For years, frustrated parents have been telling their kids that playing video games will never amount to anything.
The Snider High School esports club team is showing the parents they might want to reconsider.
Despite competing for little longer than a year, three Panthers competitors have won state championships and are contending for national titles. When the introductory meeting was held over Zoom, team officials had no idea who might show up. After all, classes were held only online, so no one was sure how many got the message.
In the midst of the pandemic, 65 attended. A year later, more than 100 students attended the introductory meeting.
It's really more of a program than simply a team, as Joe Wilhelm, John Todor, Adam Warrix, Andrew Newman and Ian Tyler coach more than 100 students participating on 15 different rosters playing 10 games. The squads are broken up into varsity, junior varsity and club teams, playing on 20 computers in a 2,000-square-foot esports lab.
During a normal week, there are competitions at school every night, sometimes as late as 9:30.
“It exploded on us pretty quickly,” Snider Principal Chad Hissong said. “These kids didn't have an identity before. They showed up, kind of went to class and did their thing. Now they are like celebrities. They have made a name for themselves. We keep finding out that we have kids who are nationally ranked in different places.”
The students found their niche within the school society, and there have been other benefits. After the initial meetings, 33 students were informed they needed to improve in the classroom. Within two weeks, their grades had all risen. Everyone had to abide by attendance requirements, academic standards, team and league rules and the Fort Wayne Community Schools code of conduct.
Like with an athletic team, there's also the chance to be scouted by college and professional coaches, possibly earning scholarships and contracts. Esports has become a big business with players competing on dedicated social media platforms with broadcasters calling play-by-play.
“The funny thing that cracks me up all the time is some of these kids struggled academically and now they are the ones who want to stay at 9 or 10 p.m.,” Hissong said. “They didn't want to come to school 12 months ago, and now we can't get them to leave. They have that sense of purpose now.”
There are 85 Indiana high school teams, and more school officials are calling to ask about possibilities. Middle school students are excited to eventually participate.
The program cost $40,000 to start, with help from a donation by Snider alum and Aptera Software co-founder TK Herman, but the yearly costs are much less. Support from Hissong and athletic director Steve Ziembo also helped, along with the FWCS technology department. The process started when Ziembo read a magazine article about esports and realized it was a way to reach out to more students.
“It's huge, and I think it's going to just keep growing,” Ziembo said. “It definitely gives some students who might not be athletic in that traditional sense that buy-in to the culture of your school. They get a lot of positive attention.”
Senior Tommy Song won a state chess title, and freshman Ian Rottinger won a Fortnite state title. Seniors Jacob Hein, Jakobe Kidd, Carter Ehrman, Christian Burlison, Ayden McLaughlin and Seth Geisleman and junior Lauren Jarvis combined to win a state title in Overwatch. Rocket League teammates Tyrese Ellis and Austin Tuttle, both juniors, and sophomores Dalen Banks, Nazair Schohl and Gabriell King will compete in a national tournament in May.
“I'm in school about 12 hours every day, but it's pretty great,” Wilhelm said. “It's students I would have never met otherwise, and students who are having success who maybe wouldn't have otherwise.”