Level up: Esports comes to Tallmadge schools as gaming grows in popularity across region

Krista S. Kano
Akron Beacon Journal
Mackenzie McLain, 15, right, and her brother Connor, 12, play a video game at their home Wednesday in Tallmadge. Esports, or electronic sports, is competitive, organized video gaming that has been increasing in popularity locally and across the country.

In April, Tallmadge High School sophomore Sam Ruby jokingly suggested to his physical education teacher Collin Epstein that they should have an esports league. 

About a month later, the new club received unanimous approval from the board of education and could start competing as early as this fall. Nearly 90 high school students have already expressed interest in joining the club, and there are talks of extending the club to eighth graders in the STEM program.

"I'm really excited," Ruby said. "I'm really interested in the tournaments and competition and also the community we'll build. I'll get to introduce people to different games, and possibly get introduced to different games myself and hopefully making lots of friends." 

Esports, or electronic sports, is competitive, organized video gaming that has been increasing in popularity locally and across the country. Nearby, Stow-Munroe Falls, Akron Public Schools, Barberton and Medina already have clubs, and at the collegiate level, all 12 MAC schools and Ohio State University have teams as well. 

According to Epstein, over $60 million in scholarships associated with esports are awarded each year.

Mackenzie McLain, 15, plays a video game at her home Wednesday in Tallmadge. Mackenzie is one of about 90 students who have expressed interest in joining a new esports club at Tallmadge High School.

"Not just for playing video games but also for video game production, game analysis, web design, marketing and social media on Discord and Twitch servers. It's a growing industry for sure in college and beyond," he said. 

MORE: Growth of Akron high school esports team leads to new gaming lab

"This is a real opportunity," Superintendent Steve Wood said. "About 70% who sign up are kids who aren't involved in other sports, so it's a cool new opportunity for some kids who maybe don't fit our present suite of extracurriculars."

Tallmadge's club will run through Esports Ohio, which was started in 2018 by educators and now has more than 150 member schools and over 3,000 student participants. Esports Ohio only uses games that are appropriate for students 13 and older, including Super Smash Bros., Rocket League, Overwatch, Smite, Fortnite, Hearthstone, Valorant and League of Legends. 

Based on interest surveys, Epstein plans to start the club with Rocket League, a vehicular soccer game; League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game; and Valorant, a team elimination game. All games involve teamwork, communication and strategy.

"The kids are already playing these games, and now we're just providing them with a constructive school environment so they can play here," Epstein said. "They're teaching me about the games and I'm trying to pick their brains about how to organize it. A lot of the students tell me they can build computers too, so they're more of the experts. Certain kids have already given me ideas about games and a couple have done a great job recruiting."

He said the high school's 22 computers should be able to run the games, as should the middle school's new STEM lab. Gaming computers can cost $1,200 to $1,400, Epstein said.

Out of 114 responses, 64 students said they definitely wanted to join and another 25 were maybes. All of those students indicated that they already had controllers and all but one have headsets.

Tallmadge's club will be co-ed, though the vast majority are male students. 

Mackenzie McLain, 15, right, and her brother Connor, 12, play a video game Wednesday at their home in Tallmadge. Mackenzie is one of about 90 students have expressed interest in joining a new esports club at Tallmadge High School.

One of the few female participants will be rising sophomore Mackenzie McLain, 15, who enjoys strategy games and horror puzzle solvers and said she's particularly interested in learning how to play Rocket League. 

"I'm really excited for esports. I've always played video games and I think it'll be fun to see other kids playing them competitively," she said. "I'm just excited to have it in my school system because it gives me an opportunity that I wouldn't have outside of school." 

Ruby said he thought the club would have a slow start but would quickly gain momentum.

"I think it's going to grow exponentially, especially if we start winning tournaments," he said. "I hope it turns out to be something like football and people are going to tournaments because it's an exciting event they want to watch." 

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@thebeaconjournal.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.