MacDuffie School’s esports team at forefront of new opportunity

  • The MacDuffie eSports team is one of just two in Western Massachusetts that competed in Play VS' first high school varsity esports season. They were the top team in the regular season and reached the quarterfinals. COURTESY THE MACDUFFIE SCHOOL—

  • Mike Nguyen, left, and Ryan Doan, who are students at The MacDuffie School in Granby and members of the school's esports team, play League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Doan, who is a student at The MacDuffie School in Granby and a member of the school's esports team, uses a mouse and a keyboard to play League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Doan, who is a student at The MacDuffie School in Granby and a member of the school's esports team, plays League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Doan, left, and Mike Nguyen, who are students at The MacDuffie School in Granby and members of the school's esports team, play League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Doan, who is a student at The MacDuffie School in Granby and a member of the school's esports team, plays League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Doan, who is a student at The MacDuffie School in Granby and a member of the school's esports team, plays League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Doan, who is a student at The MacDuffie School in Granby and a member of the school's esports team, plays League of Legends during an after school practice Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff reports
Published: 2/22/2019 9:15:34 PM

GRANBY — Athis Osathapan tried traditional sports. Basketball and skiing frayed his knees. He injured them often when he was younger and partially tore his right ACL playing basketball last year.

So Ostapthan, a MacDuffie School junior, took a break. He heard about the formation of a school-sancitoned esports program at MacDuffie fielding a League of Legends team. He’d played the game for years and decided to join.

“It’s another thing to do with my friends and MacDuffie community,” Ostaphan said.

MacDuffie participated in the inaugural Massachusetts esports season with 18 other schools. The program is run through PlayVS, a Los Angeles-based startup that partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations, which the MIAA is a part of, to bring esports to the high school level.

Esports is a form of competition using video games with a thriving professional scene and growing collegiate opportunities. Organized teams participate in leagues and tournaments. PlayVS’ first season sanctioned League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world. Its 2018 World Championship final featured nearly 100 million viewers at once and a $6 million prize pool.

In the game, two teams of five select from 143 characters, called “champions,” and battle to destroy their opponent’s base, wading through non-player characters and defense towers to get there.

MacDuffie fielded three teams during the regular season before consolidating its roster to two: Alpha and Delta. Alpha earned the top seed in the playoffs, while Delta was No. 4. Delta didn’t make it out of the second round, falling to the Pioneer Red Team from St. John’s Shrewsbury. Alpha lost in the quarterfinals against Shrewsbury’s NPG 2-1 after cruising through the first two rounds. Alpha missed Osathapan, who was at a science conference in Houston.

While that loss marked the end of the season for MacDuffie, esports in Massachusetts are just booting up.

Esports is sports

The idea to bring esports to MacDuffie started in China. Director of Recruitment and Enrollment Management Jeff Pilgrim was there in September recruiting potential MacDuffie students. An admissions rep from a boarding school in Mississippi mentioned PlayVS and working with them.

The idea intrigued Pilgrim, so he looked into it when he returned because he knew MacDuffie’s international population was into gaming. He realized Massachusetts was one of four states the company was testing pilot varsity esports programs and pushed MacDuffie to join the first season.

“There were not really boarding schools that were involved,” said Pilgrim, a Westfield native and Williston Northampton graduate. “I hoped that was a niche we could create.”

He was met with initial reluctance. Pilgrim heard common arguments like “this is not a sport” and “we’re trying to get kids away from gaming, now we’re encouraging gaming?”

The more Pilgrim and the school researched it, the more they realized how many elements of interscholastic sports are part of esports, as well, like being a part of a team, communication and strategy. MacDuffie accepted the proposal.

“Some of the kids that are on this team are not going to be in drama, they’re not on the sports field,” MacDuffie Director of Information Technology Ed Gray said. “This is one area where they can shine with something that they’re passionate about.”

Getting started

After a school approves the program, it signs up on the PlayVS website and pick a coach. It costs $64 per student, per season, to access the PlayVS platform. Schools can field multiple teams.

In order to compete, every player needs a computer or laptop with a mouse, keyboard and monitor. These can be provided by the school or the students. Headsets are optional but recommended.

“Other than the computers, there’s not a whole lot of extra expenditures,” Gray said. “The bar to entry’s not that high.”

Of the 19 Massachusetts schools, only MacDuffie and Mahar are in western Mass. Mahar and its coach Kyle McLaughlin jumped in early. The Senators’ program began out of conversations McLaughlin had with junior Justin St. Pierre during their advisory block. They treated it the same as any traditional sport with eligibility and attendance requirements and saw their players performance in school improve.

“It’s been real rewarding as a coach to see the kids come out of these shells. We’ve got kids coming to our practices just to watch,” McLaughlin said. “They would have gone home and shut their doors.”

PlayVS even sent a camera crew to Mahar to produce a video about their story. The message is clear: if Mahar can do it, any school can.

MacDuffie’s team

Grey serves as MacDuffie’s coach, if nominally. He handles administrative duties and roster decisions rather than dispensing tactics.

“They know a lot more about the game than I do,” Gray said.

There are 15 players between the Alpha and Delta teams. All of them are international students except one, but that’s not unusual since 60 percent of MacDuffie’s students are international, Gray said. They’re also all male, but all students are allowed to play regardless of gender.

The Alpha team is composed primarily of Chinese students and one from Thailand (Ostaphan), while Delta’s players are mostly from Vietnam.

“I’ve been playing this game for a long time,” MacDuffie junior Xuan Yi said. “I saw the email and was like ‘I’m definitely doing this.’ Playing against other schools feels like more competition.”

Regular-season games took place on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. and were played over the internet. The 32-team playoffs followed the same format, squeezing four playoff rounds into two Tuesdays in early January. The opening round was a single-game playoff, while the second round and on were best-of-three.

The championship final took place in person at Patriot Place in Foxborough where there is an esports arena. Patriots owner Robert Kraft also owns the Boston Uprising, an esports franchise in the Overwatch League. Overwatch is another popular game and esport that may be added to PlayVs in the future.

That first season was called “Season Zero” by many involved since it featured a small rollout and only one game. The next season starts Monday and will add Rocket League and Smite.

PlayVS has expanded to nine states at the varsity level, while club teams operate in six more states.

“I think it’s the future. If you look at participation in high school athletics, it’s on the decline. These kids go home and play games,” McLaughlin said. “This gives them a structured environment to do that.”

With PlayVS, they have a chance to compete for letters, state championships and college scholarships.

There are 128 collegiate varsity esports programs, according to ESPN. Becker College in Worcester has one of the top game design and development academic programs in the country with the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI), so adding esports was a natural progression.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been around colleges and universities for almost two decades,” MassDiGI director Timothy Loew said. “It’s not a fad, it’s a real opportunity.”

Having high school programs benefits the colleges. They can evaluate and recruit talent easier.

“In a year, it’s going to be bigger, more expansive,” Loew said. “It’s all in the context of an established professional esports community. This is a global phenomenon.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.



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