbo, left, and Braden Bartholomay watch an esports game stream Tuesday. Lehighton recently started an esports team and its roster of over 30 students is preparing for its first tournament in mid-March. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS

Lehighton Area High School esports coach Jimmy Gurka talks to members of the team Tuesday as they get ready to compete in their inaugural tournament next month. Having started practice earlier this month, Lehighton joins Jim Thorpe as the only Carbon County schools with an official esports team. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS

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