A team of young athletes flock to a room in the McGanney Sports Center to practice one recent afternoon. The space contains equipment unlike any seen before in a Sacred Heart Preparatory (SHP) sports program: rows of video gaming consoles with powerful computer chassis, and leather gaming chairs in the school colors fill the room.
Half the team piles in and a video game comes alive on an oversized screen; the other half of the team joins remotely from home and a coach also joins virtually, his voice booming over the speakers, firing off assignments for the first race, until all the members pull on their headsets and pick up the controllers. The new esports program launched this month at Sacred Heart Preparatory, with 15 students participating in the three-season sport.
League membership has been set for the current fall playing season, but more students can join the team in the upcoming winter or spring seasons—all skill levels are welcome, and students do not need to have a gaming set-up at home to participate. The program is in its pilot stage and available to sophomores, juniors, and seniors, but will soon open to freshmen.
The program is a collaborative endeavor between the SHP athletics department and the Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton (SHS) technology department, with technology staff Sarn Saechao as the onsite coach assisted by Duy Tran; SHP has contracted with Concorde Education to provide a professional virtual coach, a top-ranked Rocket League player.
“Rocket League is soccer played with race cars, because we like to go fast,” Saechao says with a laugh. “There is a lot of skill involved in controlling the car, because they aren’t going one dimensionally.”
The race cars can jump, fly, pass the soccer ball to each other, and even hit the ball with a back tire.
Esports is a billion-dollar industry that has emerged as a highly respected sport, with college scholarships for players readily available at an ever-increasing number of schools. And SHP is getting in early and at just the right time as a high school, say SHS’s Director of Technology Joy Lopez and Director of Athletic Programs Bret Simon.
“It’s incredible what's going on in esports, as far as how big it is,” says Simon. “The physical work that the individual players do as athletes—everything from how they eat, how they train, to how they sleep—is at the highest level to make sure they can compete and concentrate just like a race car driver.”
The esports program at SHP has been five years in the making. Lopez gathered folders upon folders of research that included a trip to nearby Menlo College to review its robust esports division.
Simon recalls attending a Positive Coaching Alliance workshop several years ago and listening to a speaker who was a nationally renowned football-, baseball-, and basketball coach.
“I thought I'd throw this softball question to him about esports, thinking he would reject it completely and say, ‘That's not sports,’ because he's working with top athletes in the country. But he said to me, ‘Are you crazy? These kids will eat this up. This is as much a sport as any other sport you have in your department. The kids who are gaming, especially if they're gaming at home alone, need that experience being part of a team as much as any other kid in your school.’"
That conversation had Simon pause to consider, “Why do we even have sports at our school?”
“The number one reason is the life lessons kids learn through self-discipline, through teamwork, and the dozens of positive characteristics you develop being part of a team. And if you go down that route, it’s pretty hard to not see esports in the same light as other competitive sports,” said Simon.
The SHP league draws STEM-minded students, especially, said Lopez, and that’s a theme that translates to university settings. Those with strong STEM programs offer esports scholarships as a financial incentive to nab the top students they seek.
Lopez said that while the SHP league is currently divided into three teams to practice against each other, it will soon begin league play against other schools across the country. “But in addition to that, Concorde Education also has events kids can voluntarily attend,” said Lopez. “One of them is about how to brand yourself virtually and create highlight reels for universities when applying for scholarships.”
The technology department is also lining up Zoom guest speakers for the team, including an alum on an esports team in college who can answer students’ questions about the experience.
And players benefit from a computer science education from Saechao and Tran, who show students how to build “tricked out” computer systems. When the season first launched, players learned to assemble the set-ups on their own during the twice-weekly practice times.
“Having the exposure to know how to build these machines is important when you’re a video game player,” said Saechao. “You can’t be a race car without a proper race car, right? You don’t go racing with a Hyundai. Same with computers. When you’re gaming, you need a computer that will provide a good refresh rate as well as the hardware to handle it.”
Players are learning how to fix their machines on the fly, in play, and how to update computers as new technology comes out. “Since you don’t have a pit crew, you’re your own pit crew,” Lopez added.
Lopez and Simon anticipate that as word spreads, the league will grow rapidly. “I’m sure in a year we will have outgrown this humble room in McGanney,” says Simon.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying so hard to do as teachers and coaches is help kids find their place here at Sacred Heart,” said Lopez. “And these kids are super excited to have found their place.”