Quartz Hill High's ahead of the curve as esports goes mainstream in California high schools

Reuben Estrada reacts while sitting at a school computer during an e-sports competition at Quartz Hills High
Reuben Estrada reacts while sitting at a school computer during an esports competition at Quartz Hill High School in the Antelope Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

To find the most unlikely esports powerhouse in greater Los Angeles, you drive north toward the edge of the county line, where the trappings of urbanity begin to fade away and the arid landscape of the High Desert takes over the view far into the horizon.

Pulling up to Quartz Hill High School on a September afternoon, the scene unfolds like pop culture has always presented the American high school experience to the masses — kids finding their rides in the carpool lane, the football team gathering to practice, marching band members blasting off the cobwebs from their instruments with off-key offerings.

Amid the excitement, it would be easy to miss the quiet extracurricular revolution happening here and at many other schools across the region and the country. At Quartz Hill, you need an administrator in the know to direct you through the school grounds to an old, formerly unused portable classroom that looks no different than the ones adjacent to it. There is no signage that declares, “Quartz Hill esports lab: Home of Continuum, best Rocket League team in California,” because the school did not want to make it obvious where to find the tens of thousands of dollars worth of technology equipment it has invested into this fresh frontier of student opportunity and development.

The desert sun is blindingly bright, so entering the lab’s dark habitat feels like walking into a black hole. But after your eyes adjust, you can see the room is actually cloaked in color, with state-of-the-art computer gaming screens stretching wall to wall that are powered by transparent operating systems featuring spinning rainbows of neon light.

There’s Continuum, three boys sitting in front of a row of computers, wearing their light blue, green and charcoal Quartz Hill esports jerseys, made in the model of a soccer shirt.

Reuben Estrada has been ranked one of the top 100 "Rocket League" players in the world and has been scouted by some professional teams. Small in stature with a shy demeanor, he fits the stereotype of what you expect from a kid known for playing "Rocket League" up to eight hours a day — a statistic he was embarrassed to share.

Jacob Mosman, a 17-year-old senior like Reuben, breaks the gamer stereotype. He quit the Quartz Hill basketball team during his sophomore year because he wanted to go all in on "Rocket League." He is talkative and persuasive, which helped him get through that first conversation with his parents when he told them of his decision to drop basketball and devote his time to a video game with an absurd premise: Players fly fast cars around an arena and try to score by knocking the ball into the other team’s goal. Think racing meets soccer meets "Top Gun."

Trent Elder is the youngest of the trio as a junior, but he has been on Continuum the longest, experiencing the heartache of the team’s surprising defeats in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF)-sponsored state tournament the last two springs.

Last year, one of the early rounds fell on the same day that Reuben was at a professional tryout, which crashed Continuum’s state title hopes.

“That one definitely haunts me,” Reuben says.

Esports players from left, Trent Elder, Jacob Mosman and Reuben Estrada at Quartz Hill High School.
Esports players from left, Trent Elder, Jacob Mosman and Reuben Estrada at Quartz Hill High School. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Mosman and Elder have reached Grand Champ status, which puts them in the top percent of players worldwide, but there is still a separation between them and Estrada, who has reached Supersonic Legend (SSL).

“We can both do everything he does,” Elder says, “but he can do it every time.”

“Consistency,” Mosman explains. “Reuben never misses.”

On this day, Continuum is playing one of its first games of the fall season.

“It’s a new team,” says Tim Fields, the program’s manager and visionary.

The group groans, hoping for a real challenge.

“Try not to run it up,” Fields says. “We don’t want to drive people away from the game.”

Continuum can’t help it. They’re too good, and they’re quickly up 7-1.

“A Brazil!” Mosman says, a reference to Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.

The boys all laugh.

Fostering this kind of camaraderie is part of why three national organizations have started hosting and promoting school esports competition in many different games beyond "Rocket League." The North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), which will host the CIF state competition this coming spring for the first time, began operating in Orange County in January 2018, with 38 teams from 25 schools. Nearly 150 schools across the state have already registered a team for January 2023.

