Dakota High School’s video gamers are now an Esports team to reckon with on a national level, besides having achieved the trophies, scholarships and cachet of cool associated with high school sports.
“Most students are exposed to or have experience with video games. It’s like any sport,” Dakota Esports coach Vincenzo Bilof said. “A lot of people watch football, but only a few play it, and in high school, you know, there are a lot of kids who look up to the star quarterback or point guard, and the same concept applies to video games. More students can play a video game on a casual level, so the appeal among students is more widespread since so many of them are familiar with the mechanics and game play. A few of our players certainly acquire some social capital.”
Esports has brought a whole new level of sports competition to high schools nationwide, and Dakota High School’s team was recognized on Aug. 9 by USA Today. Ahead of the fall 2022 high school Esports rankings, USA Today High School Sports published a look back at the best Esports teams since 2019, based on overall data tallied by PlayVS. Dakota High School was one of the schools ranked t-17 with three championships.
“I received a congratulatory text message from colleagues that evening,” Bilof said. “Our district shared the information with the entire staff when the news broke. Many colleagues reached out to extend their support.”
Bilof said that the Macomb Township school’s involvement in Esports began in 2017, when he was approached by a group of students about a video game tournament.
“I run a game club after school for students who want to meet up and play a variety of video games and board games, so these particular students thought I would be interested in sponsoring them,” Bilof said.
As a gamer himself, Bilof said he was interested in coaching to provide more opportunities for students to become part of the school community and to develop skills.
“I began to see how valuable the experience was for our students, and it was a program they built by their enthusiasm and dedication,” Bilof said.
The team began with five students, and competed in its first tournament in 2017 at Lawrence Technological University. As of the 2021-22 school year, the team had grown to 30 students playing various games. Bilof also said depending on the number of students who try out for a specific game, the team may split into varsity and junior varsity.
Esports are open to Dakota students in grades 9-12. Bilof said he does not want students to pay to participate, particularly as many leagues and tournaments are free. He also said that for leagues that require money, the team receives support from the district and is becoming self-sufficient via fundraising.
The Cougar team competes in multiple programs and tournaments. In Michigan, the team is involved with the Michigan High School Esports Federation (MiHSEF) and PlayVS. Nationally, the team has participated in tournaments via the Ultimate Gaming Championship (UGC) platform. In the PlayVS league, the school’s “Rocket League” team won a title in the fall of 2020 and the following spring and fall of 2021.
“The PlayVS league has grown extensively since we started. In our first season, we competed against sixteen other teams, and this past season there were at least 64,” Bilof said.
Esports offers varying opportunities for seasonal play, depending on the organization, according to Bilof. He said that MiHSEF might host some games in the fall, and change options in the spring. PlayVS has fall and spring seasons, and many organizations also offer summer tournaments.
Dakota students on the Esports team play at home, using an app called Discord to communicate via headsets. Coaches also use Discord to monitor their teams. Bilof said the Dakota team plays scheduled games once or twice per week, depending on the league.
“Leagues and tournaments have strict protocols for sportsmanship and actions that take place during the game that are considered ‘toxic’ or negative, and when those rare examples occur, they are reported to league officials,” Bilof said.
Dakota’s Esports team practices a minimum of eleven per week, but Bilof said students are also able to establish additional play times at their leisure. Although most students play multiple times per week, he stresses the importance of life outside of video.
“We try to avoid burnout, which can easily happen, and we want to emphasize that students maintain positive relationships with their family and friends while remaining committed to their academics and our school’s code of conduct,” Bilof said.
The team has a captain responsible for helping communicate with other teams. Each video game includes different team compositions, and some games do not use teams, Bilof said. However, he stressed the importance of team spirit to success.
“Communication is important in any sport, but it should never be quiet when one of our games are being played. It should almost sound chaotic to someone who isn’t familiar with it,” Bilof said. “Many of these teams have to coordinate their gameplay as if they were a military unit, with very precise strategies. The mental aspect of gameplay is paramount, so we have to make sure we maintain professional-level communication, which includes encouraging teammates who make a mistake or have a bad game.”
Bilof added Esports helps students learn to troubleshoot tech issues as they occur, and teaches the use of tools such as hardware and apps. Each year, several Dakota Esports team students have earned scholarships. Bilof said that last year alone, three students earned scholarships to play for Lawrence Technological University, Oakland University and Davenport University. In addition to the academic benefits, there is plenty of student social status involved in Esports team participation, Bilof added.
“Students see the trophies in my room and listen to the announcements and ask questions,” Bilof said. “Our Esports program is regarded in a positive light by the student body and it certainly makes the entire school seem a bit more ‘cool’ in their eyes.”