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Fairfield High School eSports team travels far to find competitors

Photo courtesy of Parker Aden

This photo was taken Saturday, Nov. 30, inside the Rialto Theatre in Pocahontas, Iowa. Fairfield High School’s eSports club was there to compete against students from Pocahontas Area High School in a video game called Super Smash Bros. The matches were played on the theater’s movie screen.
Photo courtesy of Parker Aden This photo was taken Saturday, Nov. 30, inside the Rialto Theatre in Pocahontas, Iowa. Fairfield High School’s eSports club was there to compete against students from Pocahontas Area High School in a video game called Super Smash Bros. The matches were played on the theater’s movie screen.
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FAIRFIELD — Fairfield High School’s video game team is more than off the ground. It’s soaring across the state of Iowa.

The school’s video game team, or eSports team as it’s often called, traveled to northwest Iowa to compete against Pocahontas Area Community High School on Saturday, Nov. 30. Pocahontas is a town of about 1,700 people in a rural part of Iowa between Fort Dodge and Storm Lake.

Nine Trojans made the four-hour trip to play the Indians of Pocahontas Area. They played a game called Super Smash Bros. on a console called Nintendo Switch. In the game, players fight each other using characters from video games, characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikachu and others. Each character has unique moves and abilities. Games normally consist of one-on-one fighting, but they can involve up to eight players.

Instead of having the two schools face each other, the players competed in an individual tournament, so sometimes a Fairfield student would face another Fairfield student. The Trojans did very well, capturing the top six places and seven of the top eight.

Few competitors

The trip to Pocahontas was by far the longest trip the FHS eSports team has made for a match. John Grunwald, one of the FHS eSports advisers and the school district’s technology director, said very few schools in the state have an eSports team, because it is not officially recognized as a sport. WACO in Wayland has a team, and even a computer lab dedicated to eSports. Fairfield has competed against WACO a number of times. Recently, the Trojans traveled to Colfax to compete against students from the Colfax-Mingo Community School District, about 20 miles east of Des Moines.

The competition in Pocahontas was held in a movie theater, allowing the students to play their matches on the theater’s big screen.

“It was the first time our students played on a theater screen,” Grunwald said, who wondered ahead of time whether such a big screen would bother the players who were used to playing on a television screen. It turns out they handled it just fine.

Parker Aden organized the tournament in Pocahontas as part of his community’s Art Walk.

“This is the third video game tournament we’ve held at the theater,” he said. “I think everyone enjoys playing on the screen because it is massive, and they most likely haven’t ever played on a screen that big before. It’s also cool to watch as a spectator in person, especially since it’s connected to the theater’s sound system.”

Aden graduated from Pocahontas Area High School three years ago, before the school added an eSports team. He said he admires Fairfield’s dedication to travel so far for a tournament, and that no other school had come that far for an eSports tournament before.

Watching game film

FHS senior Dallas Carlson won the tournament in Pocahontas. During the long car ride from Fairfield, Carlson was watching YouTube videos of computers playing Super Smash Bros. against each other. He hoped that watching the videos would give him ideas to use in the tournament. Grunwald remarked on how unusual that was.

“The football team can’t practice on their way to a game,” Grunwald said.

Carlson said he’s interested not just in video games but in games of all kinds, including board games and card games. He’s involved in several other extracurricular activities such as band, choir, jazz choir, speech and drama club. Carlson said he doesn’t see anything odd about the eSports club, and views it the same way other people view more traditional sports.

“It’s got just as much mental involvement and strategy as other sports,” he said.

FHS senior JJ Funkhouser competed in Saturday’s tournament, and said it was fun to compete against people other than his FHS classmates. He said the club has allowed him to get to know people he wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Grades take priority

Grunwald stressed that neither he nor the other advisers and volunteers want the eSports club to take time away from the students’ studies or other extracurricular activities. Funkhouser said that he is involved in speech team, and that other members of the club have their own set of extracurricular activities. At the same time, Grunwald said the eSports club is giving an outlet to students who would otherwise not participate in extracurricular activities.

Sophomore Nicole Sutherland joined the club because of her older brother Willis, another big gamer. Even though she struggled at Super Smash Bros. in the beginning, she enjoyed the camaraderie of the club.

“There is such good sportsmanship in the club,” she said. “We give each other tips. Everyone here is really nice to one another.”

Sutherland said she fits into the video game club because her whole family are “nerds and geeks.”

“My mom and dad love playing ‘World of Warcraft’ with each other,” she said, adding that her younger sister Gwendolynn, a student at Fairfield Middle School, enjoys watching video games on YouTube.

FHS junior Logan DeJaeghere participated in the tournament in Pocahontas, and has competed in two of the three contests against WACO. He said Fairfield’s team is pretty good because it practices twice a week. DeJaeghere joined the club because he’s a big fan of Super Smash Bros., and he thought he’d have fun playing it with his classmates. He’s even contemplated pursuing a college scholarship in eSports, though he doesn’t intend for that to be his career.

“If it happens, it happens,” he said about becoming a professional eSports player.

DeJaeghere said both of his brothers are into video games, but his sister is not so interested in them. His parents enjoy playing a game called Rocket League, which is like soccer with cars. DeJaeghere said that, if the club were to add more games, he’d like it to add different genres, such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six or Hearthstone, a card game.

Volunteer-run

The video game club is not a school-sanctioned team. It is self-funded, and the six coaches/sponsors are all volunteers. The club began last year after a survey revealed that as many as 200 FHS students were interested in joining an eSports club. One of the most popular games at the time, which still is very popular, was Fortnite, a game where 100 players fight each other at once.

Grunwald said Fortnite was the first game played in the eSports club, but attendance from the student body didn’t live up to expectations. It turned out that many students had better computers at home, and they didn’t like playing the game on the school’s computers. That made Grunwald search for gaming options with lower hardware requirements. Since then, the eSports club has stopped playing Fortnite.

The club started playing the game League of Legends, a fighting game that didn’t require such high processing capabilities. Grunwald hopes that the school can host a tournament as a fundraiser, perhaps in the FHS Auditorium, following Pocahontas’s lead of hosting the match in a theater.

“In League of Legends and in Fortnite, there is strategy,” Grunwald said. “Someone needs to build a team and call the shots for all five team members [in League of Legends].”

Grunwald said League of Legends teaches leadership and collaborative skills, which will help the students later in life.

“Those are the skills an employer will look for in an applicant,” he said.