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Viewpoint A new breed of high school ‘Legends’

January 25, 2019 GMT

Tom Young, the team’s coach, a math teacher and dorm parent at Woodstock Academy, drove the small bus to Meriden on Tuesday. Eddy Chen, the senior captain, gave up his spot in the lineup. And then the Centaurs went out and avenged a regular-season defeat to Manchester to capture the first CIAC esports state championship in Season Zero.

Yes, this is how high school legends are made.

Through League of Legends.

“These kids are not necessarily the sporty kind of kids, they’re more the indoorsy type kids,” Young said Thursday. “I don’t think they quite knew the magnitude of the difference between the league we had been in and something this official through the CIAC.

“When they walked into the Maloney auditorium, they were oohing and aahing. I don’t think they were prepared to see the setup at so grand a scale. They were hyped. I’m like guys, ‘This is for real.’ And they were great.”

Of the approximately 1,100 students at Woodstock, Young said about 120 are international students living on campus. All six boys on the state champion are from China.

“I do think that’s why they meshed so well,” Young said. “They play a lot in the dorms.”

Yet make no mistake. Esports, the unstoppable global phenomenon is for everyone. And good for Connecticut being at the forefront. Before any of you roll your dinosaur eyes and start yelling about getting kids off video games, yes, moderation is important and, no, the mature combat games aren’t used.

I had a half-hour conversation Wednesday night with Clint Kennedy. He’s essentially the godfather of competitive high school video gaming in Connecticut and he’s way past debating whether esports kids are athletes or not. It’s a fool’s errand. The kids are competitors.

“Definitely competitors,” Kennedy said. “I don’t want to suck the oxygen out of the room on an argument which ultimately doesn’t impact at all what we’re trying to do. You need to be able to think critically, communicate, problem solve and be creative all at once. It’s amazing. These are 21st century skills employers are begging for in the workplace.

“The game is five on five. And you have all these different pieces, making them more offensive, defensive or supportive — negotiating it all in real time with their teammates and against opponents. You could have the best League of Legends player in the world and if they don’t have qualified teammates they will lose every time.”

Connecticut high schools got out in front of this one. It started in New London, where Kennedy was the director of innovation, and the school system was looking to develop wider horizontal thinking. Thirty students were selected for a program and one day Kennedy came across two of them playing a game on a laptop. It turned out to be League of Legends, the most popular esports game in the world.

“There are Korean players making $3 million a year and three times that much in endorsements,” Kennedy said.

He didn’t know that then. So he played a little. He began to see the benefits. A game club was created. Eighty kids twice a week packed in two computer labs. They joined a Starleague, then a spotty collection of teams nationally. Blow somebody out. Get blown out. Teams didn’t show up on the other end. Still the ball was rolling.

An internship for 15 kids was set up in the summer of 2016, building the bones of essentially an Eastern Connecticut esports league with designs to go statewide. Kennedy was finishing up his Ph.D program at UConn. He met someone who worked for the Electronic Gaming Federation. Now he had the idea, the design, and went to pitch it to former CIAC director Karissa Niehoff.

“Partly because we were so excited about it, and partly because we had a partner doing some pro bono work, she blessed the idea,” Kennedy said. “We became the first official state-sanctioned esports league in the nation. I’m very proud of that.”

Under the EGF banner, there were two unofficial state events at Storrs featuring multiple games. Kennedy left to become global IT director of Whittle School & Studios in New York, which is building interconnected schools in cities around the world. Niehoff left this past year to become executive director of the National Federation of State High Schools. The NFHS signed a contract with PlayVs. Five states took part in Season Zero and more and more states are joining for Season One this spring.

“PlayVs just finished a second round of funding, Series B funding, they’ve got equity of like $50 million, money from people like P. Diddy,” Kennedy said.

Manchester had beaten Woodstock Academy in a one-game competition during the season. This time it was best-of-three. The Centaurs swept, 2-0.

“The kids said they had a bad phase with picking and banning of different characters the first time,” Young said. “So we went in as second seed, the underdogs. The kids were a little worried, but they also felt confident.”

Woodstock also has continued participating in Overwatch and Rocket League with EGF and had been undefeated there in League of Legends. Woodstock, which has a mix of day and boarding students in the other games, is phasing out from the EGF competition. For an encore, the League of Legends team will play on-line next week in a national EGF final against a team from Alaska.

The CIAC in Year One this spring is adding two games: Rocket League, where Woodstock has been undefeated, and SMITE, where the Centaurs do not have a team.

“I’m excited for Rocket League, it’s essentially soccer (with cars) and spectators can get into it,” Young said. “We’ve had a couple of our basketball players on the Rocket League team in the past.

“Esports provides an outlet for kids who are traditionally not your team sports student to see what it’s like to practice, compete, build camaraderie. It’s the essence of teamwork.”

Kennedy talks about things like meta, the continuing changes and challenges built by the games’ designers. He talks about “getting tilted,” losing focus, getting rattled just as in sports and learning to adjust.

“I attended a two-day event at Madison Square Garden two years ago, the world championship of League of Legends, and you wouldn’t believe how that place was rocking,” Kennedy said. “There’s a famous Colin Cowherd quote from like 2015 where he goes on a rant that if they ever put esports on TV that’ll be the day he quits. He has since eaten crow.

“There’s something about kids from all sorts of backgrounds spending time together focused on a common goal. There were kids walking through the hallway in New London, and the kid with purple hair had the same T-shirt on as a defensive back from the football team because there was a match that night.”

Yes, this is how high school legends are built.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123