HHSAA’s esports is back for a fall season of video gaming

Moanalua's esports team gets to play in their brand new esports arena area. Photo by Craig T. Kojima/Star-Advertiser.

Kids are playing video games on Hawaii high school campuses — and it’s not on the sly.

It’s a school-sponsored activity. Some say it’s a sport.

The Hawaii High School Athletic Association is continuing its partnership with PlayVS — which brands itself as the official high school esports league — for a fall 2019 season following a successful spring campaign.

“It doesn’t really matter if you classify it as a sport or an activity, at the end of the day they just want to play,” the HHSAA’s Natalie Iwamoto said. “The kids enjoy it and it is a way to be connected to the school.”

The HHSAA classifies it as a sport, just not an officially sanctioned one yet. If you go to the HHSAA website, under the fall drop-down menu, you will see esports there along with football, girls volleyball, cross country and others.

The esports fall campaign begins Monday with a practice week. Then, the regular season follows from Oct. 21 through mid-December. After the holiday break, playoffs and championships will be held in January.

There are three game titles on tap — League of Legends, SMITE and Rocket League.

In the spring, about 100 kids statewide participated in a Hawaii interscholastic competition in League of Legends and about 40 took part in Rocket League. There were 15 schools involved in the spring and 10 other schools showed keen interest but did not get it going. Those numbers are up this fall.

There is no limit to the number of six-person (five in action and an alternate) teams a school can field for competition, but an individual can only be involved in one of the three game titles. The cost for each player is minimal.

“There are no travel costs involved,” Iwamoto said. “Everyone plays remotely on campus for practices and competition.”

When she first heard about esports in schools, Iwamoto was skeptical, but it didn’t take long for her to change her thinking.

“I don’t enjoy playing video games,” she said. “I don’t enjoy watching other people play them. I was invited to watch an esports match and I saw how engaged the kids were and how excited they were to be there and compete and I was sold on that. It was at Hawaii Pacific’s esports center’s grand opening. They invited four high schools to come down and compete — Saint Louis, Damien, Roosevelt and Maryknoll.

“Playing video games is a stigma to some people,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for it. I actually had to see if for myself. There are a group of kids (who don’t play traditional sports) not being served. Last season, I saw some of the esports players playing video games right there along with traditional sports participants, football and other sports. You could tell they were connected to the school and they were wearing their school shirts.”

Iwamoto has seen many others go from doubting to supportive of esports.

“At first, one school was not for it,” Iwamoto said. “But when the kids first heard that it was going to be a reality, they rallied with a grassroots effort. Now, (the powers that be at the school) see the benefit of it.”

Iwamoto noted that although esports is being supported by the HHSAA, it does not have official sanctioning by either the HHSAA or any of the Hawaii’s five sports leagues. She would like to see sanctioning in the future.

“The testimonials that came out of the first season were very positive,” she said. “Advisers and coaches were seeing the transformation in their students, just like they would in a traditional sport. The kids’ confidence was much higher, they made friends, connected to the school. They were learning and gaining all the same values that they would in a traditional sport. The games require a lot of strategy. Everybody has a different role and they’re working together to achieve a common goal. There’s a lot of critical thinking and problem-solving.

“There is a push to make it a sanctioned sport so we can start applying rules and guidelines and making sure students are grade-eligible.”

Eighteen schools (up from 15) are registered and there could be more as the season goes on. There have been 58 HHSAA member schools who have shown an interest in fall competition.

“Schools that want to participate, we put them in touch with PlayVS,” Iwamoto said. “They can sign up as a school at PlayVS.com. They go over the specifications — it doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles and schools with better computers won’t necessarily have an advantage — and put them in the PlayVS system and help with building your esports program.

“More than anything, schools need a principal’s stamp of approval first.”

After the fall season, the HHSAA will take a look at the numbers and decide if esports should continue on with two seasons per year or be trimmed to one. Either way, a spring season in 2020, from February to May, will happen.

“After that, we’ll see how it goes,” Iwamoto said. “Other states are doing two seasons.”

According to Iwamoto, the HHSAA is one of 17 associations affiliated with the National Federation of State High School Associations participating in esports.

Some Hawaii schools are going all-in with esports. One of those is Moanalua.

“Moanalua has really nice team jerseys,” Iwamoto said. “And they have fancy esports computers and a room with nice banners. They’re getting really cool hoodies. They’re putting resources into it. They also have the biggest team with 59 players signed up. They didn’t participate last season, but this season they had tryouts and everything.”

