‘It has been great to see these kids excel’

Penny Pitts Mitchell, GHSA esports director
Esports in Georgia has grown from 60 teams to 140 teams in two years.

Credit: Aaron Favila

Credit: Aaron Favila

Esports in Georgia has grown from 60 teams to 140 teams in two years.

Each week, five high school coaches will discuss one issue that affects Georgia high school sports.Last week: Officiating

At Issue: Competitive gaming has evolved from a hobby in damp basements to a multi-million dollar industry featuring high school, college and professional esports teams across the nation. Pro teams compete on ESPN's networks; fledgling college programs are offering scholarships, and high school associations, including the GHSA, are crowning state champions in various competitive video games.

What is esports? According to PlayVS, the company that conducts the GHSA esports state championships, esports is defined as follows:

“Esports officially stands for electronic sports, not to be confused with video games. It’s much more than that. What sets it apart is the level of organized competitive game-play between teams and its own strict set of rules and guidelines. Esports is about teamwork, communication, strategic thinking and leadership — in all the same ways that traditional sports are, and then some.”

The GHSA added esports in 2018 and has awarded state championships in two games: League of Legends and Rocket League. The league started with around 60 teams and grew to around 140 teams in the second year.

League of Legends, or “League” for short, is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). The game requires teams to compete in matches, lasting anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes on average. In each game mode, teams work together to achieve a victory condition, typically destroying the core building (called the Nexus) in the enemy team’s base after bypassing a line of defensive structures called turrets, or towers. Rocket League, the other GHSA sanctioned esport, is a virtual vehicular soccer game. Of the two, it is more like your typical sport, where the goal is to get the ball in the net. Think soccer, but with rocket-powered RC cars.

Both games involve multiple players, require teamwork, skill, critical thinking, practice and prep.

Can we expect esports to boom at the high school level?

The Skinny: When Penny Pitts Mitchell was handed the responsibility of handling the GHSA's esports program, she was unfamiliar with the territory.

“I came from a football family,” she said. “My father was the winningest coach at Mary Persons. Both of my sons coach football.”

Mitchell’s father, Dan Pitts, coached football at Mary Persons from 1959-1997 and won 15 regions championships and one state title in 1980. He amassed a 346-109-4 record while leading the Bulldogs.

Since the first GHSA esports competition, the program has grown substantially.

“It’s not just Atlanta kids doing this,” Pitts said. “There are kids all over the place, and it has just been great to see them excel and be excited about this.”

And she has learned the territory.

Mitchell: "There's a company called PlayVS that we signed a contract with. They run this for us and already are set up with the National Federation of High Schools. All the states are using this company. We all met in Atlanta, and they explained the whole process and gave us five games they planned to offer. And we just felt like it was a great opportunity for kids who aren't athletes or just the kids not involved with any other sports. So it has been a great thing. We have had some kids involved from a lot of schools, and some schools might have five or six teams. So the involvement has been great.

“We had 84 teams for League of Legends in the first season and 64 teams for Rocket League. It was a great turnout. Mt. de Sales won the state championship the first year. Right now, it’s not divided into divisions, so everyone is competing in the same boat in a fall and a spring season.

“The kids are just loving it. They get excited to have jerseys and just being on a team. The only time that (the teams) are in person playing against each other — with one team on one side and the other team on the other side — is the state championship. And that looks like something you see on ESPN. The stage is set up by PlayVS, and it is just really cool for the kids who might not have had a chance to be a state champion before this.

“There are several colleges and universities giving scholarships — Georgia State and Georgia Southern. Now GHSA esports gives them a place (to find players).

“To the naysayers ... when your kid wants to do this, and they feel good about what they’re doing and excited about it, you’re going to change your mind.”

AT ISSUE: esports

• Travis Noland, Oconee football coach
• Penny Pitts Mitchell, GHSA esports director 
• Lucas Bailey, Georgia State esports coach
• Ashely Hodge, Colquitt County SuperCoach
• Anna Cannon, esports player's mom
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