Gone are the days where video games were once thought of as mindless pastimes that sucked children away from opportunities. With eSports, students at Alexandria Area High School get to be a part of a team, building camaraderie and friendships while playing to earn thousands of dollars worth of scholarships to lead them into the future.

According to Pete Bruzek, one of the coaches for the eSports teams and the network administrator at the high school, eSports or electronic sports is played at an organized and competitive level,

E-Sports Coach Pete Bruzek, left,  overseas a Super Smash Bros game during one of the teams after school practices.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
E-Sports Coach Pete Bruzek, left, overseas a Super Smash Bros game during one of the teams after school practices. Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Alexandria Are High School Junior Kayden Savig said he joined the E-Sports team because regular sports are too expensive. A sentiment echoed by fellow junior and player, Foxx Johnson.

"Plus, I play games at home anyway, so I might as well play them at school," Savig added.

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The high school adopted the new after-school activity in the fall semester of 2020 after eSports began growing in popularity around the country. According to Kevin Brezina, coach and technical director at the high school, the administration approached Bruzek and him to see if the school could implement an eSports program of its own.

"Our response was, we don't know," said Brezina with a laugh.

But after research and talking with other schools in the state with their own eSports program, Brezina and Bruzek determined that not only would it be doable, but it could also be a good thing for the students.

"Many of the student players are not in other sports or activities. ESports has allowed them to do something in a team setting and build camaraderie among fellow students," said Brezina. "A lot of these kids didn't know each other when they started, and now they have gotten a chance to be a part of a team and a place to fit in and make friends."

"It gives them structure," added Bruzek.

Gavin Schmidt plays a game of Rocket League during the e-sports team practice.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
Gavin Schmidt plays a game of Rocket League during the e-sports team practice. Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

According to the website, the high school's eSports program operates through PlayVs, an online platform that enables schools to build and manage teams easily, check schedules, and track match stats, all with real-time support.

Students don't just play against other Minnesota students either; they play against students from the central region of the United States. From Iowa to Missouri down to Alabama and Texas, students can interact with other students from those states depending on their game.

According to Buzek, if the students are named the designated home team, they are responsible for setting up the match, contacting the opposing team, and negotiating aspects of the gameplay. The coaches are there to make sure everyone shows up for practice and tournaments when they're supposed to, along with supervising the students' gameplay and monitoring game chats for any "toxic" behavior. They also make sure the students keep on track with their academic requirements — like any other school activity, students must maintain their grades if they wish to participate.

"It has been fun to watch the progression of the students," said Brezina. "They do a great job at helping each other. If a kid is falling behind, the team will put a little pressure on them to keep them on track while lifting each other up."

The team consists of students from grades 9 through 12 and currently has 19 students who participate, just a few more than they started with last year.

"I thought it was something totally different when I first heard about it," said sophomore Austen Hegg. "Once I figured out what it was, I decided to join."

The students play games like Rocket League, which is soccer but with cars; Madden, an American football video game series developed by EA; Super Smash Bros, a crossover fighting game series published by Nintendo that primarily features characters from various Nintendo franchises; and League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena video game developed and published by Riot Games. They hope to add Super Mario Cart during the spring semester. Mario Cart is a series of go-kart racing video games with Nintendo characters.

An area of Alexandria Area High Schools' media center is dubbed "The Foxx Hole," where members of the e-sports team practice playing video games.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
An area of Alexandria Area High Schools' media center is dubbed "The Foxx Hole," where members of the e-sports team practice playing video games. Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

"Some schools participate with shooting games; we just don't want that here," said Brezina.

Student players meet to play every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from right after school to 5:30 p.m. but are only required to show up two days a week. They pick the video games they wish to participate in and, depending on the game, either play as individuals or on teams of three, four or five. The games are played on PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch, also depending on which game the student plays.

"I enjoy playing against other teams and getting to talk with people who also enjoy doing the same things as me," said junior Nolan Peterson, who also participates in track and field.

Peterson would like to study computer engineering and said his parents were supportive of his decision to play and even found the idea of eSports "really cool."

Classes use the gaming computers during the day, and students who have a study block may play on the consoles.

According to Bruzek, the biggest challenge has been teaching the kids to deal with losing.

"It is a learning experience. Some of the students have to know how to lose with dignity and respect for their opponent," he said. "They are what you call coachable moments."

Along with helping students to build structure, giving them a place to fit in and make friends and build camaraderie, eSports has also been implemented at the college level and can provide students with opportunities to pave their way into the future. Every year they have the opportunity to earn college scholarships worth thousands of dollars: $1,000, $2,000, $5,000 and full-ride scholarships for the top players each season through PlayVs.

Sophmore Kaedyn Moos says the scholarships can be a big thing for him as he plans on going to college to study mechanical engineering.

Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and Alexandria Technical and Community College has reached out to Alexandria high school players to recruit for their collegiate teams. According to Buruzek, a meeting is in the works with Southwest State to discuss opportunities for the students.