From 13 teams to 70 in three years, esports on the rise in Nebraska schools

Team Liquid competes in the North American league for a popular game called “League of Legends.” Ownership spent millions of dollars — no one will say exactly how much — to assemble an all-star roster and create a sleek training center in Santa Monica. We tour this facility and see what a day in the life of a Team Liquid athlete looks like.

Seven seconds.

That’s how long it takes Daniel Nguyen and his Westside High School esports teammates to score their first goal in the video game Rocket League.

Six seconds later, they score again.

Quickly the points start racking up, and Westside coach Chase Tonkinson steps in to remind his players of the importance of sportsmanship.

It’s enough. Let the clock run out.

This is esports, or video games as competitive sports. These students had to try out to earn a spot on this team, as with any other team at Westside.

Tonkinson and fellow coach Brandon Meseure whittled the team down from about 50 hopefuls to around 25 players and a few extra managers.

The team meets four days a week in a classroom at Westside High School West Campus to practice and compete. Many of the players logged hundreds or thousands of hours on the games before they even joined the team.

But to help the players prepare, the coaches and players will sometimes watch tape of their opponents to look for weaknesses or patterns.

Sometimes those opponents are in another state. Other times they’re just across town.

High schools all over the state are quickly forming esports teams.

The Nebraska Schools Esports Association, or NSeSA, was formed about three years ago with 13 teams. This year there are 70.

“We have schools anywhere from Class D2 schools that have 40 kids in their whole high school all the way to Lincoln High, who has 2,500 kids in their school,” said Matt Hinkel, board president of NSeSA. “Esports isn’t just for big schools, it’s for everyone.”

Smaller schools were actually the first in Nebraska to embrace esports, Hinkel said. Schools in larger metro areas like Lincoln and Omaha have only recently started or made plans to start teams.

Westside started its team last year. The Millard Public Schools started offering esports at two middle schools last year and this year expanded it to all six middle schools and Millard North High School, according to a district spokesperson.

And soon, the largest school district in the state will be logging in.

Last month the Omaha Public Schools board approved stipends for esports coaches. A spokesperson for the district said the plan is to make esports available for students in all nine high schools beginning next semester.

Other high schools in the metro area like Creighton Prep, Marian, Skutt, Gross, Gretna and Bellevue West already have teams.

“We’re waiting for this plateau to kind of hit, but it’s not,” Hinkel said. “It’s growing and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”

Last year about 1,300 kids in Nebraska participated in esports through NSeSA, Hinkel said.

NSeSA plays a role similar to the one the Nebraska School Activities Association plays for athletics, debate, music and other activities. NSeSA organizes the schools into leagues by size, sets schedules, picks which games will be played each season and organizes the state championships.

This year’s fall season state tournament will be held at Hastings College on Nov. 18 and 19.

The growing popularity of esports gaming has fueled dozens of professional leagues across the globe. Revenue-wise, the industry is exceeding expectations, with figures crossing the ten-figure threshold in 2020, according to some reports.

Several colleges and universities in Nebraska have esports teams and offer scholarships to students to play on those teams.

Mark Weichel, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Westside, said the district’s senior leadership started talking about esports during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were dealing with curveballs the pandemic kept throwing their way and they just wanted to do something good for their kids, Weichel said.

They thought esports could give students who don’t participate in other activities a place to belong, Weichel said.

They found a coach in Tonkinson, who happened to be nationally ranked in one of the video games the kids would be playing. They cleared out an unused classroom and bought the equipment with some help from the district’s foundation.

Initially, Weichel just hoped Westside would have enough students to field the team. A few months later, Westside’s team won state in three different games.

For players like Nguyen, a senior and team captain, the esports team allows him to compete in something he’s been doing for years — playing video games.

“I already played games,” Nguyen said. “Being able to play games for the school and help the school win trophies and get acknowledgment for it is pretty cool.”

Nguyen said his friend and classmates want him to win state again. They ask him how the team is doing and who the next opponent is.

Heading into this year’s state meet, Westside’s Rocket League and Valorant squads finished their Nebraska regular seasons undefeated and are the No. 1 seeds in the state playoffs. Four of the team’s Super Smash Bros.: Ultimate players are also still in the state playoffs.

Mohammed Njie, a junior at Westside, said he played soccer, football and basketball throughout elementary and middle school, but when COVID-19 began he didn’t practice and his skills were so rusty he didn’t think he’d make any of Westside’s sports teams. The esports squad has given Njie a new team.

“It’s a way to express my competitiveness since I haven’t done any physical sports,” Njie said.

Njie said playing video games has taught him how to work with people when they aren’t listening, how to improvise and solve problems.

“Everyone thinks hand-eye coordination is what improves, but it’s a lot of people skills,” Njie said of video games.

As Njie speaks, he has to talk over the noise inside the classroom. His teammates are strategizing, yelling words of encouragement or gathering around one player’s chair to watch them play.

The Westside coaches walk around the room watching it all, ready to jump in to assist as needed.

“They’re great kids,” Tonkinson said. “They’re great players. It’s all them.”

“We just set them up for it,” Meseure said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Getting top grades and into the college of your choice can be hard work. But having achieved that, the members of The World-Herald’s 2022 All State Academic Team are ready for their next challenge.

Meet the 24 students who were selected for our 2022 All Metro Academic Team.

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The judges for our annual academic program have a difficult task. They’re faced with hundreds of students with impressive test scores, high grades, major accomplishments and strong leadership.

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Seven seconds.


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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