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GAME ON

MAY RIVER HIGH CLUB TEAM CONNECTS THROUGH COMPETITION OF ESPORTS

BY MARK LETT | PHOTOS SUPPLIED

It’s “Game On” at May River High School, where Esports is powered up, gaining popularity and growing.

The program has served more than 150 players since it began five years ago, bringing together computer gamers, athletes, males, females, friends and students who otherwise might not have associated with each other.

Among South Carolina schools May River is an early adopter, with relatively few schools in the state offering Esports.

The May River team has competed mostly against schools from Georgia and in the national High School Esports League, which represents more than 3,400 schools and 140,000 students.

It’s part of a powerful trend that Rolling Stone magazine said has gone from an “underground movement to mainstream pop culture.” Playing tournament video games has become a global phenomenon that embraces individuals, high schoolers, college teams and professional competitions.

The May River Esports club is championed by teacher Sean McCann, who has coached the team since its inaugural season in 2017. A former track coach who teaches human geography, U.S. government and economics, McCann said the Esports program fits his passion for sports competition, coaching and video gaming.

McCann emphasizes that the success of Esports at May River is the product of support and cooperation among students, school administrators and tech staffers from the Beaufort County School District. The district’s tech specialists were essential to adapting a school computer lab, providing security, maintenance and updating.

“It’s a team effort,” said McCann, who said school administrators, led by Principal Todd Bornscheuer, have been enthusiastic supporters.

The program was launched after McCann approached school officials, with a simple question: “How about Esports?”

Bornscheuer, who concedes he previously knew little about Esports, said he was impressed by the level of student interest and the sport’s potential for connecting students to each other and to a changing marketplace and global economy.

“I became quickly convinced that this was a good thing for our school,” said Bornscheuer, principal at May River since it opened in 2016.

From a first-floor computer lab, Esports players train and compete with high schoolers from across the nation and Canada. Some 30-35 players are on the team each year, McCann said, coming from “a pretty diverse group of kids.”

“They are not all geeky,” McCann said, adding that team members include female and male students, athletes from school sports teams and others — all sharing interest in competitive, internet gaming.

As with traditional sports, McCann said, camaraderie develops and friendships are formed.

“Among other things, it brings together kids from different cliques to enjoy something in common,” said McCann.

During the most concerning days of the COVID pandemic — when many sports and athletic events were suspended — Esports online competition continued from school labs that were sanitized and followed rules for masks and social distancing.

Various games are included in competition. Among the most frequently played by May River participants: Overwatch, League of Legends, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, Rocket League and Madden Football.

As with students in other activities, May River’s Esports players are expected to balance schoolwork and gaming. Classroom performance and grades are reviewed, McCann said, and lagging students are directed to tutoring and other measures.

The May River team has steadily improved, including a standout showing and trip to the finals for an Overwatch team in 2018.

Two May River graduates have scored college scholarships as Esports competitors — one to Coker University in Hartsville; another to Cumberland University in Tennessee.

Dominic Rodriguez received a $12,000 scholarship to Cumberland, including $6,000 as an Esports competitor. His road to success started “when I was little. I had a neighbor with an Xbox and we would play. Then I received my own, and I played all the time with good friends,” said Rodriguez, a business major at Cumberland with ambitions to become a professional Esports player.

“Esports just gets bigger and better,” he said. “I would enjoy going pro.”

McCann and Bornscheuer said they are hopeful other Lowcountry schools will add Esports, adding that they are receiving inquiries from schools in the area.

Local competition, like that with other sports, will accelerate interest and school spirit around Esports, McCann and Bornscheuer said.