GILLETTE — What makes a sport? How does one quantify when an activity crosses the line into being a full-fledged sport? The word likely conjures images of particularity, different for each conjurer: long-ago glory days on a basketball court or watching a child compete against his or her peers or what professionals get paid to do in their chosen arenas of excellence.
In high school, sports might mean any number of activities, from golf to diving to cross-country to volleyball to the bedrock Big Three of America: football, basketball and baseball.
But what if you tweak the word ever so slightly? What is esports, and more importantly, does it deserve to be thought of in the same way as classic sports?
In trying to answer those questions not only for themselves but for the entire state of Wyoming, a small band of students and teachers at Campbell County High School are betting that esports, among other things, is the future.
In front of a small collection of souped-up gaming computers that glowed with bright lights and purred with an undeniable horsepower, Dawson John Reed, Peyton Wasson and Levi Johnson, all juniors at CCHS, represented the entirety of the school’s team.
They were just the types who could answer that foundational question: What exactly is esports?
For one thing, it’s a relatively new term. As of this writing, if one were to visit Merriam-Webster’s website and type in esports (or “e-sports,” just to cover all the bases), there is nothing but a long list of words that the website thinks you might have meant.
Luckily, the definition, as new as it may be, is relatively simple: Esports simply refers to video games that are played competitively. (Listen closely and you’ll hear the grumblings of every person who throws hands up in disgust when a poker tournament airs on ESPN. “This isn’t a sport!” they might bellow.)
This team of young men plays video games competitively. But what’s the game? And against whom?
The game is called Rocket League.
“It’s like car soccer,” Reed, 16, said.
That might sound a bit crazy until a person 1) remembers these are video games, where anything is possible, and 2) actually sees the game in action. The easiest way to describe what’s happening on the screen is to say, “What if cars could play soccer (and also fly)?”
It’s best not to ask such questions and instead simply let the game wash over you. It is undeniably fun to watch. It’s a three-on-three game, and each student controls a futuristic-looking car that prowls what is essentially a large soccer pitch in a giant stadium. They work together to score goals and prevent the other team from scoring, just like traditional soccer.
There are other leagues within the wider world of esports that include popular games like Madden NFL 22, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and more, but the CCHS team is only competing in Rocket League as of right now.
They play against others just like them. Esports is a recognized high school activity in 23 states, and while Wyoming isn’t yet one of them, CCHS is on the cutting edge in the state. It’s one of only three teams in the state; the other two are Wheatland and Cheyenne South.
Their league is organized and run through PlayVS, an online platform that takes care of scheduling matches and tournaments, like the regional one the team just competed in last week.
CCHS was one of 85 teams competing, and when they were finally defeated, they’d finished in eighth place.
The leaders of the Campbell County School District, from the superintendent down to building principals, are adamant in their belief that activities and involvement in extracurriculars translates to myriad benefits for students. That rationale helped with the formation of Thunder Basin High School, because if one football team is good, then two will be great. Twice as many students can play basketball, run track, swim or play in the band.
Cliff Toole, one of the CCHS esports team coaches, couldn’t agree more, and he said that’s exactly what esports offers.
“It offers the same kind of learning opportunities as any other team,” Toole said. “Teamwork. Companionship. Social skills.”
Wasson, 17, expanded on that list with even more benefits that would sound just as likely to come from a baseball player’s mouth.
“You’re still competing against other schools in our region,” Wasson said. “It uses the same communication-based skills, the same as most sports. If you can become really good at a video game, you can do a lot of other things in life as well.”
The team provides a home for an activity that many students are doing anyway. Unlike the drudgery of two-a-days and facing the elements, Reed said it never felt like a chore to practice with his teammates.
“I really enjoy the game,” Reed said. “The fact that I’m able to play it competitively for fun is one of my dreams. I’ve always wanted to have fun playing a video game, and I don’t get tired of it. It’s just something I’ve done for quite some time now. It’s just one of the most entertaining things I can do with my life.”
Then there’s the accessibility of it.
Coach Tyler Reble pointed out the obvious: One doesn’t have to be incredibly blessed by genetics with quick feet or a towering vertical leap or above-average height to be good at video games.
“I think a big thing is, something like esports can be done by anyone who wants to,” Reble said. “Like we talked about regular sports having physical and size limitations, athletic ability limitations, for the most part, video games can be, at any level, played by anyone.”
That’s not to say that it’s easy. The competition from some teams is fierce.
“I wouldn’t say that it comes with no practice,” Wasson said. “I’ve had some friends try to pick up the games that I play and say, ‘Oh, I can do this; it’s really easy.’ Then they try, and they’re like, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’”
It’s no secret to the high school athletes and the families who follow them without fail that Wyoming is a massive state, and sometimes, driving to play a game or tournament requires staring down fierce weather conditions. It’s time- and resource-intensive.