CIF data show that 40 schools and 431 players competed in esports in the fall of 2019, compared with 215 schools and 2,789 players in the spring of 2022.

Quartz Hill, the first school in the Antelope Valley to back esports, has seen its numbers triple over two years, and the district is working fast to support it at all of its schools.

“This was maybe one of the benefits of the pandemic,” says Chris Shima, who works with the west region for High School Esports League. “Schools were shut down and looking for solutions as to how we could have kids work together as a team. They said: ‘Hey, why don’t we offer esports? Kids can do it from home.’

“Now we are seeing the mental health benefits that esports is providing for those at-risk cohorts of kids. These are the kids that as educators we are always talking about in staff meetings, the underrepresented kids who aren't playing soccer or basketball or band or theater. How do we create a community for them? And video games have been around forever, staring us in the face.”

For the first time, schools are going where kids’ brains live to engage them. If it weren’t for Quartz Hill starting esports, Estrada would still be enrolled at a charter school that allowed him to home school, like his first two years of high school. Estrada has remained a home school student at Quartz Hill, but he has Continuum.

“It’s definitely more fun than playing by yourself,” Estrada says.

“It’s definitely more fun than playing by yourself.”

Quartz Hill esports athlete Reuben Estrada

Esports players compete at Quartz Hill High School in Quartz Hill.
Esports players compete at Quartz Hill High School in Quartz Hill. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

But for Estrada and Mosman, their senior season will not be about fun and games. Be warned, Rocket Leaguers across the state and the nation: This year, Continuum is coming for it all.

Genevieve Caballero was born in 1982, so she was raised with video game systems such as Nintendo, Super Nintendo and GameBoy. But when it came to her son, Reuben Estrada, she couldn’t help but wonder whether it was too much.

“He used it a lot as kind of a coping mechanism,” Caballero says, “to the point where, we used to be like, ‘Reuben, you need to go to sleep, get off the games.’ As a parent, I’m thinking, maybe it’s an unhealthy obsession, but it was an escape for him.”

As a single mother, Caballero didn’t have time to be a helicopter parent. But she did read the cues Estrada was giving to her. To say he was an introvert was putting it mildly, so she took him out of Catholic school and found him an opportunity to be home schooled. Of course, this just led to more windows of the day when Reuben could be gaming.

He found "Rocket League" when he was about 12, watching some professionals play on YouTube, and soon bought the game to try it out. After a few months, he ditched his favorite game, "Call of Duty," for "Rocket League."

“Because there’s no other game like it,” Estrada says. “I was getting bored with the other games.”

When the pandemic hit near the end of his freshman year, it didn’t change his life too much. He was home schooled and holed up playing "Rocket League" most of the time anyway.

Everything changed down the road at Quartz Hill, though. The Royals had one of the best athletic programs in the Antelope Valley, and, as quarantine stretched well into the fall of 2020, something was clearly missing from students’ lives.

Around the start of the new year in 2021, Quartz Hill administrators received an invitation from a company called PlayVS to compete in esports. Neil Love, a Quartz Hill vice principal, knew that Fields, an English teacher, had been running a gaming club. He reached out.

“We had been wanting to integrate esports in gaming club, but there was never any support to make that happen,” Fields says. “But with everybody being stuck at home and nobody having sports all year in the district and our school feeling really bad for all the kids, this opportunity was there and they jumped on it.”

Esports coach Tim Fields works on a computer before a competition at Quartz Hill High School.
Esports coach Tim Fields works on a computer before a competition at Quartz Hill High School. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The CIF’s decision to sponsor a state competition hosted on PlayVS brought even more enthusiasm to the prospect of esports.

