Home Sports Virtually competitive: eSport Eagles fall to Clovis in state championship

Virtually competitive: eSport Eagles fall to Clovis in state championship

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Hobbs-Clovis is a rivalry that has had fans screaming and cheering at Watson Memorial Stadium football games for decades. Tasker Arena has seen many a standing-room-only basketball game between the Wildcats and Eagles over the years.

Now, make room for the Clovis-Hobbs eSports rivalry. eSports? Huh?

Don’t knock it. Video game leagues have swept the country, becoming an official high school sport in several states, including New Mexico, with the possibility of college scholarships.

Addictive video game playing that can help kids get into college. What a concept.

And thanks to eSports, a new chapter of the Wildcats-Eagles rivalry was written Friday at Hobbs High School, a digital chapter, as top-seeded Clovis and second-seeded Hobbs played for a state championship – a real state championship at that, because eSports are now sanctioned by the New Mexico Activities Association.

Just a parking lot away from Watson, around the corner from Tasker, the teams squared off for the Class A-5A state title at Hobbs High School’s eSports lab, with Clovis winning the best-of-three series 2-0.

That pair of losses marked the Eagles’ first since the program’s inception last year. They finished their 2021 season at 18-2.

“It was difficult,” Hobbs senior Lorenzo Turrubiates said of Friday’s loss. “In the beginning (of the championship series) we did get a little overwhelmed. We found some strategy to overcome it. … All I can say is, we tried our best. The other team just overwhelmed us a little more than we thought. It was a hard defeat, but it was a pretty fun year.”

Turrubiates is part of a five-person Hobbs team that also includes seniors Juan De La Cruz and Kevin Jimenez, and juniors Alejandro Morales and Josiya Molina. Their road to the championship round included a quarterfinal win over seventh-seeded West Las Vegas on Apr. 21, and a semifinal victory over sixth-seeded Alta Vista Early College High School on Apr. 28.

Clovis beat eighth-seeded New Mexico Military Institute in the quarterfinals on Apr. 21, and fourth-seeded Espanola Valley in the Apr. 28 semifinals to reach Friday’s championship series. The tournament’s other participants were third-seeded Santa Teresa and fifth-seeded Los Alamos.

Despite Friday’s loss, it was a successful season for the Eagles, whose head coach is Dr. Anna Burns, their enthusiastic teacher, mentor and leader.

“I was only supposed to do this until they could find somebody else,” Burns said. “But I love it.”

Not surprising, perhaps, because being a math teacher makes Burns a good fit to coach eSports. “It’s very strategic and problem-solving,” she said. “That’s what we do in math.”

The game being played in Friday’s championship tilt was Smite, a third-person multiplayer online battle arena game first released for Microsoft Windows in 2014. It became available on Xbox One in 2015, PlayStation 4 in 2016, and Nintendo Switch in 2019.

Game play involves team members controlling a god or goddess or some other mythological figure, and battling the like on opposing teams through levels that include fountains and lightning and cool buildings. There are over 100 characters with various powers, and lots of multi-colored flashing lasers that participants use to try and wipe out stuff that jumps and flies.

There are towers that need to be reached, a phoenix that needs to be killed, and a titan that needs to be claimed, for victory to be achieved.

“It’s like League of Legends,” De La Cruz said. “A strategy-based game with three lanes.”

And though the team members sit in chairs, wearing headsets and staring at computer screens, they each have positions – solo, mage, carry, guardian and jungle – just like other sports have quarterback, point guard, center fielder and so forth.

For anyone who might think that eSports aren’t legitimate sports, that they’re not like playing traditional sports, Turrubiates has an answer.

“I would kindly agree but disagree,” he said. “No, it’s not a physical activity, but it is a team sport. We have to strategize, we have to communicate.”

And they can do so with almost no risk of injury. Other sports can’t make that claim.

“Football, bumping into each other,” Jimenez said. “Is that really something you want to be doing?”

Plus, Smite players who get really good can aspire to more than college scholarships; they have a shot at winning a million dollars in the Smite World Championship, an annual event since 2015.

Jimenez had been trying for years to get eSports going at Hobbs after being intrigued by something he saw about them on Instagram.

“So I gathered a few of my friends,” Jimenez recalled. “It wasn’t enough for a full team, but it was enough to get something started.”

Jimenez and his teammates, however, didn’t make much initial headway with their efforts to get eSports buzzing at Hobbs, but persistence made it happen, starting last year.

And the eSport Eagles were successful right away, earning a No. 1 ranking before COVID-19 slammed the brakes on all New Mexico sports. Though eSports seem ideal for quarantining and social distancing, the NMAA put the kibosh on them for the remainder of last season.

“They said it wouldn’t be fair to the other sports,” Burns recalled. “If they don’t get to play, we don’t get to play.”

With the return of sports earlier this year, eSports returned as well. And the Eagles took full advantage, soaring through the season 18-0 before Friday’s losses. That kind of success involves more than just showing up, turning on computers and playing. The eSports players are like gym rats, practicing for hours, with the Hobbs eSports lab serving as their gym.

Burns and assistant coach Juan-Carlos Medina watch the games mostly from outside the computer room, but can offer support, maybe a few words of advice. “We try to get in there to make sure they strategize,” Medina said, “and think about what they’re doing.”

With eSports, though, there is only so much that coaches can do.

“Really my role is just to facilitate,” Burns said.

She did help write the by-laws, and helps to ensure they are upheld. She keeps records, and like any coach, makes sure the players maintain their grades.

“And I do a few extra things to make sure the kids are having fun,” Burns said. “Because I want it to be fun for them.”

And like any coaches, Burns and Medina have to sadly watch their players graduate and move on. They will lose De La Cruz, Jimenez and Turrubiates from this year’s state finalist team.

“We’ll start recruiting in the fall,” said Burns, who wants aspiring Smiters to know that they can sign up for next year’s team in her room – 416 at Hobbs High School – or email her at burnsa@hobbsschools.net.

The returning players are counting on some fresh faces in the program.

“Hopefully we’ll find new people,” Molina said. “Hopefully more people will be interested, and we’ll be able to do this again next year.”

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