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Name: Jarrod Rackauskas
Position: Esports head coach at Heartland Community College
1. Esports programs are surging at the high school and collegiate levels. What are esports, and why are they so popular with players and with schools?
Esports (electronic sports) is a form of competition that leverages video games. Video games are a popular pastime, with 65% of Americans playing on at least one platform. If you’re solving a Wordle or jockeying for sector domination in Eve Online — you’re a gamer (someone who plays video games).
Recent market research shows that 90% of youth are casual gamers. This massive audience of casual players has a growing subgroup of gamers who are making sport to test trained skills and abilities against other players. These competitors are commonly called esport athletes.
The rationale for schools to incorporate esports is to provide more students the benefits characteristic of traditional activities and/or athletics. A direct benefit of esports is that the athlete will develop dexterity, mental stamina, situational/data analysis and communication skills.
The benefits to the schools are increased student engagement, belonging (mental health), social involvement (school spirit), daily attendance and academic improvement. Such benefits are more pronounced in underserved populations.
2. What role have esports played in your own education and career?
My foray into esports started as a teenager. I began playing video games at a local game store (Adventureland) in downtown Bloomington. Still remember the owners (John and Steve) trading computer time for doing mundane tasks around the shop or getting good grades. This was around the time I began practicing/training for a game called Counter-Strike 1.6 (CS 1.6).
Who knew that over the next 20 years Counter-Strike would explode in popularity and be a pillar of the esports industry?
While at Truman State University, I helped create the first “video game club” with interested friends on my dorm floor, football team and fraternity. Our small group would play CS 1.6 on the school network almost every night.
About a month after setting up the initial game server, random students started jumping into our games. Soon we had 40-plus active players from across campus, most of whom never met in person before playing.
The frequency of hearing students talk about last night’s CS 1.6 game around campus was surreal. To have an instant connection with so many strangers is powerful.
Soon our team was traveling most weekends to in-person events called LAN Events/Tournaments (quality internet was not yet widespread), winning cash and prizes. Our team’s first big prize was GeForce2 Ti 64mb Graphics Cards made by a startup called NVIDIA. Our school club/team even received product sponsorship by an energy drink (Bawls). Intel and AMD threw dozens of free chips at us for prize support.
In retrospect, we were just college kids; no one thought themself a pioneer to what would be a multibillion-dollar industry.
3. Heartland’s program has become nationally competitive since you became its first coach two years ago. How have you built the program and what are the plans for the future?
Scholastic esports governed by a member-led organization at a national level is new. Until recently, most tournaments and leagues were largely managed by the video game publisher or third-party organizer. Two years ago Heartland took the leap and started a “varsity program” to compete in the NJCAAE. This is a huge undertaking, as the esport program would mirror traditional sports.
At Heartland, players are expected to do weekly study tables, make all practices, work with an academic adviser, utilize a physical trainer and maintain eligibility requirements.
Being a scholastic esport athlete is more than just playing video games. The program is designed to enrich the athlete with marketable skills, a competitive mindset and opportunities for achievement.
With the help of Ryan Knox (athletic director), the program was framed with the highest expectations and ideals. To achieve our goals, we have put a premium on student athletes who are accountable and competent. Stealing a page from Coach Belichick: “We like to say that dependability is more important than ability.” An NJCAAE championship is not a question of “if,” but a question of “when.”
Currently we have exceeded our facility and coaching capacity with a varsity roster of 20-plus athletes and seven games. Looking forward, my hope is that we are allowed to grow the program to include all game titles offered by the NJCAAE (National Junior College Athletic Association Esports). Ideally, growth of the athletic team would parallel development of an academic program (certificate or associate’s degree) in esports. Such cooperation would further enrich the overall experience and value for both student and athlete.
4. You’ve coached football, basketball and track. How do esports compare to traditional sports, both as a coach and as a player?
Many are surprised to learn that coaching esports is extremely demanding. For example, in basketball you have your starting five players sprinkled across three to four skilled positions to manage, develop and recruit. Your general esports coach works in a similar vein but is responsible for 20-plus starters, 20-plus skilled positions, across multiple teams/games.
Successful esport programs have coaching structures similar to a football program but with team-specific coaches, not position-specific coaches. Heartland Esports has been fortunate to have outstanding volunteer coaches for League of Legends (Andy Mendez and Christian Keveloh) and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Alex Baccheschi).
Esport and traditional sport athletes are one and the same from my experience. Both require a great deal of dedication, skill, discipline and intrinsic motivation to master a craft.
Not playing well and losing feels equally bad. Playing well and winning feels equally good. Mentally replaying the last competition in your mind to squeeze out improvement, facing teammates after a key play, or ending the season as a champion…feel the same.
5. What are your interests/activities outside of esports?
I’m employed at Normal Community West High School as a science instructor and also coach of esports. My interests include spending time with my family (wife Kelly and daughters Ava, Harper and Elizabeth), caring for an apple orchard and hunting/fishing.
Photos: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visits Bloomington-Normal
Contact Roger Miller at (309) 820-3233. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_rmiller