NEW PARIS — National Trail has brought home its first ever team state championship, and it was done in an unconventional contest: eSports.
The Blazers’ five-person team in Smite, a multiplayer online battle arena game, defeated Bluffton in the semifinals and Norwalk in the finals to capture the state title. The team, coached by Brian Pool, consists of Zach Horn, Martin Jones, Zachary Sandlin, Carson Sievers and captain Adam Warren.
“It was fun,” Pool said of winning the state title. “It was cool seeing them win.”
In the state finals matches, the Blazers won the first match against Norfolk 31-17 before dominating 22-9 early in the second match, resulting in a forfeit from Norwalk.
“I’m walking down the row of the computers, and then all of a sudden all the computers say ‘victory’ at the same time when you win, and I’m like, ‘Adam, we’re only halfway through the match, how did we just win?’” Pool said. “The other team conceded because they felt like we were just going to beat them again…It’s one of those things that kind of made me as a coach, it made me mad. It’s like you’re going to state football and it’s 21-0 at halftime, so you tell your kids to get in the bus and you’re gonna drive home.”
National Trail’s eSports efforts also extend to teams in League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Valorant, and Fortnite, in which the Blazers reached the state tournament last fall.
According to Pool, the program is a recent addition for the Blazers, beginning in the spring of 2020 when Cody Miller, a student at Trail, wrote an essay on why eSports can be beneficial to STEM programs and student engagement. The student then contacted Pool, who began looking into the possibility of bringing eSports to National Trail, and brought the issue to superintendent Bob Fischer, who was fully behind the project
Since beginning in spring 2020, Pool said 31 students have participated.
“It really has been neat seeing the different kids that get engaged in it that maybe weren’t engaged in other sports and stuff that kids, you know – volunteer to be team captains that are kind of getting out of their comfort zone, and it’s been really neat,” he said.
Practice and competitions take place inside the school’s library, and for students who want to participate, all equipment is provided other than headsets. Varsity and junior varsity teams exist for each game in addition to club teams. Students also receive jerseys and varsity letters like any other athlete would.
National Trail currently has the only eSports program in the county, and Pool says other school districts have faced issues with administration trying to institute an eSports program.
“They’ve faced that with their administration – ‘I’m not going to have a thing where kids are sitting around playing games together,’” he said. “Football is a game. Baseball is a game. You can easily say that, ‘They’re just playing games, they should be studying calculus,’ but these are extracurricular activities to make kids feel part of the school, part of a team.”
Pool says there hasn’t been any negative feedback at Trail.
“I have gotten absolutely zero negative comments,” he said “I have staff members walk in and watch the kids, and any staff member that’s walked into an eSports match has only said positive stuff, or ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’”
While it may not look like a traditional athletic team, the students practice four days a week on a similar schedule, and Pool says this gives some students an opportunity to participate with other classmates that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“My son’s got cerebral palsy. He’s in a wheelchair. There’s no school sport that he would ever be able to be a part of. Zach Horn, who was on the Smite team, is missing part of his leg and he’s got a prosthetic leg,” he said. “Zach has been on other sports because he can work with his prosthetic leg. But there’s lots of kids with Asperger’s and other issues that just don’t feel comfortable, but when they’ve got a headset on and they’re looking at a screen, all of a sudden they can talk to all these other kids that in school, they never feel comfortable talking to before.”
Afterwards, Pool said they’ll be sitting around a table and laughing together.
“It makes me so happy with some of these kids that I know have never said ‘boo’ inside of the classroom before that are now laughing and smiling with their classmates in an environment that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he said.
Reach Braden Moles at 937-683-4056 or on Twitter @BradenMoles