COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Joe Graber, the current advisor of Three Rivers High School’s esports club, talks to the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education about potentially starting esports as a school-sponsored program during their meeting Monday. The measure was passed unanimously, which allows the new esports program to take part in state tournaments and compete in the Michigan High School Esports League.

TR school board approves esports program for high school

THREE RIVERS — Esports will soon be recognized as a school-sponsored extracurricular sport at Three Rivers High School.

On Monday, the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education unanimously approved the establishment of an academic esports program at the school, following a presentation by advisor Joe Graber, who will work with the program on a volunteer basis.

Along with the establishment of the program, the district will also pay $1,200 for entrance fees into sanctioned tournaments for the students participating as well as a new Nintendo Switch console.

With the establishment of the program, it will be the first foray into esports as a program for Three Rivers High School, who will compete as a team in the upcoming winter/spring season of the Michigan High School Esports League (MHSEL), which is sanctioned by a partnership between esports platform PlayVS and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. Eight students are expected to compete in the tournaments, with 15 total students expected to be in the program.

Currently, Graber said the program would participate in two games in the upcoming winter/spring MHSEL season, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Rocket League. He said he hopes the team can play three or four tournaments per year, as well as look for additional grant funding or community funding for the program.

During his presentation to the board, Graber said esports is a “night and day” difference from just playing video games casually, comparing it to traditional sports and being on a team.

“The difference between esports and gaming is the difference between me going out and throwing a softball around with my daughter and her playing on a softball team, or going out and throwing a football around with my brothers back in the day and actually going out and playing for the football team,” Graber said. “It includes things like practice, planning, promotion, organizing, executing, and maintaining academic standards, just like there would be if they were on the basketball team. It’s the same type of environment.”

The idea for starting an esports program, Graber said, started around two years ago after he did research and talking within the high school, which culminated this past fall with an in-house Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament at the high school that drew 40 students. Three of the students were in attendance at Monday’s meeting.

Graber said there were “interesting things” that came out of the tournament, such as the fact that a lot of planning goes into running a tournament with students who may have never played the game before, but also seeing people who want to work behind the scenes or learn how to play on a video game or esports team.

“Tournaments bring out a lot of students who are interested in gaming, because that’s not the esport, they’re just gaming, but you see from that people who are actually interested in playing on a team, learning to play on a team, learning to understand what it means to play on a team in gaming, which is different than playing by yourself at home in your basement with your headphones on,” Graber said.

One of the parents of a student who participated in the Smash tournament, Mary Karabetsos, said having the esports program would be a “wonderful opportunity” for students.

“I think this is such a wonderful opportunity for students to be participating in an after-school activity instead of going home and playing with a headset,” Karabetsos said, adding that her son has met many new people playing video games. “I think this is such a neat opportunity for kids who are talented in a different way that want to participate after school with friends and meeting new people.”

Graber said he has been “blown away” by the student interaction with informal tournaments and video games at the school, saying it has allowed students to meet others they may not have met otherwise.

“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. “I think the mixture part of it is really important.”

Graber also mentioned the possibility for college scholarships for esports, saying there is “millions upon millions upon millions” of dollars of scholarships available every year, referencing a student in the state who recently got an $84,000 scholarship playing League of Legends through MHSEL.

Graber said he didn’t want to take a “huge leap” with the program yet, but did detail that if the program were to get traction, there is the possibility the program could participate fully in the 2022-23 school year in both MHSEL seasons in fall and winter/spring, which he estimated could cost in the neighborhood of $15,000.

Board Vice President Melissa Bliss asked if there is a dividing line between extracurricular activities like video games becoming school-sponsored versus being a club sport. Interim Superintendent Nikki Nash said a recent policy change regarding district-sponsored clubs covered what does and does not constitute one. TRHS Principal Carrie Balk said the group is currently run as a club, but the club wants to participate in state tournaments.

In her comments, Balk said it was “interesting” to see how the current after-school club for video games has brought kids together.

“I’m not a big gamer at all, I don’t even really know anything, but it has been interesting to watch how it’s brought kids together, and it’s been really fun,” Balk said. “It’s not just about gaming, because there’s the perception about, ‘oh, they’re just playing video games,’ but they’re doing things they’re passionate about.”

Trustee Nichole Cover said the board is always willing to support something like the esports program that has a “proper plan and proper representation,” and said she hopes the program can help the school district become a “district of choice.”

“My brain’s already going, could you guys somehow be advocates for us to be a great school of choice for this as an avenue from a scholarship perspective for the county or southwest Michigan,” Cover said. “We wish you the best of luck and we hope you come back and tell us you won first place.”

Trustee Kevin Hamilton said he liked how the program has mainly been student-led.

“It provides another opportunity for a student to go to college,” Hamilton said. “You have kids who are well-connected, and you have kids who may not want to lift weights, and this is a great opportunity for a lot of those kids. I’m pretty excited, and it’s not a big financial cost to the district.”

Board Secretary Ben Karle told the students he was “impressed” by the students turning a hobby into something they can learn from.

“I work with young people all day and I think every one of them say they want to be a video game designer when they grow up, and we have a lot of talks about what it takes to do that and the dedication, and I’m impressed that this is a way to take what was probably a hobby when you were young and it’s taking those skills and really doing something with it that will help not just yourselves but for students to come,” Karle said.

In other business…

  • The board heard an update on COVID cases from Nash. Approximately 52 percent of students this year have been deemed close contacts, with 3 percent flipping from being a close contact to a positive case. Around 11 percent of students overall in 2021-22 have tested positive for COVID, with 19 percent of staff having tested positive throughout the school year as well.
  • The board heard a presentation from Plante Moran Cresa on potentially being an Owner’s Representative for the district in Phase 2 of the bond project.
  • The board briefly discussed the next steps in terms of planning for their superintendent search. More on that discussion will be in the Saturday edition of the Commercial-News.

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

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