“It’s a sport like anything else that’s a CIF sport, know what I mean?” Love says. “And we’re gonna treat them like athletes, just like any of our other athletes. That’s kind of our mantra. Thankfully, Mr. Fields took the reins and got the kids going.”

Fields had played "Rocket League" casually. He understood the game well enough to notice that somehow within his school population of 3,000, the Royals had three Grand Champ level players ready to pool their skills together for the good of the team. Elder was a freshman whiz on that first team, which was competitive with traditional athletic powers like St. John Bosco and Los Alamitos that had been pouring resources into esports even before the pandemic.

A few months into the season, Quartz Hill was ranked No. 1 in the state in "Rocket League." The school began promoting the team’s success on its social media accounts and mentioning it on the morning announcements.

Continuum’s underdog tale ended with a surprising thud in the CIF quarterfinals against Clovis High, which had one Supersonic Legend player for whom Quartz Hill had no answer.

Fields jumped into the team’s communication channel when it was over.

“We did great,” Fields said. “Way more than anybody expected for a brand-new team. Keep your heads up. This is still impressive. It’s awesome. We’re all proud of you.”

The team’s two seniors felt the finality. But in Fields’ mind, this was only the beginning. He had plans in the works with the district for renovating a defunct portable classroom into an esports lab — his assumption being that if he built it, they would come.

Little did Fields know that, by the start of the next school year, Quartz Hill would suddenly have its own Supersonic Legend walk into the building.

Estrada had gotten word of Continuum’s success, and it didn’t take long before he was plotting his way onto the team.

The process was not going to be simple. Estrada and his mother lived about a mile out of the Quartz Hill district in Lancaster. Would she consider moving apartments just so he could lend his gifts to Fields’ budding esports empire? All he could do was ask.

“He let me know there was an esports program, and he was really interested,” Caballero says.

It wasn’t like Estrada was often coming to her pleading with such purpose. She started looking for apartments and found a studio just inside the Quartz Hill line. Reuben enrolled as a junior for the 2021-22 school year.

In traditional high school sports, it has become a staple of the culture for families to move locales in the pursuit of athletic achievement. But esports? The cosmos must have been looking out for Continuum.

With Elder back and Estrada joining the squad, they just needed a third. Mosman had been competing on the junior varsity "Rocket League" squad during the pandemic year, but was he really going to stick with it once basketball resumed?

After getting some space from organized hoops, Mosman realized how much more fun he was having playing "Rocket League."

“He was really into basketball,” says Desirea Mosman, Jacob’s mother. “We’re a very active family as far as athletics go. When he stopped playing basketball and started doing this, I was like, ‘Hold on, what’s happening right now?’ ”

“It’s a sport like anything else that’s a CIF sport, know what I mean? And we’re gonna treat them like athletes, just like any of our other athletes. That’s kind of our mantra. Thankfully, Mr. Fields took the reins and got the kids going.”

Quartz Hill vice principal Neil Love

Mlodi Mwachi, front, Trent Elder and Alex Beggs are on the Quartz Hill High School esports Rocket League team.
Mlodi Mwachi, front, Trent Elder and Alex Beggs are on the Quartz Hill High School esports "Rocket League" team. Quartz Hill is the first to offer this in the Antelope Valley Union High School District. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Mosman couldn’t shake it. He wanted to be a Grand Champ, to be as great as he could be.

“I just really like the game,” Mosman says. “All the other games, there are set things that every single esports player would do because it's the best thing to do. But this game is still alive because there is a lot of room for creativity to do more and more. The skill ceiling is way higher than other games. You have five minutes, yourself and your two teammates against another squad, and every match is different.”

The summer before his junior year, Mosman spent four to five hours a day — nothing like Estrada hours, but still — honing his ability to do all the mechanical moves required of a top player. Fields gave him the bump from JV to the varsity Continuum lineup. When Mosman got to know Estrada and Elder and the way they played, he improved even more quickly.

