Louisa is a pioneer in esports

The newest sport offered at Louisa County High School isn’t exactly traditional, but it is breaking new ground.

Louisa is one of about 100 high schools throughout Virginia participating in the Virginia High School League’s esports pilot program, which allows students to compete with other schools in competitive video gaming.

“I’m incredibly excited,” Jacob Sarmiento, the head coach of Louisa’s esports program, said. “It’s a great opportunity to reach out to students who don’t play our traditional sports and really have them feel involved and be a part of the school. I’m over the moon for it.”

Competitive video gaming is one of the fastest growing sports worldwide, with several countries recognizing it as an official sport and many colleges offering scholarships for esports players. As the trend has grown, high schools across the country have started programs for esports. With the pilot program this year, Virginia is the ninth state to form a competitive video gaming league at the high school level.

“It’s not a small thing anymore,” Nick Baker, one of the players in Louisa’s program, said. “You can watch tournaments online and they’re huge. It’s cool to see schools recognize it and making an effort to move toward it.”

Nearly 40 students have joined Louisa’s program, divided among the program’s three games: League of Legends, Smite and Rocket League. League of Legends and Smite follow similar structures, with teams of five competing in a fantasy-based game to take down the opposing team’s base. Rocket League offers a different style of play, with three-person teams attempting to hit a ball into their opponent’s goal using rocket-powered cars.

Louisa has two teams for both Smite and League of Legends and three for Rocket League. Sarmiento, while serving as head coach for the program, works primarily with the Rocket League players, while his assistant coaches Andrew Harris and Randy Fisher coach the League of Legends and Smite teams, respectively.

It may not seem like it on the surface, but esports does teach similar attributes to traditional sports like football or baseball, including teamwork and sportsmanship.

“All of us come into this sport with certain strengths and weaknesses,” Parker Gallahan, one of Louisa’s Smite players, said. “Since there are five of us, we build on each other’s strengths and counter each other’s weaknesses, so we all have each other’s backs.”

Since esports is a sanctioned VHSL sport, players have to meet the same standards as members of other sports teams, including keeping their grades up while playing.

The teams compete every week, with the League of Legends competitions held on Tuesdays and Smite and Rocket League competitions on Thursdays. Smite and League of Legends teams compete in a best-of-two format, meaning they play two games against their opponent and win the match by winning both. One win and one loss is considered a draw. 

Rocket League matches follow a best-of-five format, similar to volleyball. The first team to win three games wins the match.

This week marks the first official week of the season, following two weeks of scrimmages. The season will continue through December with post-season play in January 2020. A second season is planned for the spring, but dates have not yet been announced.

Tournaments will be held for each game, so schools can win up to three state championships per season through the esports program.

“I want to see us at least in the top half of the state,” Sarmiento said. “That’s my bottom-line goal. I would, of course, love to win states. I mean, what a phenomenal thing that would be, to win the first-ever state tournament for one of these games, or all three of them.”

While several of the students in Louisa’s program bring some familiarity with the three games to the table, there are just as many that hadn’t played the games before joining the program. The League of Legends team in particular is comprised largely of new players.

“That is a very, very fresh team, and Coach Harris has done a fantastic job of getting them to really take their foothold and make great plays,” Sarmiento said.

As the season gets underway and the teams progress, Sarmiento hopes that he can “open the eyes of a lot of people.”

“Tearing down those negative connotations that we have with video games is my big goal and...showing that this is truly a sport,” he said. “This is a competition and these kids work hard and they dedicate a lot of time to making themselves be the best.”