COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - (from left to right) Three Rivers High School Esports team members Aurora Garcia, Violet Payne and Carryann Sylvester share a laugh as they finish up a practice round of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate following their first matchup in the PlayVS Central League Wednesday. The program, which was officially approved as a school-sponsored extracurricular sport last month, had its first matches Wednesday, losing by forfeit due to internet issues.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers High School Esports team members Blake Anglemyer (left) plays a practice match of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate while Ththitiwute Choodoung (right) looks on, following their first matchup in the PlayVS Central League Wednesday.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Members of the Three Rivers High School Esports team gather for a picture following their first matches Wednesday. Pictured from left to right are Violet Payne, Ththitiwute Choodoung, Blake Anglemeyer, Carryann Sylvester, Eric Dunham, Aurora Garcia, Anastazja Ross, advisor Joe Graber and coach Steven Sturwold.

Three Rivers High School esports program underway

THREE RIVERS — Competitive video gaming is now off and running at Three Rivers High School.

On Wednesday, the newly-created esports program at TRHS held its first matches as members of the PlayVS Central League, an esports league consisting of multiple different high schools across the state and the United States. The team is also a member of the Michigan High School Esports League (MHSEL).

While internet connection difficulties on Three Rivers’ end forced them to forfeit their first two matches against teams from North Dakota and Indiana, just getting the chance to participate in the matches was a big deal for the fledgling program, which was the culmination of a near two-year effort.

Officially approved as a school-sponsored extracurricular sport at the high school only last month, the program currently consists of 23 students. The team, consisting of 13 of those students, plays weekly matches against other schools around the country as three-person teams, and currently participate in matches for the Nintendo Switch games Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a fighting game featuring Nintendo video game characters, and Rocket League, a soccer game with rocket-powered cars. The other 10 students who don’t play in the matches fulfill a variety of other roles, including marketing and technology assistance.

TRHS science teacher and program advisor Joe Graber said he got the idea for the program two years ago after doing some research within the high school. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it didn’t get off the ground until just recently. After talking with Principal Carrie Balk and Interim Superintendent Nikki Nash a few months ago, they decided to pursue it further.

“I talked to the principal and superintendent, and they said, let’s make this happen. We were like, what do we need to do,” Graber said. “We took it to the [Board of Education] to see what they think, and they were universally supportive.”

The program was approved by the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education by a unanimous vote back in January, as well as paid $1,200 for entrance fees into sanctioned tournaments. During the Jan. 17 meeting where the program was approved, Graber said the program is a way for students to participate in an extracurricular activity that is different from traditional sports, such as football, basketball or softball, and said it also gives a chance for students to meet new people.

“I’ve seen mixtures of students who probably would’ve never talked to each other ever, never cross paths in the hallways, and some of them are very well-connected and play other athletic sports, and they’re hanging out with kids who have no connection,” Graber said at the meeting. “I think the mixture part of it is really important.”

Matches are held Wednesdays and Thursdays at 5 p.m. at Graber’s classroom at the high school, N163. Wednesdays feature Super Smash Bros. matches, while Thursdays are dedicated to Rocket League. All matches are open for the public to watch, and Graber said he hopes to stream matches on Twitch and Facebook Live in the future.

The format of the matches are fairly straightforward. For Super Smash Bros., they involve best-of-three 1v1 matches, where the number-one player from one team faces the number-one player from another team. After the first match of the best-of-three, a second player from one team faces the second player from the other team, while the process continues with the third player on each team if a third match is needed. Whoever wins the best-of-three wins the match and gets one win or one loss toward their overall record.

The spring season for the league that the team is in lasts nine weeks in total with eight match days per game – the team takes a week off for Spring Break – with playoffs at the end of the season.

As it is considered to be an extracurricular sport, there are eligibility requirements academically for students to participate. Graber said the requirements, made up by the students in the program themselves, are stricter than they are for more traditional sports: One overall “E” grade for a class puts a student on probation for two weeks, while two overall “E” grades for classes at any time makes a student ineligible for that week’s competition.

“So far, at this point, it’s actually working and driving the kids to get their grades up,” Graber said. He said he is also monitoring student achievement to see if the grades of students in the program go up or down while they’re participating.

Teams are coached on a volunteer basis by Steven Sturwold. He said it’s been great to see the students grow as they’ve been participating.

“So far, they’re working together, showing patience; they don’t know what’s wrong [with the internet], but they’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. If we can teach them that, it’s something,” Sturwold said, referencing the technical difficulties that beset the group on the first day.

Sturwold added it feels “pretty good” to be involved as a coach, saying he is also being taught things by the students as well, and said he wished there was a similar program when he was in high school. Overall, he is excited for the future of the program under his tutelage.

“Hopefully it can be bigger, more kids, more coaches and hopefully different systems,” Sturwold said. “We were talking about computer building as part of it, so we can get some building trades into some of these kids and maybe inspire some of them. Today’s shown that technology and manipulating it to our will is a necessary skill.”

He said the big goals for the season are to work as a team, win “a few matches” and hopefully make it to the playoffs.

“There’s a lot of teams out there, and we don’t know remotely how good they are or how bad they are, so we don’t know, and it’s just up in the air,” Sturwold said.

Balk, who stopped by the classroom for the inaugural competition day, said she has been following esports as it’s grown in the state, and said it could potentially become a big program within the high school. She said it’s been great to see the program take off so far at TRHS.

“It’s fantastic, just sitting here watching them getting ready to play. They’re clearly having fun and are getting along pretty well,” Balk said. “I think the goal of bringing this program in is the more avenues where we can connect more kids with our school community, with each other and learning skills they need, it’s fantastic.”

So far, students in the program have enjoyed being in the program as well. Carryann Sylvester, a freshman at the high school, said she has enjoyed playing video games since she was 4 years old, and found the program to be right up her alley.

“I’ve wanted the high school or middle school to have a program, and when I heard there was going to be a program when I was in eighth grade, I figured why not give it a shot,” Sylvester said. “I absolutely loved playing games ever since I was 4, so I was like, why not join competitive since I was competitive in other games?”

Sylvester said she joined for the fun of playing games and to meet new people, and said she’s taken away a lot from the experience so far.

“I’ve learned to be a little more patient and bring new experiences to other things I’m doing,” Sylvester said. “I think people should join esports to get out of their own shell; this will give them a spark to reach out more and make new friends. I used to be very anti-social until I met more people in here.”

Another student, freshman Eric Dunham, said he joined the program because of his love of video games.

“I love playing video games, and when I get a chance to play video games after school, I know I’m going to have a good time,” Dunham said. “The game choices appealed to me, and I can’t wait to try them out.”

Graber said he hopes the program will be able to grow in the future. He plans to add more games to the roster – potentially Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch – and potentially host a community video game tournament at this summer’s Water Festival as a fundraiser for the program, as well as other smaller tournaments at different local venues.

“We don't want to do fundraising that mirrors [the Athletic Boosters], so that's why things like the community tournament at the Water Festival would be great, because no one else is doing anything like that,” Graber said. “I’ve talked with Stephanie Brumfeld about the [Skate Dreams] roller rink, and I have no doubt once they get the floor done and open, we’ll be in there in some capacity.”

Students who want to join the program can contact Graber at the school or show up at a match or practice, which are on the morning announcements at the school, although he said joining a team is “hard” right now due to it being in the middle of the season.

Overall, Graber sees potential in the program, and wants to see it become bigger in the future.

“I think it’s going to grow. I think it’s going to grow way beyond what it is,” Graber said.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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