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Williamsport Area Middle School kicks off esports team

Students practicing with a match of Rocket League, one of the most popular games in esports.
Chase Bottorf
Williamsport Area Middle School students practicing a match of Rocket League, one of the most popular games in esports.

Williamsport Area Middle School is one of the latest schools to jump into the world of esports.

With the help of a $17,000 grant through the First Community Foundation Partnership, the program has been able to flourish with new computers and tech for students.

Over 30 teams totaling 64 students have competed in the program since it started this month, according to eighth grade math teacher, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) lab facilitator and coach, Robert Rook.

The middle school has had unofficial esports for several years. Before Rook took over as the STEAM facilitator, the school was holding morning tournaments. Students were able to compete against each other during their Millionaire Block, the school’s version of study hall. However, the number of kids who could participate was limited.

“It was kind of a limited amount that you can do. You can only have two to four kids at a time. You can only play during a club period once a week,” Rook said.

The morning tournaments soon turned into a full fledged club. Rook; seventh grade teacher, Ashley Mutchler; and special education teacher, Whitney Grimm pushed to start an official competitive esports team at the school. Each of them volunteer as coaches. The program began with just one TV and one Xbox in the school’s FutureLab. Now that a team is forming, students will be able to practice four to five days a week after school. Practices and competitions typically last about an hour — from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., according to Rook.

Esports is one of the biggest sports in the world, especially in Japan and South Korea, according to Rook. It has grown in popularity in the West as local colleges such as the Pennsylvania College of Technology and Lycoming College have started their own esports teams. As more colleges get involved in esports, Rook said it is only a matter of time before scholarships will be available for students. It has also helped change the gender norms of video gaming with more girls getting involved in the school’s program.

“We have some girls signed up too which is a really big push. We want to get as many girls involved as we can because there is that stigma that it’s a guy thing even though it’s not. We don’t want them to feel left out of this,” Rook said.

So far, the program has helped with student attendance and getting kids involved. There are students in it that have had attendance issues, according to Rook. Yet, they are showing up to school more with the program.

“For the past couple of years, our focus in the district has really been on attendance… If we can get kids to play video games, we can get them in school. I know there are a couple of these kids that have had attendance issues and they’re here because they know they can stay after and do this,” Rook said.

The program is not only an outlet for students who like video games, but it is also a way to teach safe social interaction and communication while gaming online.

Rocket League, a vehicular soccer game, is popular with Williamsport Area Middle School students. Team members, Jason and Haneef, are both avid Rocket League players. According to Jason, players are yet to be ranked in the program. The game refreshes rankings after each season — about four months. Players compete to achieve higher rankings depending on wins and how much they score. Each player begins at unranked and moves onto bronze, silver, gold, platinum and so on before reaching the top grand champion rank.

“I’m just now getting back into Rocket League, so I’m not ranked in it yet,” Jason said.

Haneef said he is currently ranked silver when he plays at home.

Along with Rocket League, students are competing on Overwatch 2, a cartoonish style, first-person shooter game; and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, a crossover fighting game consisting of Nintendo and other video game IP characters.

Since the games are taking place in a middle school setting, the team must abide by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association (PIEA). The PIEA limits what is offered as tournaments and leagues the school is able to enter.

“Being that we’re a middle school, we obviously have to be careful with the titles we use. Kids all want to play Fortnite, Call of Duty or Rainbow Six, but we can’t do those in school,” Rook said.

So far, the Williamsport Area Middle School team has competed against schools in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from the comfort of their own school room. Depending on how many students sign up for the program, Rook plans on having tryouts to make the school’s official esports team. The tryouts will be similar to other sports like basketball and football. Students will be able to sign up and try out for a chance at making the team.

“We could have 150 kids wanting to try out. How am I going to manage that? At this point I don’t really know but it’s a good problem to have. You have kids that want to be here,” Rook said.

A grant that was awarded to the program helped fund the PCs the kids are using along with a projector and a big screen for console gaming. Rook and the team were also able to purchase ergonomic gaming chairs, monitors and headphones. He hopes to expand the amount of consoles they have and improve the space the team uses located off of the school’s library.

“When we step in here in August or September, I want this room to look different. I want it to look good to represent the district well. Once that happens, it’s going to be about getting more involvement… I want every kid in the building to feel like they have the opportunity to at least try out and be a part of the program,” Rook expressed.

Chase Bottorf is a graduate of Lock Haven University and holds a bachelor's degree in English with a concentration in writing. Having previously been a reporter for the Lock Haven news publication, The Express, he is aware of the unique issues in the Lycoming County region, and has ties to the local communities.

You can email Chase at chasebottorf@wvia.org