There is an entire language associated with "Rocket League." The game occurs at warp speed, so players have to be able to communicate strategic decisions using just a few words. Otherwise, it can be too late.

Continuum’s eyes were set on the CIF title that eluded them the year before, but Estrada's absence to audition for the pros was too much to overcome that day.

St. John Bosco, with its two classrooms and a conference room dedicated to esports and a staff of coaches, took home its first esports state championship, led by senior star Brandon Suiter, a former Bosco baseball player who made the move toward esports and would go on to play "Rocket League" in college at Cal State Fullerton.

“I enjoy baseball,” Suiter says. “It was cool, and maybe I could have gotten a D2 offer somewhere, but I wasn’t loving baseball. It just wasn’t for me, so I might as well try this out. It’s crazy where it’s taken me.”

The week after Bosco won the CIF crown, it was matched up against Quartz Hill in another tournament. Estrada was back, and Continuum beat Bosco, validating the belief they had carried inside them all year.

In the deciding Game 7, it was Jacob who swooped in for a key save with just seconds on the clock.

Suiter took the loss in stride because of his respect for the opponent.

“Those guys are studs and our main competitor in the state,” Suiter said. “They are all young too and will be the team to beat in Cali. Reuben is their star.”

Estrada's reputation was progressing right along with his skill. But as his senior year approached, he would start asking himself: How badly did he want this stardom?

Only 100 or so players in the world can pilot a "Rocket League" vehicle with the constant precision as Estrada when he’s truly on his game.

“Personally, how I’m playing in 'Rocket League' is dependent on how I’m feeling in real life,” Estrada says. “If I’m having a bad day, I’m probably playing bad.”

Lately, if he’s being honest, Estrada has been feeling a little apathetic about the game that has brought the world to his fingertips — a classic teenage conundrum. Since the summer and his dalliance with the professional ranks, Estrada has been questioning whether he wants to continue with "Rocket League" long term.

“I’m currently definitely at a lower end of motivation to keep playing,” he says. “I’m definitely on the verge of kind of quitting.”

Estrada says he is devoted to winning all the big tournaments this year with Continuum. And he likes the idea of being able to pay for college and take that responsibility off his mother’s plate. After all, she did move across town for him to do this.

Caballero knows her son. This isn’t mere senioritis.

“I’ve talked to him about it,” she says. “People go in doing what they love, but then it becomes a job. When it becomes a job, stuff like that happens. They burn out.”

Esports players compete as coach Tim Fields looks on at Quartz Hill High School.
Esports players compete as coach Tim Fields looks on at Quartz Hill High School. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

To help him clear his head for a while, she sent him to visit family in Europe for three weeks. The trip opened his mind.

“He’s focusing on different things, which is good,” Caballero says. “Video games, I don’t want him to ever focus too much on that, even though it's a lucrative thing. He’s talented, but I want him to also focus on just life and take a step back when you need to.”

There’s no inner struggle for Mosman, who found his passion for esports later than Estrada. He’s hoping to play "Rocket League" in college for UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine or Cal State Fullerton, where he could possibly team with Suiter.

His parents, a bit confused at first, now stream his matches and cheer on Continuum.

“They get all the attention they deserve,” Desirea Mosman says. “They’re treated just like a varsity sport. It’s pretty neat.”

Says Caballero: “When Reuben got on the esports team, he had to learn how to be more team-minded. It’s great to take with him in life. We all have to work as a team at some point. He has definitely seemed happier and more motivated as far as even school. I’m so happy I was able to help get him into a school that had a program like that.”

Sometimes after victories, the boys will meet up for milk shakes. Those are the connective esports moments that fit that American archetype of what high school is supposed to be. As esports continues its movement into the mainstream through schools, more kids who might not be naturally drawn to one another will be discovering common ground through the shared love of their favorite video game.

But, enough with the warm and fuzzy talk. Back to what’s really important to Estrada, Mosman and Elder:

So far, Continuum remains undefeated this fall.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.