Members of Kuranui College’s two e-sports teams – who made the national finals of the National Secondary School E-Sports League Championship. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Many opportunities for youth in online gaming

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
erin.kavanagh-hall@age.co.nz

For a group of young Wairarapa sporting stars, the virtual realm – with its array of fantastical characters – is an ideal backdrop for a strategic battle of concentration, dexterity and problem-solving.

Two teams from Kuranui College have qualified for the regional finals of this year’s National Secondary School E-Sports League Championship – with the first “elimination matches” kicking off this week.

This year’s tournament, hosted by New Zealand E-Sports platforms Victory Up and The Shadownet, has attracted over 1500 students from around the country: Competing in various well-known gaming titles, from futuristic first-person shooters to arcade-style vehicular soccer.

Over the next two weeks, 85 teams will duke it out in the regional championships – with the top two from each region earning a place in the live national final, held in Auckland in September.

To qualify for the regional finals, teams competed in a series of pool matches, with the top four advancing to the next round.

The competition has been “a wild ride” for Kuranui’s two gaming crews – called GIK and JIK – who entered the tournament for the first time this year.

Playing Valorant, a tactical shooter game featuring avatars with “unique abilities”, GIK and JIK faced off against schools with significantly more experience – eventually finishing second and fourth in their pools.

Team coach and manager Mike Anderson said he was delighted with the students’ performance in the midst of “a tough competition”.

“We weren’t expecting too much from our first year in the competition, so we were thrilled to make it this far,” Anderson said.

“Watching some of the gameplay from the other teams is pretty intimidating – some of the schools have some excellent players and a lot more practice playing together.

“But our players have put in the work, pulled together as a team and come away with some great results.

“The regionals will be tough – but we reckon we’re in with a shot of making the finals. We’ll give it a bash.”

Anderson said Kuranui College has been incorporating E-Sports into its curriculum “over the last few years” – going on to host a one-day tournament against Wairarapa College last year. Earlier this year, staff attended a symposium hosted by the Wairarapa Technology Group – which aims to support schools to increase participation in E-sports, with a view to creating career pathways in the digital sphere.

“Gaming is massive – it’s the largest entertainment industry in the world, even bigger than film,” Anderson said.

“There are a lot of opportunities for a career in the field: things like technical support, media and broadcasting, and event management.”

After attending the symposium, Anderson was inspired to take E-sports at Kuranui to the next level – forming two teams to enter the national league, with little hesitation from the students.

Year 12 student Sebb Bale, captain of the GIK team, said the crews were looking forward to their first regional elimination round – and have been playing “a lot of practice matches” to hone their skills and map out their strategies.

“But often, you’ve got no idea how it’s going to go until you start playing,” he said.

“It all depends on the other team – you see what they’re bringing to the table and work out how aggressively or defensively you play from there.

“Some teams are a lot harder than others. In the pool matches, we did pretty well – but there were teams that absolutely destroyed us.”

For the elimination round, Sebb’s team will go up against Napier Boys High School, and JIK will face St Patrick’s Silverstream: with the winner of three matches moving on to the next round.

JIK captain Joel Brandon said the average match lasts “about 45 minutes”.

“Though we have done some matches in about 20. So, we’ll probably get through all three games in one night.”

Whatever happens this week, the students are aspiring towards a future in professional E-Sports: inspired by the live international tournaments, often held in large venues, attended by hordes of fans.

Worldwide, competitive gaming is one of the fastest-growing sports, with its audience predicted to reach 796 million global viewers by 2024.

The sport is also gathering steam in Aotearoa – with an elite international gaming squad, the eBlacks, now in training.

“The international matches are huge,” Anderson said.

“The fans pack out stadiums, they wear their favourite team’s colours, they buy all the paraphernalia, they have team chants, some of them do cosplay.

“The international competition for the Dota 2 game has a prize pool of about $40 million. In the US, E-Sports has got more followers than football.

“It’s very exciting for young people to watch – there’s a lot of possibilities.”

Anderson said E-Sports still comes up against detractors who don’t consider gaming “a real sport”.

“But for me, E-Sports offers many of the things traditional sports offer: An expectation to put in 110 per cent, have fun, do your best, and – win, lose or draw – to do it together as a team.

“E-Sports also offers opportunities to represent yourself, your school, and, potentially, your nation in your chosen sport.”



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