A Meteoric Rise
How STC went from video game club to state tournament
Esports is one of the fastest growing sports not only in the United States, but across the entire world.
In 2018, the National Federation of State High School Associations recognized esports as an official sport. According to the National Education Association, over 8,600 high schools now have recognized esports programs at the high school level.
Once thought to be a joke and an excuse for teenagers to play video games outside of their free time, esports has blossomed into a legitimate profession with programs popping up at major colleges and some even offering full ride scholarships.
South Tama County High School, under the leadership of coaches Mike Carnahan and Daniel Kass, is one of the more recent additions to the rapidly growing sport. The video game club has been at the high school for 15 years, which normally had just been setting up various game systems and playing one night a month until last fall.
Superintendent Jared Smith sent out an email after he caught wind of the Iowa High School Esports Association (IHSEA), wanting to know if there was any interest in joining in with a team.
“He was really supportive of it,” said coach Mike Carnahan. “When we heard that news we just kind of jumped on it.”
With the idea planted in the coaches’ minds, it was time to get to recruiting and building a team that would be able to compete. There wasn’t any pressure put on the members of the already established video games club to join, and those who were interested were given the opportunity. If they weren’t interested, they were able to stay in the club.
“We took one of our gamers nights and held a Mario Kart tournament. We saw who was doing really well in it and we mentioned ‘Hey, we’re thinking about joining the IHSEA and Mario Kart would be the first game available to us.’ And it seemed like we had a number of people who were excited to play,” Coach Kass said.
“The two clubs support each other and are similar, but they will continue to coexist side by side,” Carnahan added.
Four of the student athletes who made the team and were available for comment were Sam Heck, Isaac Shuckahosee, Corbin Bergman and Nolan Salas.
“I never expected the school to be able to play video games competitively,” Bergman said.
“It brings a whole different crowd of people, because a lot of people like video games no matter what crowd you’re from. It brings us all together,” added Shuckahosee.
“You can be recognized for your skills in the game. You can be good at a game, and no one will know because you’re by yourself. Being able to play in front of people, you’ll be able to get recognition from people,” said Salas.
It was clear that this Trojan team was more than up to the challenge in their first year competing in the IHSEA. After the first couple weeks of the season, South Tama was sitting at the top of its division. Every team will have more challenging stretches of the season, as well as easier going stretches.
The Trojans played against some of the easier competition they would be facing early on which was able to give them the confidence to keep their performances up there with the more well established teams in their division.
“We’re one of the top teams. We definitely are, and we started to get excited for the prospect of a state tournament, which became pretty exciting news throughout the school,” said Carnahan.
When participating in a growing sport, it can be difficult to get excitement flowing throughout your community, especially with esports, which has been known to draw ire from the average sports fan.
This was not an issue for the Trojans, however, as crowds began to fill the STC commons later in the season.
“Especially towards the end of the season, when we were putting our results out on Facebook, I think our crowds started to become more and more filled,” said Kass.
“That caught me pretty off guard,” added Salas. “The support is not something that I was expecting, especially since I’ve seen a lot of things on Facebook where people were being discouraged by it. My mom was reading comments saying things along the lines of ‘This is so stupid. This is not a good idea. Why would we want people to be even more into video games?'”
“It’s kind of been mind boggling the support we get and the turnouts we’ve had,” Shuckahosee added.
“I’m surprised that even some staff are being supportive of it. The principles, there’s a lot of people who are supporting us,” Heck said. “I think the ability to have these kids play in a sport that hasn’t been offered, and people started to take it more and more seriously, and starting to see the immediate success, and it’s not all about having success. But getting that initial part is cool to see that people are interested in seeing it. Having that atmosphere is cool too.”
“Seeing that excitement from not just our own players but also our crowd and parents was really cool,” Kass said.
Athletes from other spring sports have taken notice of the esports program’s success and have shown their support as they normally would for one of the traditional sports around the school.
Being able to be a part of that side of the school can be beneficial for these athletes involved in esports.
“They’re (spring sport athletes) treating our athletes the same way they would any other athletes,” said Carnahan. “I can’t stress how important that is for our athletes. This created that spot for a certain group of kids that aren’t involved in anything else. It was neat to see these kids feel like they were part of a team, they got to wear the jersey, they felt like they belonged and something to connect them to the school district.”
A common complaint among those who aren’t involved in esports is that it will continue to introvert their kids or neighbors in a world already dominated by technology. However, it’s also a unique opportunity for people to get involved with their school and become part of a team.
“Their reasons are usually bogus. They’ll say ‘This makes them even more disconnected from the real world.’ If anything, this brings us out more than before — it gets me out of the house,” Bergman said.
“People will say that video games don’t build skill, but this builds teamwork, trust and communication,” Shuckahosee added.
“Those who are more introverted, they can be themselves with people,” Salas said.
“My parents said as long as you guys are doing everything right then we don’t care,” said Heck.
Referencing the team’s ability to get involved in other games like Super Smash Bros in the future, Bergman said “Smash Bros isn’t the kind of game that I like, but I’m still going to be in esports and support the team because I like the team aspect of it.”
A high school esports program can be similar to track and field in that regard. Everyone is part of the same team and supporting each other while participating in events that don’t relate to one another.
This is only the beginning of esports at South Tama, with a program becoming well established in its first competitive season and a team ready to set the foundations for years to come.
“I’m really excited to see where this takes us as a district, and I’m really proud of all of these athletes, getting to see them find a home and find that opportunity to have some success and teamwork is pretty awesome to watch,” Kass said.
Carnahan’s assessment of the first season is overwhelmingly positive.
“They always tell you in education the number one most important thing you can do is build relationships with your students and I really feel like all of our activities do a good job of that and esports just takes that further for students who haven’t felt that bond yet,” he said. “I’m really proud of that and proud to be a part of this. I’m excited, I’m happy and I want to say thank you to the student athletes that put in the time and effort. And I want to say thank you to Coach Kass because he will be moving on next year and definitely thank you to those parents and supporters we saw. That just created such an atmosphere that is so fun.”
Youth sports is all about building friendships, skill sets, and memories that will last a lifetime. Esports is another way to include students in that fundamental experience that allows them to gain these building blocks for the future that they would otherwise miss out on.