It’s ironic that computer gaming – an activity that many view as solitary – is the one thing keeping some Hobbs High School students in school during the COVID lockdown.
While HHS hallways and classrooms are largely empty, several times each week a converted office in the 100 wing comes to socially-distanced life in groups of less than five students. Unlock the door in a breezeway near Tydings Auditorium on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and you’ll find different members of the school’s E-Sports teams “scrimmaging” other teen-age gamers from across the country.
“If you’re back and have a clear shot, just lob it all the way across,” sophomore Andrew Ceniceros, his eyes trained on a curved computer screen in front of him, instructed his teammates through a headset one recent afternoon.
“Nice center, Bro,” Conrad Byrd replied as he used a joy stick to maneuver his player – in this case, a flying car that can do flips, bounce off fences and hydro boost skyward – into position. “That did not go the way I wanted it to,” the sophomore added of a virtual swing and whiff.
Nearly 30 minutes later, Ceniceros, Byrd and a third-team mate, Jason Hardison, came away with the 3-1 win over Utah opponents while playing Rocket League, a whimsical game loosely based on soccer.
Because it is New Mexico Activities Association sanctioned sport, HHS fields three E-Sports teams with three to five members each. Following the same rules applied to traditional sports, team members – after sterilizing their game chairs, keyboards and controllers – have spent the past two months competing in regional matches with other students from as far as Canada.
The Rocket League team won its first match of the season two weeks ago while the Smite team, led by Captain Kevin Jimenez, notched another victory over Clovis last week to remain undefeated in regionals.
“It’s a pretty nice feeling know that your team is right there with you and you’re not alone,” Jimenez said before the match. “For me, it’s easier to make friends on line than in person so this has been pretty good. (E-Sports) has helped me work on my social skills.”
Truth be told, however, it was more the thrill of playing than the need for socializing that prompted Jimenez to first approach Dr. Anna Burns, his computer programming teacher, about sponsoring a competitive gaming team.
A gamer since the age of 7, Jimenez had floated the proposal by teachers and counselors in the past but said last year was the first time anybody took him seriously.
“They said they needed a coach and nobody was stepping up,” Burns explained. “I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’” Of course, it’s been a little more work than I thought it was going to be,” she added with a laugh.
In addition to helping organize the team, Burns was the go-to person when it came to converting a mail room into a competition room and finding somebody to build computers with fast graphic cards and processors. “Gaming is totally not my thing,” she explained. “I’m there more for the logistics – to make sure the kids are logged in, they are following the rules and there’s no smack talk.”
Jimenez, in the meantime, helped spread the word about the new sport and was a leader in one of those first organizational meetings last year.
“I was surprised by the number of people and the fact that there were familiar faces – people that I’ve known,” he said. “I didn’t expect a lot of them to be interested in something I am. And I didn’t expect there to be so many people.”
So many, in fact, Burns had to make cuts after players tried out for one of three games sanctioned by New Mexico high school sports – Smite, League of Legends and Rocket League.
She thanks the athletic department for stepping up to fund the necessary equipment – which also includes gaming chairs, headsets and other accessories – and says the investment provides an activity for students who are not traditional athletes.
“A lot of these kids are ones who don’t participate in much outside activity,” said Burns. “But in here, these kids are on a team. They have to develop that relationship where they can work together, help each other and motivate each other.”
And just like any other high school sport, participants must also maintain a minimum grade point average and sign a code of conduct.
In the cyber world, the code extends to practicing good sportsmanship even when playing at home.
“If we were to play a game and call somebody a name or something in a chat room, that could be traced back to the school,” Jimenez explained. “It would be like me being an athlete and going out and vandalizing a car on my own time. We have to remember we’re representing our school and whatever we do outside of that affects it.”
When COVID-19 shut down school last spring, it also shut down all NMAA-sanctioned contests and the HHS E-Sports teams traveling to Albuquerque for state championship gaming.
Hopeful that E-Sports will be viable next spring, Burns said she used Google Classroom this semester to announce that teams are still scrimmaging and in the hunt for the scholarships and prizes that come with regional and state wins.
“I thought, you know, the kids aren’t in school. This is an opportunity for some of them to get out of their house,” Burns said earlier this month while sitting in her empty math classroom. “I just thought it would be good for them to play. I thought it would be good for their souls. And it’s an opportunity for me to see some of the kids myself.”
Not surprisingly, Jimenez was one of the first students on board for the COVID-safe competitions. That’s because in addition to being a gamer, E-Sports has improved the 18-year-old’s self confidence and widened his circle of friends.
“A lot of people think that playing games is just rotting your brain,” Jimenez said. “But if you think about it, people who play football are going out there and hitting each other – basically messing up their brain or their body. Here you can do the same thing without getting hurt.”
And just like traditional sports, E-Sports offers participants another important competition component.
“It’s a bonding experience when you play with other people,” Jimenez said. “It’s fun being around people that like the same things you do.”