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Woonsocket esports team part of pilot season as Dakota Wesleyan preps to host tourney

Apr. 5—WOONSOCKET, S.D. — Twenty South Dakota high schools this school year are proving video games are no longer just a hobby for after class.

Esports, short for electronic sports, is competitive video gaming. The 2023-24 school year was a pilot season for this new activity in the state, helping work out bugs and kinks before it rolls out to all interested schools and becomes fully sanctioned by the South Dakota High School Activities Association in the fall.

Generally new sports and activities are added and sanctioned into the association at the requests of member schools. However, the association began researching and considering the addition of esports on its own because of its popular demand. Other states have sanctioned the activity in the past couple of years.

"Esports has been gaining popularity over the years and it only continues to grow," said Dan Swartos, South Dakota High School Activities Association executive director. "We saw an opportunity to get more kids involved in school activities."

SDHSAA's mission is just that — to provide increased opportunities for student engagement.

"Our job is to make sure every student has a place to belong. Esports is a great platform to reach those students who don't participate in any other school activity," Swartos said.

While the students may be stationary in esports, their thumbs and minds are racing while they play. And while too much screen time can be frowned upon, it is more than merely playing games. Swartos said esports teaches the same values that all sports instill in athletes: teamwork, leadership and social skills.

Even though it has the word sports in its name, esports will actually fall under the activities side of the association, just like oral interp, journalism, or band.

One of the participating schools this school year was Woonsocket High School. After a 2023 Woonsocket graduate Blake Howard created an esports club as his senior project, the school was more than ready and willing to be a part of the esports pilot season.

Woonsocket had eight competition teams during the eight week season. Woonsocket esports coach Armondo Rodriguez certainly agrees with the SDHSAA in that esports is a sport. The teams practiced daily just like any other sport. The team even had jerseys.

Teams played against other schools once a week in a virtual match in their school computer labs coordinated by North Dakota-based Fenworks, an esports and drone racing company. After a match, both coaches would take a photo of the final score and submit it to Fenworks who handled the tracking of team scores and standings. The results from the weekly competitions determined which teams advanced to the in-person state tournament that was held March 22-23 at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

Woonsocket's teams were quite successful at state, according to Rodriguez. Their Rocket League team, which consisted of three players, finished 10th out of 28. In Super Smash Bros. the school had three players who took sixth, 14th and 16th out of 44 placings. Sophomore Brendan Evans was runner-up in the electronic chess division.

"The whole season was a lot of fun. And while it was stressful considering the stakes, state was awesome," Evans said. "Esports allows for more variety in how we can get involved at school. It really adds a layer of inclusivity."

There is another chance for gamers to show off their skills on Saturday, April 13, at Dakota Wesleyan University. DWU will be hosting its first-ever esports tournament for high school students. The tournament will be held in the DWU Avera Sports and Wellness Complex. Check in is at 9 a.m. with play beginning at 10 a.m. The day will end at approximately 9 p.m. with an awards ceremony.

The tournament will offer three games for players: League of Legends, Overwatch 2 and Rocket League. Players may register with a team or as an individual player. Players will be responsible for bringing their own hardware such as headsets, keyboards, mouses and controllers. The event is free to attend.

Alec Kulm, coach of the DWU esports team, hopes hosting the event will attract more esports players. He would like to bring more awareness about the sport and notes that many universities have started offering scholarships for their esports athletes. Any student who plays in next weekend's tournament will automatically qualify for a $1,000 scholarship upon enrollment at DWU.

To register for the tournament, visit

https://store.dwu.edu/esports

. Registration deadline is Monday, April 8.