Not so with esports. Currently, the team plays from their respective homes due to not having equipment at the school until recently, thanks to the Camels booster club.
In the regional tournament, they were one of 85 teams from all throughout the Mountain Time Zone, from New Mexico to Canada.
Where matters of money are concerned, it’s not how much that goes into playing esports that’s noteworthy; it’s how much can potentially come out of it. Numerous colleges and universities have created esports teams, and they offer full-ride scholarships to students to come play for them. Beyond school, there is a whole world out there where playing and streaming games is a lucrative career.
“I definitely see a future with esports,” Reed said. “I’ve actually talked with my parents about colleges and stuff. I know that I could make a lot of money in the future.”
That’s not to say that it’s smooth sailing for the team either. Living in Wyoming comes with its own challenges.
For as accessible as the platforms and the internet make gaming, Wyoming is still a spread out and rural state. At home, that can lead to slower internet speeds and lag in the gameplay.
“My Wi-Fi, it’s not the best,” Reed said. “That’s come into play actually while we’ve been playing sometimes. … You may perceive things differently on screen than what it’s actually doing. That’s messed me up a few times.”
“It’s not a game with Dawson until you hear him say, ‘I’m lagging,’” Wasson said. All three of them laughed, knowingly.
Another challenge facing the team is the prospect of growth and sustainability. The team is in only its first full year of existence, the duration of two seasons of play. Since the entirety of the team is juniors, there is a need to find the next classes of players.
That is challenging for a number of reasons. A foundational challenge is convincing hypercritical teenagers that esports is something that’s worth their time.
“Me and Dawson’s friends get on us a lot,” Wasson said. “‘Oh, you’re playing esports. That’s pretty stupid. Why are you doing that?’ We don’t really get fazed by that, though. We just think of it as any other sport.”
They might think it’s a waste of time,” Wasson continued. “But they haven’t really read and understood the future that could come of it.”
“Yeah, I get that all the time,” Johnson, 16, said. “I’m trying to expand our community. I’m trying to get more people to join in, and all the time I hear people say, ‘Oh, why are you doing esports? That’s so lame.’ They just don’t feel like we feel.”
Even for those who aren’t skeptical of video games, it can still be difficult to entice them to join the team.
“I think it’s just a matter of they just don’t want to put in the time maybe,” Johnson said. “But they also are too nervous to join. I’ve tried multiple times to have some of my friends sign up, but they just feel that they’re not at that skill requirement yet.”
To listen to the team members talk about their experience in the recent regional tournament, one would be hard pressed to differentiate their comments from those of any other high school athlete or competitor.
The team came into the tournament with a perfect record of 8-0. Each win they notched required them to win a best-of-five format. As a result, they were seeded as the third-best team in the region coming into the tournament.
They won their first match handily, which had morphed into a best-of-seven format for the playoffs. They had to bring their best every round, because if they lost a best-of-seven round, they were out.
“The second team was a little better,” Wasson said. “The third team got us.”
In their first season of competition last spring, they’d made it to the Sweet 16 round, and in their second, they made it to the Elite Eight.
“It was a great competition,” Wasson said. “We played great.”
“Every time we win, it drives me forward to do better, make me improve,” Johnson said. “I know that every time that I play in a game, there’s this energy that I feel between both of the teams that we play. It’s just an exhilarating feeling.”
“If I was the one watching us play, I could just see my emotions go all over the place, being happy when we scored or won our first game and just celebrating,” Reed said. “But you could also see the let-down when we lost in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. You can just visually see how much it matters to us and what it’s done for us and how it’s connected us together as a team.”
They reflected on the bitter taste of defeat in that final matchup.
“We really tried, and I knew we did,” Wasson said. “I feel like we played really well, but I felt like we could have played a lot better.”
In other words, they’d learned the lesson that coaches and parents hope student athletes will take away from high-stakes competition, no different than any other team.
“As coaches, we ride the same high, I think, as a sports coach would,” Toole said. “When I was watching the Sweet 16 game, it was pins and needles. Then you’re just super euphoric the rest of the night. Because then you start thinking about, ‘Can we get there? Can we get to that Final Four? Then can we win a championship?’ Then you lose in the Elite Eight, and it’s the same ride, I think, as losing the March Madness Elite Eight. That dream of going the whole way is gone, but then you hear these kids talking. They’re immediately hungry to get better. They’re already thinking about the next season and taking it to the next step.”
Those words are indicative of exactly why people love sports and why they’re so valuable as an extracurricular. At the end of the day, it will matter very little that this particular sport was of the e-variety.