Warren Kelly is optimistic about the future of Greenup County's esports program.
The present — a canceled season as a measure to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic — is disappointing.
"There's been some frustration that a program that would seem to be perfectly suited for the current situation was ended just when it seemed to be taking off," the Musketeers' coach said in early April, "especially after (esports platform) PlayVS changed their rules to allow teams to compete from home temporarily."
Kelly said that in an email message in early April, after the KHSAA spring sports season had entered an indefinite dead period but before it was canceled on Tuesday.
"I understand the 'why' behind the dead period," Kelly reiterated Monday. "I just wish it hadn't happened, and I wish they'd look at esports differently enough that we could continue."
Esports — competitive team video games — seem more suited to current mantras of social distancing and sheltering at home than any other KHSAA-sponsored sport or sport-activity. But esports were not spared from the cancellation of all spring regular-season and postseason events, as well as the state basketball tournaments, on Tuesday.
So Greenup County's two League of Legends teams are sidelined for the spring, just like the Musketeers' softball, baseball, tennis, track and field and bass fishing programs.
"I think that the visibility of esports at the high school level would have increased tremendously — sports reporters would have needed something to write about, after all," Kelly said. "Streaming matches online is simple — Greenup County has a Twitch channel for each team (since they normally compete at the same time), and we stream all of our matches there with a three-minute delay. Most schools do the same thing, so it would have been pretty easy for people to watch their high school teams compete from quarantine. Competitive League of Legends is a little tougher for people who don't play the game to follow, but Rocket League would have been really easy for the average fan to enjoy."
KHSAA spokesman Joe Angolia said other factors were in play in the association's decision.
"When PlayVS initially offered that as a possibility," Angolia said of having players compete from home, "I heard from a number of coaches opposed to playing at home due to the potential for cheating and/or competitive disadvantage."
The KHSAA is in its second year of sponsoring esports and sanctions League of Legends (LoL) and Rocket League. LoL is a "team-based strategy game where two teams of powerful champions face off to destroy the other's base," according to its website. Rocket League is essentially "soccer with cars," based on teamwork and outmaneuvering opponents, said the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"Kids who had never played League of Legends before in their lives have started playing and have become really solid, competitive players," Kelly said. "Parents are watching our streams and even coming by the school to watch the kids compete live, and there is more of a feeling that esports is an actual school sport rather than a gaming club for people who just want to hang out and play games. I wish more parents felt that way, but they're starting to."
Though esports are just getting off the ground in northeastern Kentucky — Greenup County is one of five area schools who list an esports program on their directory page on the KHSAA website and the only one whose coach returned an email inquiry; the other schools are Bath County, Fleming County, Johnson Central and Menifee County — Kelly doesn't think the dead period will have lasting harmful effects on the sport's growth.
"I'm not allowed to hold practices or actively coach my teams," he said, "but I have been in contact with them through the team Discord server, and I know that some of them have been getting together online to play — kind of like basketball players will get together at someone's house and shoot baskets or play some 1-on-1 together, but with much better social distancing."
The Musketeers' two LoL teams, complete with substitutes, usually compete twice a week. They are based in the school's information technology office — although Kelly thinks they could compete from home — and have team T-shirts and district-purchased dedicated equipment.
They've also forged an identity, with self-assigned nicknames "Bargain Bin" and "Clearance Rack," in a wink to the LoL process for earning and selecting which champions to play with.
"PlayVS unlocks all of the champions in the game for everyone who is on a team, but we got started very late in the fall season, so in our first match, half of our players didn't have enough champions," Kelly said. "They did, however, have in-game currency, so we went through and they purchased all of the cheap champions. The team laughed that they were shopping the bargain bin, and the name stuck. The same thing happened with our second team in the spring. Because we already had a Bargain Bin, we decided that the second team would be the Clearance Rack."
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