Forsyth Central's Dawg Dynasty esports team knew it could win a state championship.
It took just two seconds for them to show why.
Dawg Dynasty scored off the opening kick in their Rocket League match against West Forsyth's WFHS Wolverines Gold, sweeping past their intracounty rivals in a 4-0 victory to claim the GHSA state championship.
"I think that was a great way to break the ice," head coach Jonathan Lillie. "We study our opponents as much as we can. If people that they've played are willing, we get their what we call replay files and we watch film. So, we watched them play against other opponents and picked up on some things that they were doing and took advantage of it. That was one of those things."
The team is led by seniors TJ Stephens and Alex Alvarado, and junior Ryan Vincent.
Rocket League is a vehicular soccer-style video game where teams of three players compete to score the most goals. There are a few twists, though, including the cars' ability to soar through the air. However, much of the strategy mirrors soccer.
So, when neither team corralled the opening faceoff, Alvarado swooped in to gain possession and found the back of the net to put Dawg Dynasty up 1-0.
From there, the party was on.
"Throughout the whole state championship, we were screaming our heads off, so the celebration was kind of going as we went," Stephens said. "We take things goal-by-goal and we definitely keep things in a shorter timeframe to keep our focus up. As soon as we won, we all jumped up. Coach was right behind us and we all had a team hug and all that. Then our athletic director, Dan Kaplan, and Dr. [Josh] Lowe, our principal, came and shook our hands and congratulated us and all that. Right after that, we went to Chick-fil-A."
Central had finished as the state runners-up twice before, falling to Lambert in 2020 and Pickens in 2019.
"We're over the moon right now," Lillie said. "We've got three of the best kids I've ever coached in anything, and they've really been working hard the last three years. They've won two state runner-up trophies before this and have finally taken home the big one this time. It's been great working with these guys, and [we're] hoping to do it again."
Central reeled off a string of upsets — on paper, at least — to reach the championship round. They beat third-seeded Columbus in the third round of the 64-team tournament, then topped No. 2 Pickens in the semifinals before upsetting No. 1 West to secure the title.
Central entered the tournament as the No. 19 seed, which was a bit of a misnomer.
"We always have had the skills to upset some of those teams," Stephens said. "We compete in nationals as well, and we made the top eight this last fall. So, we know that we can compete at that highest level. We had some unfortunate rulings that gave us that 19th seed, but that underdog role is something we've been used to our whole careers. We did well under pressure."
Stephens said Dawg Dynasty also competes in the High School Esports League and reached the No. 1 seed at one point during the fall season.
Stephens, Vincent and Alvarado have played together for several years, and since GHSA adopted esports in 2018, they've witnessed the virtual gaming landscape in the state balloon to more than 300 teams in Rocket League alone.
The GHSA also offers League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. and Madden. Lambert swept both spring and fall seasons of League of Legends and Rocket League last year, while North Forsyth won in Madden.
"When we first started, we we playing on laptops — teacher laptops. That was a little bit of a challenge," Lillie said. "You know, you don't get the full resolution and the full speed of the setup we have now. You're talking about a 60 hertz monitor and maybe 16 gigs of RAM. Now we're dealing with standalone graphics cards with 32 gigs of RAM, plus whatever is on the graphics card, plus a 144 hertz monitor, and 30 series stuff that we were able to get through Best Buy Education. There's lots of things that have fallen into place the last few years that have allowed us to grow and be successful on many fronts."
Lillie grew up playing video games such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, and he's also coached soccer, a combination that makes him an ideal Rocket League coach.
However, Lillie praised his players' level of play, namely that of Stephens.
"[Stephens] is really our coach. I've got to be honest," Lillie said. "He's our captain and our coach, and he's the foundation of that team. He's one in a million."
Stephens is currently a Grand Champion III in Rocket League, just one level away from the highest possible competitive rank, Supersonic Legend.
Several universities across the nation have developed varsity esports programs, designed to lure high-level players.
"After winning now, and competing for the last two or three years, I could see myself enjoying Rocket League at a professional level," Stephens said. "We all have those same aspirations. That's why we're as competitive as we are. Again, we're a goal-by-goal, minute-by-minute, one-step-at-a-time type of group of guys, so the first step would be collegiate Rocket League. That's currently what we're trying to figure out."