Moanalua has gone all out for its esports team this year. Photo by Craig T. Kojima/Star-Advertiser.

Competitively speaking, Roosevelt, Hilo and Kamehameha-Hawaii were all noteworthy last season.

“Roosevelt is a big dog,” Iwamoto said. “They are the League of Legends champion and were competing in outside leagues before. Their team is really good and they broadcast their matches on Twitch (a streaming site for gamers). Kamehameha-Hawaii had a big team with 25 last season. This time, they’ve got 49. Hilo is the Rocket League champion.”

There are many who don’t support esports.

“A lot of administrators laughed when I told them at a meeting that I was there to promote esports,” Iwamoto said. “More and more, schools are coming around. We are not pushing them. Schools that want to do it, we’re giving them an opportunity. Some schools are still very much against it. But it’s a hot topic nationwide. There are some gamers who make as much as professional athletes.”

According to Iwamoto, in some cases esports are being overseen in Hawaii by schools’ student activities coordinators. In other cases, it’s under the supervision of athletic directors.

“League of Legends, SMITE and Rocket League … are games that focus on learning team dynamics,” Moanalua coach Ray Britt said. “Some may think this is just an opportunity for students to sit back and play video games. However, esports participation can not only be found at the core of STEM-related learning, but it also promotes and refines intrapersonal skills such as self-efficacy and goal-setting. It also helps students develop life-long abilities such as conflict resolution and assertiveness. Participants will find that cognitive and physical skills such as eye-hand coordination, critical thinking and sustained attention are enhanced via gameplay.”

Na Menehune have a GoFundMe page here.

Said ‘Iolani student and game player Andrew Nakamura, “Gaming is a big part of my life. It’s been a part of everyone’s lives here. It’s just exciting to have video games represented on a school campus. Never in a million years did I think it would happen.”

According to Scholarships.com, more than 30 colleges offer esports scholarships, including Hawaii Pacific.

Here is how last year’s teams ended up faring.

>> LukaFox (Roosevelt) def. RaiderTeam1 (‘Iolani)

Final regular-season standings
>> 1. LukaFox (Roosevelt)
>> 2. Coin Flip Warriors (Kapaa)
>> 3. Ka Makani Weli Weli (Hawaii Prep)
>> 4. Twin Miracles (Kauai High)
>> 5. (tie) RaiderTeam1 (‘Iolani)
>> 5. (tie) HD4Life (Honokaa)
>> 5. (tie) SaberBeta (Campbell)
>> 8. (tie) LHS Mules (Leilehua)
>> 9. WR UwU (Kealakehe)
>> 10. (tie) RaiderTeam2 (‘Iolani)
>> 10. (tie) Saber76th_BaTl (Campbell)
>> 12. (tie) WR Hyped Reality (Kealakehe)
>> 12. (tie) Pahoa Daggers (Pahoa)
>> 14. (tie) RaiderTeam3 (‘Iolani)
>> 14. (tie) Ka Makani Nui (Hawaii Prep)
>> 16. (tie) PWMHS (McKinley)
>> 16. (tie) Warriors-White (Kamehameha-Hawaii)
>> 16. (tie) Warriors-Blue (Kamehameha-Hawaii)
>> 19. Seasiders (Laupahoehoe)
>> 20. WR NMP (Kealakehe)

>> SNS Vikings (Hilo) def. AP Rejects (Honokaa)

Final regular-season standings
>> 1. Lyrics (Kauai)
>> 2. (tie) SNS Vikings (Hilo)
>> 2. (tie) Ka Makani Ikaika (Hawaii Prep)
>> 4. AP Rejects (Honokaa)
>> 5. (tie) Slackers “R” Us (Honokaa)
>> 5. (tie) Sandbags (Hilo)
>> 7. (tie) LHS Mules (Leilehua)
>> 7. (tie) Rocket Warriors-Blue (Kamehameha-Hawaii)
>> 9. (tie) St. Joseph Cardinals (St. Joseph)
>> 9. (tie) Hawaii Vortex (Roosevelt)
>> 9. (tie) Seasiders (Laupahoehoe)
>> 12. Rocket Warriors-White (Kamehameha-Hawaii)
>> 13. Rocket Warriors-Gray (Kamehameha-Hawaii)


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