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By JUNO OGLE
Daily Press Staff
Playing video games might seem a not-very-worthwhile endeavor to some adults, but competitive gaming is growing in popularity, providing not only college scholarships and career pathways but also a place to belong for some high school and college students.
Members of the Silver High School esports team and the director of the New Mexico State University esports program gave presentations to a crowd of mainly grade-school-aged children and their parents at the Silver City Public Library on Oct. 24.
Esports is an official activity of the New Mexico Activities Association, with state championships conducted since 2019. Now in its third year at Silver High, the program has grown from just a handful of students to about 35 this year, Coach Javier Ledesma said.
At the 2022 NMAA state esports championships, Silver’s teams won first place in the games Super Smash Brothers Ultimate and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and took second place overall in 4A competition.
The school’s esports program has its own dedicated room, server and computers. Teams consist of three or four students. During the fall semester, games are exhibition only, with competition in the spring semester. The 2023 championships were held May 4 in Albuquerque.
According to the NMAA website, other games played competitively are League of Legends, Rocket League, Madden NFL 24, Splatoon 3, NBA 2K24 and Hearthstone.
Since the activity is regulated by NMAA, the students who participate are held to the same standards as student-athletes, Ledesma said.
“I must treat it as an actual sport. That means your grades must be up to par, you must have attendance, and the day of game day, you must be there,” he said, adding that players are also subject to NMAA sportsmanship rules that went into effect this year. “Gaming has a tendency of being a bit aggressive in your talking with the people. As per the new NMAA rules, we’re not allowed to do that. If you do that, we get penalized.”
Even a player who makes their avatar perform certain actions when they defeat an opponent can get them called for unsportsmanlike conduct, the coach said.
As Ledesma talked about Silver High’s esports program, several of the team members — seniors Nathan Lance Porter, Nalani Walsmith, Quinn Thompson and Ryan Chadwick — played Splatoon 3 against a Las Cruces team on a large screen behind him, sometimes causing him to raise his voice to be heard over the players as they called out instructions to one another.
That’s all part of gameplay, Ledesma said.
“They have to communicate the entire time. Communication is the biggest thing,” he said.
The students at the demonstration said they could see the benefits of competitive gameplay, too.
“I think it definitely adds to your communication and teamwork abilities and really helps you build commitment,” Thompson said. “A lot of this revolves around repeated practices with a set of people and you really have to work getting to know these people, communicate well and get along with all of them.”
There are other skills that gaming builds as well, Porter said.
“It definitely helps you think faster, be able to calculate, be able to figure out strategies,” he said. “It takes a lot of research as well. You’ve got to understand how the game works, understand how to work as a team together,”
Ryan May, the coordinator of NMSU’s esports program, concurred the games help develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
“In a minute, you are making hundreds of calculations and decisions,” he said. “You’re actually problem-solving and you’re developing a plan, and you’re doing it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times every game.”
May said he is the program’s first paid director, a sign that the university is taking esports more seriously. When he’s not directing the program, he works as an emergency room nurse in Deming and an advanced care nurse in Las Cruces, he said.
“It kind of goes to show that you can literally be whatever you want and you can still do esports,” he said.
According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, 170 schools have more than 5,000 students participating. NMSU has 52 degree programs that are part of its esports program, May said, and job fields from accounting to computer science can be found in the professional esports world.
One of NMSU’s most active areas, other than the gaming itself, is its media team, he said.
“On top of the video games, we have our media team of 50 students. Those 50 students are running our social media platforms, our website, all of our content creation and our YouTube videos,” May said. “We build our own machines, we go for our own grants, and we really want to redefine esports as not just video games. We want to set the standard for collegiate esports.”
NMSU’s esports program has more than 100 team members and 105 staff, mostly volunteers, in a 1,900-square-foot facility, May said. The students have won $60,000 in prize money and scholarships to date.
Just like at the high school level, the collegiate esports players are held to high academic standards, May said.
“On a 4.0 scale, our cumulative GPA is 3.6,” he said. “So we’re not just playing video games in our basement. If you don’t have a 3.0 you can’t compete. That’s what the national standard is.”
NMSU is also developing an esports degree program, he said.
“That’s something we’re pushing for because our provost, his goal is to make sure we’re more interactive, and he’s saying we need to be more hands-on,” May said. “We can’t just sit in a class for hours and hours. It seems like this is a newer generation and we have to really cater to them. That’s something we’re learning in the higher education sector.”
May and the Silver High gamers also talked about esports’ inclusivity. May said surveys have shown that 97 percent of teenage boys and 83 percent of teenage girls play video games. He told the crowd of one NMSU player last year who had no hands or feet and used a power chair for mobility.
“He never did anything in high school. He didn’t have a friend group. He got to college and he competed for esports. When he found us he finally found a group,” May said.
The team member played with a mouth-controlled device and was “insane” at playing League of Legends, May said.
Silver High students agreed the program provides opportunities students might not find in other activities.
“It’s that inclusivity that you don’t really see in a lot of other sport-like activities, where you have to have a specific talent or a bunch of prerequisites first before you actually do it,” Thompson said. “It’s not about gender, race or anything like that. It’s just about how good you are at the actual game.”
Walsmith said there are a few other girls in Silver’s program, but their gender didn’t matter.
“These are my best friends,” she said of the other three students at the library presentation. “I’ve known these guys for years, so I don’t feel unsafe with any of the other people. It’s not a gender thing, it’s just like, ‘Hey, there’s a person here to play with us.’”
With the inclusion of sports-themed games like Madden NFL 24 and NBA 2K24, student-athletes from soccer, baseball and track have been trying out for the esports program, and even some band students are participants, Ledesma said.
The Silver High students all said they would likely continue gaming after high school, and an esports program is something they would consider in selecting a college. Thompson and Walsmith said they are considering NMSU.
Ledesma said some parents initially pushed back on the idea of esports, but have since changed their belief that it’s “just video games” — especially after seeing teams go to the state championships at the Berna Facio Professional Development Center in Albuquerque.
“I think the big takeaway was when we went to state the first year and they got to see how grand the arena is that they got to play on,” he said. “There’s more acceptance. The obstacles were few for us realistically, but it was nice to get some recognition from the parents and the kids.”
Juno Ogle may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.