SPRINGDALE -- Students at Don Tyson School of Innovation have gained national recognition in the fast-growing world of esports.
The team, founded five years ago, has won four state championships in the past two years. Earlier this month, it tied with six other teams for 10th place in a national ranking by USA Today. The team was also ranked third nationally in League of Legends, one of the most popular esports games, according to a news release.
Results were compiled by looking at the best esports teams since 2019 based on overall data tallied by PlayVS, the company that hosts competitions.
Esports are the fastest growing high school sport in the U.S., according to the National Federation of High School Associations, which recognizes esports as an official sport. Last year, more than $16 million was awarded in scholarships for esports athletes at hundreds of colleges across the country, the association website states.
The Arkansas Activities Association recognized esports in 2019 as an activity, similar to choir or band, rather than a sanctioned sport, according to Bobby Swofford, assistant executive director of the organization, which governs high school sports and activities in the state.
Schools can have teams for a specific game or a variety of games, Swofford said. In the past, students could compete in five games including League of Legends, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart and Madden NFL. This year, NBA2k was added, he said.
Esports competitions are open and not divided into conferences by school size, Swofford said. There are fall and spring competition seasons, he said.
The association partners with PlayVS to host competitions. Teams log into the system from their individual schools to compete and PlayVS keeps records and rankings, including postseason seeds that lead up to the state tournament, Swofford said.
The Tyson School of Innovation esports program was formed the year before esports were recognized by the Arkansas Activities Association, coach Burl Sniff said.
The Tyson program has grown to have more than 40 participants in multiple teams for each game, he said.
Esports offers many of the benefits of more traditional sports, teaching students skills such as teamwork, problem solving, leadership, management, communication, keeping cool under pressure and math, Sniff said.
Students spend hours a week practicing, bonding and building friendships, Sniff said. They are also held to the same attendance, academic and behavior standards as athletes, he said.
Research shows 80% to 85% of high school students involved in esports don't participate in any other school activity, Swofford said.
Involvement in school activities has a real impact on graduation rates, Swofford said. Kids who are involved in any school activity have a 99% graduation rate; kids who aren't have an 89% graduation rate, he said.
Esports is also part of a billion-dollar gaming industry that isn't going anywhere anytime soon, Swofford said. The activity may introduce students to careers in areas such as computer programming or game testing and design, he said.
Anthony White and Drake Mayes, 2022 graduates, were on the school's esports team from the beginning. White has returned to the School of Innovation as coach, he said.
White is attending Northwest Arkansas Community College to study information technology and compete on the college's new esports team, he said. Mayes is studying information technology at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and recently applied to be on the university's team, he said.
White and Mayes said esports taught them teamwork, leadership and communication. In League of Legends, teams play five-on-five so communication and cooperation are crucial, White said. As team captain, White watched game film from other teams and prepared strategy, he said.
"It's a lot like traditional sports in reality," White said. "The physical element is taken out so a lot of times it's undermined, but in reality you are still spending four to six hours a day practicing or if you are not practicing, you are watching something or listening to try to get better."
At times the team has lost because two people didn't get along or had a lack of synergy, even though they were better skilled than their opponents, Mayes said.
"All five people have to be on the same level of communication," he said.
Juniors Michael Arriola, Keith Harper and Andres Diaz also said they have learned teamwork and communication skills from participating in esports.
"I really like the fact I can spend time with people with common interests who generally want to do what I do," Diaz said. "I have people depending on me, which makes me grow. It's really reassuring to know I have a team behind my back supporting me and I support them."
Last year, 18 high schools in Northwest Arkansas offered esports programs, and 151 high schools in the state had League of Legends teams, the most popular esports game, Swofford said.
Rogers New Technology High School is preparing for its third season of esports, according to coach Keith Godlewski. The program started with one team and five players, he said. Last year, the program had three teams and 16 players and this year Godlewski is expecting 20 to 30 players across five to six different games, he said.
Last year, the school started two teams in Smash Bros., and one of those teams won both the fall and spring state championships, he said.
"It was ridiculously cool," he said. "All three years our teams have made the playoffs."
"All of my players start off shy and reluctant to be a part of a group, and quickly learn to overcome those feelings once they settle in and start to play competitively with others," he said.
Bentonville High School has had an esports team for four years, according to coach Gentry Collier. When Collier and fellow coach Josh Langham took over the program, the team played two games and had 10 members, he said.
Last year, the team grew to 18 players in grades 9-12 and is looking to expand by adding games.
"The popularity of esports is growing quite rapidly, not just in our schools but nationwide," Collier said. "Our Rocket League team had its own Twitch channel, and we also streamed Super Smash Bros. games. This year we are working more on our streaming platform to widen our audience so people can see just how much talent we have here at BHS."
The Bentonville team made it to several quarter-finals and semifinals during the state playoffs, and students have received scholarship offers from colleges, Collier said. This October, the team will compete at ReWired Festival, a high school-based Rocket League tournament, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, he said.
Siloam Springs High School has also had an esports team for four years, according to Luke Shoemaker, assistant principal and director of career and technical education. The program started with League of Legends, then added Rocket League two years ago, Shoemaker said. This year, the school plans to add Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, he said.
The program has had around seven players on the League of Legends team and eight players on two teams playing Rocket League, he said. The League of Legends team made it to the state semifinals in spring 2020, he said.
"They develop camaraderie and pride in their school," Shoemaker said. "I've also watched some of my most reserved players become strong leaders with confidence in their knowledge and in-game skill."