Sports often bring people together in a way most activities or hobbies cannot. This weekend, families from across Iowa and the Midwest will convene in Des Moines for state and league championship tournaments in basketball and hockey.
However, until recently, high school students without the ability or desire to participate in more traditional athletics did not have a similar gathering place.
At Waterloo East High School, Trojan esports director Corey Kennis says the school’s esports team offers exactly what that unique cross section of students previously lacked.
“Anytime we can get more clubs after school to keep them here and hanging out in a structured setting…that is good,” Kennis said.
According to Kennis, the uniqueness of esports exists in the prominence of video games amongst high school students.
“Esports specifically specializes in peaking one of their interests because lots of high schoolers like playing video games,” Kennis said. “It also provides an opportunity for inclusion. We cannot all be athletically gifted.”
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The Trojans esports program started in 2019 as a movement by a group of students. The students approached Kennis and together worked with a willing group of Waterloo East administrators to bring the program to life.
“Honestly, I was expecting that stigma to be a little bigger than what it was,” Kennis said. “I was expecting push back from our leadership…We really have not gotten much of that.”
In 2020, the Trojans joined the Iowa High School Esports Association (IAHSEA). The IAHSEA allows Iowa high schools to compete in Rainbow 6 Seige, Super Smash Brothers: Ultimate, Overwatch, Rocket League, Mario Kart 8 and Smite across Fall, Winter and Spring seasons.
As a member of the IAHSEA, the Trojans won a Super Smash Brothers: Ultimate state title in 2020 and a junior varsity state title in Rocket League in 2021.
As a team, students must follow the same academic requirements as any other activity participants at Waterloo East.
“We have successful kids,” Kennis said. “These are not kids who are failing every class. We have to follow the same eligibility standards that an athlete has to. It is an F and it is 30 days…you are sitting.”
With the participation in IAHSEA and eligibility requirements, Kennis said he believes esports offers lessons similar to traditional athletics.
“The team esports definitely hold the most lessons to be learned,” Kennis said. “You have to work as a team. Sometimes you have to work with somebody you are not necessarily a fan of. You have to overcome the adversity, the conflict, you have to learn how to win with humility and lose with dignity.”
Kennis said he has seen the Trojans learn lessons of perseverance and how to pick yourself up when down.
“We have had those moments,” Kennis said. “Our Overwatch team was probably the third worst team in the state last year. This Friday, we are going into the state tournament as a top four team.”
He also emphasized the team aspect of the Trojans’ esports program.
“I live for the moments where they are celebrating after a win,” Kennis said. “They are not celebrating individual wins, they are celebrating a team win and, in that second, it feels like they are a family. It puts a smile on my face.”
East assistant coach Nicole Pressley said she is struck by the commitment of the students.
“They are here because they want to be,” Pressley said. “They wanted this. That makes it more fun because it is all of them. They wanted to be here and they are going to control how everything goes.”
On Tuesday, the Trojans announced a partnership with SciPlay, an industry leading developer and publisher of web and mobile games. As the main partner, SciPlay donated $17,000 to the program. According to Kennis, the donation will go toward upgrading the program’s computer equipment which makes it easier to compete at a high level.
Kennis said the partnership also helps show the growth potential for esports at the high school level.
“That just goes toward how legitimate this is,” Kennis said. “This is not going anywhere, anytime soon. This is only growing and I hope it opens the flood gates to other schools getting donations.”