Esports growing in high schools across North Dakota
FARGO — Once a hobby, esports are slowly gaining traction as a student activity at many North Dakota high schools and in Moorhead.
The Fargo-Moorhead metro area currently has four teams: Fargo Public Schools, West Fargo-West Fargo Sheyenne, West Fargo Horace and Moorhead High School.
Esports functions like traditional school activities, with academic eligibility requirements and they are co-ed for all students. West Fargo High School and West Fargo Sheyenne esports general manager Jamie Odum Thompson said she’s seen steady growth in participation.
“It’s been gradually on the incline,” Thompson said. “We’re hoping that as we get more games and more titles that (the team) will appeal to more people in our school.”
Both Fargo and West Fargo teams, and many others in North Dakota, operate through an esports vendor called Fenworks. The Grand Forks-based company was founded with the goal of bringing the sport to students of all ages.
“For the last 2-1/2 years, we’ve been helping school districts launch their esports programs,” said Fenworks founder and CEO Kaleb Dschaak. “Coaching them through it and training their coaches and general managers.”
Dschaak helped kickstart the esports team at the University of North Dakota, where the team now competes at the varsity and club levels. He said the company started with 16 teams in North Dakota and has grown into South Dakota and Minnesota serving almost 60 schools.
In addition to providing the necessary equipment, the company also assists with providing game-specialized coaching.
“We find really qualified coaches, whether they’re from college or semi-pro,” Dschaak said. “And we professionally develop and background check those coaches just to provide additional resources to schools.”
Fenworks said they have been working alongside the North Dakota High School Activities Association to create a sanctioned high school event.
Matthew Fetsch, executive director of the NDHSAA, said previous conversations were held with Dschaak and Fenworks, but the sanctioning of the sport requires approval from the orgainzation’s board of directors.
“It’s definitely something that’s different than anything currently sponsored,” Fetsch said.
For esports athletes, and potential athletes, high-level skill can land a person on a college roster. Colleges that host varsity esports teams in the region include UND, the University of Jamestown, Dickinson State University, the University of South Dakota and Concordia College in Moorhead.
Ryan Kraus, the UND esports coach, said recruiting players can be done through a few different means.
“I either go out on Discord channels and kind of make a mass message because there’s going to be hundreds of these high school students,” Kraus said.
The UND coach also said that websites like NCSA play a role in recruiting. Players looking to get seen by scouts create profiles and upload information such as GPA, titles played, rank and general description.
For newly formed collegiate teams like Concordia, finding players is entirely different. The college entered its first season at the start of the 2022-23 school year and sought players on the Concordia campus. The team is looking to recruit players from outside the college in the near future, said Cobbers head coach Lucas Compoverde, who added that one of the benefits of organizing competitive esports is to combat negative online interactions.
“There’s a lot of negative stereotypes that come with gaming,” Compoverde said. “When you’re not in a controlled environment online there can be a lot of toxicity. So, I think that it’s really healthy that we have these programs because it allows us to stamp out that toxicity.”
The types of games played can present challenges to building programs.
Thompson, who helped kick-start the program in West Fargo, has worked with the school district on including more games for the students to play. Some of the titles, including one called Valorant, feature violent themes that forced esports coaches to plead to administration to allow them to be played.
The West Fargo administrators approved Thompson to offer her team Valorant last fall, which in turn helped another district approve it.
Rick Reichenbach, the Fargo Public School esports coach, said in addition to West Fargo approving play, he added age restrictions and parental consent forms to get the game approved.
“I think a combination of my putting the restrictions in there, plus West Fargo getting it approved, may have helped us get it approved for this coming year,” Reichenbach said.
Violent video games, such as Valorant, have been put under a negative spotlight over concerns that the violent titles increased violent tendencies among players.
The Royal Society published a research paper in 2019 examining if a possible correlation existed.
“Results from these confirmatory analyses provided evidence that adolescents’ recent violent video game play is not a statistically or practically significant correlate of their aggressive behavior as judged by carers,” the research stated.
The West Fargo manager said informing the parents of the titles is important to avoid concerns about the gameplay.
“Some parents know what their kids are playing and others don’t want to hear as much,” Thompson said. “Again, it’s the importance of being transparent in the conversation so that everybody’s informed and knows what’s going on in the program.”
More schools across North Dakota and beyond are seeing the benefits of the new sport.
“I think we’ve already been having conversations with another 10 to 15 school districts who want to hop on,” said Dschaak, the Fenworks founder. “After watching what their neighbors are doing, they’re seeing these kids having such fantastic experiences.”