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High School Series giving esport athletes opportunities to take skills to collegiate squads

May 20—In its third spring season, The Esport Company's High School Series is preparing to host championship matches in "Overwatch," "Rocket League" and "Valorant" on Saturday at St. Francis University's Luke Trotz Esports Arena.

The series, which also hosts a fall league, has also been vital in helping high-schoolers play their way to collegiate esports scholarships. While not the expectation of The Esport Company founder Seth Mason when the leagues started, it's been a pleasant byproduct.

"It's kind of crazy," Mason said. "I definitely didn't think it was going to get to this point where it's this big where kids are getting college scholarships and winning big tournaments regionally, as well. I didn't think it was possible, but we're kind of building that ecosystem out and leading it, as well, in Pennsylvania."

Saturday's championship match day will feature three squads from two area schools competing for top honors in their divisions.

Shade, which boasts squads in "Overwatch" Division II and "Valorant" Division II, will face West Branch at 9 a.m. in its "Overwatch" final and Greater Altoona Career & Technology Center in its "Valorant" final at 4 p.m.

Forest Hills, which advanced its "Rocket League" team to the Division I final, will face Greater Altoona Career & Technology Center at 4 p.m.

Other finals on the day include Division II "Rocket League," where Hollidaysburg takes on Greater Altoona Career & Technology Center at 1 p.m.; "Overwatch," with Hollidaysburg facing West Branch in the Division I final at 9:50 a.m., and Penn-Trafford battling Hollidaysburg at 2 p.m. in the "Valorant" Division I final.

Mason, who estimates that a dozen esports athletes have graduated from the High School Series since its inception to join collegiate esports squads, is thrilled to be partnered with St. Francis for its jewel event of the fall and spring seasons.

"It's huge," Mason said. "St. Francis has an elite facility. A Division I university. So when you're walking in as a high-schooler, you're walking into a serious college. A serious institution. Not only for esports, but for education as well. So you know it's real. Every time we interview kids, they're nervous, they're excited and they can't wait."

Ethan Wingard, the esports coordinator at St. Francis, is always ready to roll out the Red Flash's red carpet for the participating athletes.

"Having the event, we like to have it in a way that we like to invite our players there to assist with the event," Wingard said.

"Because there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes, but it's also a great chance for people getting to talk to our players and ask, 'What's it like studying here? Playing on the team?'

"In some ways, they get to be a player for the day, practicing in the arena and getting ready."

'The referee of esports': As the collegiate esport scene grows across the nation, The Esport Company has taken the initiative to create a one-stop site for media, coaches and recruiters while drawing inspiration from existing sites dedicated to traditional high school athletics.

"We built software, kind of like Hudl or MaxPreps, where we livestream every single game, so all of their stats are linked or if they're an honor student or if they're taking extra esports courses, because we just launched our own esports curriculum this past school year about career opportunities in esports," Mason said. "We have software where we can manage and track.

"We have coaches on there.

"We have colleges on there. We're going to start having our amateur teams on there this fall."

The website — www.TECesports.com — is web-based for now, but Mason anticipates an app for mobile devices launching in early 2024. Mason noted that it will be "the first in the esports industry with an esports recruiting app."

"Now, since we livestream, broadcast and record every single game, we're like the referee of esports," Mason said. "Everything that goes on, we calculate it. We track it. We have data charts like crazy. 'Hey, this person plays this character in 'Overwatch' 85% of the time when he plays.' Now there's scouting reports on all of the teams. This is all really unfolding all in the past 2-3 months that we've been using it. It's a game-changer."

'They feel like superstars': While overseeing the St. Francis esports program, Wingard is quick to point out the benefits of a dedicated local league in terms of getting students involved with their high school programs.

"I wasn't there at the beginning when they were getting this off of the ground, but I think this was always the hope of how it would look," Wingard said. "On one end, the talent that is in the area kind of organizing and getting a chance to play, but also showing other kids that this is a thing that they can do in high school and possibly go to college. It might get people involved that weren't previously interested. I'm not sure if that's how it was intended, but I think it's a great opportunity for them and it's really neat to be a part of it."

The sentiment is similar to the feedback that Mason and The Esport Company receives from the families of players.

"What we're finding is that a lot of these kids aren't involved in any other after-school activity throughout the entire school year," Mason said. "So now they have a purpose to go to school because they're excited to compete and practice after school and hear their name on the livestream. We're introducing a new sport to a demographic that has never experienced any type of organized activity before. Camaraderie. Socializing. That's what we're hearing from parents the most is how it's impacting their child."

The localized growth of esports also is coinciding with Mason's projections of how fast the sport will spread through the nation's colleges and universities.

"We're seeing local colleges and national colleges go all out," Mason said. "By the end of 2030, we're anticipating that most, if not all, universities in the United States will have an esports program. You cannot say that about football. You cannot say that about basketball.

"Esports will be the No. 1 sport in the collegiate perspective for opportunities to further education, No. 1, and pay for your education."

As for the matches and events, themselves, the competitive spotlight is finding students who can now share in the notoriety with classmates that play traditional sports.

"They feel like superstars," Mason said. "For a lot of these kids, they never felt that. Ever.

"They're getting their first opportunity, 'Hey, I'm the star quarterback.' That's what they feel like. We give them the VIP treatment. So does St. Francis.

"It's a day of celebrating the best of the best in our ecosystem."

As area schools host signing and commitment ceremonies for their athletes as they further their athletic careers, standout esports athletes are finding a spot at the table as well.

"We love getting our players coming here involved in school signing days," Wingard said. "I think sometimes, schools aren't as familiar with what we do, but that's why we like to be there and start these conversations.

"We're just excited to bring people to our program as anyone going to a traditional sport.

"We really want to give that opportunity to have that day with their family in front of their schools."

The arrival of programs at Mount Aloysius College and Pennsylvania Highlands Community College alongside St. Francis have served as a target goal for scholastic esports players, but also has been crucial in helping the High School Series find its footing in the local landscape.

"Without the colleges' support, you have Penn Highlands, Mount Aloysius and St. Francis, there would be no high school infrastructure," Mason said. "Because my pitch to the school boards, especially now, is, 'This isn't just a little after-school activity for high-schoolers to waste their time. This is an actual opportunity. We have colleges 10-15 minutes down the road giving out scholarships.' Mount Aloysius and St. Francis are both giving out scholarships. Mount Aloysius just announced this starting next school year.

"Having colleges there as a core is not only important to the business that I'm doing, but to the high-schoolers that want to take this seriously."

Shawn Curtis is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5085. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnCurtis430.