Competitive esports program under consideration at Arizona high schools

SCOTTSDALE — As the bell rings to signal the end of a school day, a handful of high school students at Rancho Solano Preparatory School gather with classmates in a corner room that still resembles the teacher lounge it once was. After requests from parents, the school transformed it into a state-of-the-art gaming lab for the school’s esports team, one of the first of its kind in the state.

High schoolers across the state like those at Rancho Solano will have to wait just a bit longer to be able to compete in esports against other Arizona schools.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association has postponed the inaugural esports season from spring to fall. According to a statement released by the AIA, the season was postponed to fall because of the short period of time allotted for registration as well as challenges for schools to meet technical and hardware requirements to be able to compete.

The AIA announced in August that esports would be introduced during this calendar school year. The AIA had planned for the inaugural season to kick off the week of February 25th with registered teams able to compete for a state championship in either Overwatch or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

“We wanted to be inclusive of all of our students at our member schools,” said Brian Bolitho, the AIA’s Director of Business Development. “This is an opportunity where other students who might not participate in athletics have an opportunity to compete for a state title in something they enjoy doing.”

The AIA is discussing plans to offer additional video game titles, such as Rocket League and League of Legends, besides the two already announced for the fall season.

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“We are going to continue to work with our partners, HSEL and Legacy Esports, as well as game publishers to secure the necessary rights and requirements to be able to offer additional titles for the fall season,” Bolitho said.

The AIA had partnered with High School Esports League to handle registration, manage scheduling and host the servers that schools would use to compete remotely. Founded in 2013, HSEL is the largest and longest running esports league for high schools in North America with schools competing in all 50 states and Canada through their platform.

“The biggest thing that we’ve noticed is the general social emotional learning development of students in organized activities,” said Steve Jaworski, the general manager of HSEL. “More importantly, we are engaging the students that are typically more disenfranchised and disconnected from the school community.”

As of February 25th, HSEL had 49 schools across the state registered and ready to compete for the postponed spring season.

Rancho Solano is one of the first esports teams in the state and has been competing nationally for several years. One of the school’s science teachers, John Costello, came up with the idea to offer an esports club and has seen how the experience has impacted his students over the past few years.

“You’ll see young boys who wouldn’t be your typical popular high school student,” he said. “They aren’t tall, they can’t play basketball, they can’t jump very high, but they end up being prom kings and queens. They finally have an outlet that allows them to express themselves and be comfortable outside of this room.”

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