In a dark classroom at Francis Howell Central High School, students are gathered around a glowing projector screen displaying a video game. On it, avatars shoot machine guns, blasters and orbs at each other.
The students are watching a video of a match they played against students from another high school earlier in the week — “reviewing tape,” like high school football players do after a game.
As guidance counselor Kris Miller coaches them from behind a projector, the students discuss tactics they used in the game. They're competing in esports, in which players face off in video games before an audience.
ESPN ranked two Missouri universities, Maryville University and Columbia College, among the top five best collegiate esports teams in the country.
Dozens of private universities, including three in the St. Louis region, have created esports scholarship programs in the past five years. Successful college careers can lead to lucrative professional gaming contracts.
That has caught the attention of area high schools like Francis Howell Central. Ten St. Louis-area high schools — and 34 in Missouri — compete in the top national high school esports league.
‘This Is Insane’
Miller started the team after a visit with students to Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, in 2018. While there, a staff member told him the team offers scholarships to high school students.
“I was thinking, ‘This is insane. Why wouldn’t we do something at the high school level as a way to feed into what they are doing at the college level?’” Miller said.
He started talking to students interested in competitive gaming, who recommended their friends.
The team now has 46 students, he said. And it competes against other schools in the High School Esports League, which holds three tournaments a year.
When Francis Howell North High School head football coach Brett Bevill revealed during a faculty meeting in January that he played video games, an assistant principal asked him if he wanted to head the esports team.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into until it all happened,” Bevill said. “But I treat it very much like a team.”
His 38-player team practices in a classroom for 90 minutes twice a week. Training involves scrimmaging with other high school teams around the country. Sometimes the team sets up in-game scenarios for players to train against. And Bevill requires captains to hold another practice online from home.
‘Not Playing In Your Basement’
Bevill also gives pep talks to students who participate in esports and might not have been on one of the school’s athletic teams.
“Guys, this isn’t you playing in your basement. It’s going to be a team atmosphere with appropriate team talk,” he tells his players. “When you make a good play, you can’t insult someone’s mom like you can do online. That’s not going to fly here.”
It’s been less than a year, but the Francis Howell Central esports team is thriving. Miller said his team members received a total of $392,000 in scholarship offers from eight universities.
Two of his players won annual scholarships and spots on Central Methodist University’s esports team after trying out for a tournament last November.
Brandon Clark, the new head esports coach at Fontbonne University, visited both Francis Howell School District high schools last month. Hired in December, he is forming a Fontbonne University esports team for fall 2019 to play the popular multiplayer game, "League of Legends."
Clark, who is coaching part time, helped start and manage the team at Missouri Baptist University — another university offering esports scholarships — where he went to school.
Clark said that universities have yet to develop recruiting prowess when it comes to esports. He said Fontbonne University’s only requirement for the coach position was that an applicant played "League of Legends" for “at least two years.”
“Not every school has the budget to hire an ex-pro player, or an ex-pro coach,” Clark said. “So it boils down to a lot of schools not even knowing what to look for for qualifications.”
Along with recruiting students from St. Louis-area high schools, he has reached out to potential collegiate Esports players using the video game’s in-game chat rooms. Fontbonne University has also posted in "League of Legends" online forums announcing that it is accepting applications. The university is currently offering $2,000 in annual scholarships to players.
"League of Legends" groups players by their skill levels, called tiers. Clark said most universities require "League of Legends" players to be at least in the fifth-highest tier of the game, a ranking held by 11 percent of the world’s 11 million players.
Clark said high school participation gives players an edge when applying for esports scholarships.
“In my mind as a coach, it’s easier for me to coach someone who has already been in that team aspect, compared to someone that may have higher skill level,” Clark said.
At most St. Louis-area universities, esports is a club sport. St. Louis University is one of them. But the university may upgrade the club into a varsity team.
This spring, a faculty and staff committee studied whether upgrading the program could help recruit students and keep them at SLU.
Nicholas Chiu is the club’s president. He said the change would attract top talent.
“Esports is such a growing industry that, if you lag behind, you are going to be left in the dust,” said Chiu, who serves on the SLU committee. “If you are the school that kind of tags along last minute, no one is going to want to go to your school for esports.”
When the university hosted a professional "League of Legends" championship final between the two best teams in North America in April, Chiu gave faculty members tickets.
Appealing To Students
Maryville University awards its top players full scholarships. Its program started four years ago when Dan Clerke, then a student who was managing a professional esport team, pitched the idea of a team to University President Mark Lombardi.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘Dr. Lombardi, if we are able to create a 'League of Legends' esports team, and I’m able to go out and recruit players for it, I guarantee you we will go undefeated, and I will win the national championship,’” Lombardi said.
Clerke, who became the school’s coach, followed through on his promise. In 2016, his team went undefeated to take a national "League of Legends" collegiate championship title, followed by a second in 2017.
“We adopted it because that’s something we are known for. We are known for being very nimble and quick, and decisive about opportunities,” Lombardi said.
He said the school's success has helped the university appeal to students who might never have considered Maryville University.
“We have probably earned several millions of dollars of free marketing exposure nationally from the success of esports,” Lombardi said.
It remains to be seen whether St. Louis-area universities will upgrade their club teams into varsity programs, or if Fontbonne University’s up-and-coming esports team will become a top contender in the collegiate scene.
But at the high school level, students like Jeremy Murray, the captain of the Francis Howell Central esports team, are seeing changing attitudes among their parents with potential scholarships available. He said his parents are so enthusiastic about his choice of sport that they bought him new equipment.
“I think what really got my dad involved was the idea that scholarships already exist for this sort of thing,” he said. “And that I’m passionate enough about it that I can get those scholarships at universities, or at least potentially.”
Follow Andy Tsubasa Field on Twitter @AndyTsubasaF.
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