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Twice as nice! Forsyth Central defends championship in Rocket League
Forsyth Central’s Dawg Dynasty Rocket League team won its second straight state championship. From left, head coach Jonathan Lillie, TJ Stephens, Ryan Vincent, Alex Alvarado and Nathan Kim. Photo courtesy of Georgia High School Association

By Derrick Richemond

In 2018, Forsyth Central athletic director Dan Kaplan contacted Jonathan Lillie and informed him that the Georgia High School Association was sanctioning esports as a high school sport, and Kaplan thought Lillie would be an ideal candidate. 

Lillie’s passion for video games and his experience of coaching soccer suited him to be the best coach. For the past two years, he’s guided Central as the state runner-up. This spring, Central won the GHSA esports championship and the HSEL spring major championship. 

“It’s an awesome achievement," Lillie said. "It’s a testament to the hard work that these guys have put in the last three years, and it’s a great example to the people who are coming after them. We’re excited about the standard that has been set and it’s visible every day to the awards, plaques in the room, and the MVPs."

Although Lillie wasn’t great at the game, he liked the general idea behind coaching where he could manage emotions, players, and work ethic. 

“The players really bring their expertise to the game and I learn a lot from them and terminology. I just speak their language once I figured everything out,” Lillie said.

What makes Rocket League enjoyable for Alex Alvarado is that the game takes pure skill. 

“There’s no luck involved. If you have a really good team and you know how to build chemistry, interact with your teammates and all that, you can win almost every single game if you put in the effort. That’s why I really enjoyed Rocket League,” Alvarado said. 

Central sponsored Rocket League teams in the spring and fall, helping develop the program with people who are interested in competing.

“I have a spreadsheet] I randomly assigned the guys a number to, then I randomly generate a random number to match them up in teams of three to do 3v3s. We’ll run a session for a couple of hours and try to get 12 matches in that time period and I just record the data at the end. We take replay files and snapshots of the summary at the end of the matches and use the data to see who’s got what kind of skill. You’ll have a good picture of who's good and where everyone stacks up” Lillie said. 

This past fall, Central had two teams advance to the Elite Eight, which was great for the program, but Lillie didn’t realize they would have to play each other to reach the Final Four.

“It was interesting," Lillie said. "They were in the same room. I had to monitor a little bit to make sure they weren’t jawing at each other too much. It was a good atmosphere. They’re competitive but respectful."

Varsity team members TJ Stephens, Ryan Vincent and Alvarado defeated Nathan Kim, Azlan McKee, and Seth Tracy 4-1. 

Central conducts practice by scrimmaging 3v3s, practicing shots online, and by using training packs. The training pack is designed to help players practice and master a few of the most fundamental skills in the game. There's an endless number of these training players can use. 

“You would have to get used to the way your car hits the ball. Different cars in the game have different shapes. Some are more rectangular, triangular-like triangular prisms and the ball comes off the car at different angles and different speeds depending on how fast you’re going through the air or the ground. It’s very technical and skills-based,” Lillie said.

“It makes me feel amazing,” Alvarado said. “We were runners-up and now we faced [Pickens] in the spring and got our revenge on them. So now we pretty much consider ourselves the best team in the state."

This month, Alvarado, Stephens, Vincent and Kim will compete in the PlayVS Cup national championship for a chance to win $35,000 in scholarships, or $15,000 for second place. Sixty-four teams will play single-elimination and try to win best of seven games in a match. 

Central had a bye for the first round and will be competing from home. They gather virtually as a team on Discord.

“When we heard that, we knew we had to put pure dedication into that," Alvarado said. "We beat pretty much every single team in the state and we have a high possibility of actually accomplishing this. Right now, we’re grinding for it and practicing for it every day."