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County athletic programs join the esports boom
lambert esports
Members of Lambert’s esports team gather in a school computer lab for a League of Legends match against Mount de Sales on Dec. 4, 2018. - photo by David Almeda

On Tuesday afternoon, one of Lambert’s High School’s newest competitive offerings was in the midst of a dogfight.

The Longhorns were ranked No. 1 in the entire state, but No. 2 ranked Mount de Sales of Macon was challenging for the spot. The teams didn’t meet on a field or in a gymnasium: Lambert’s squad wasn’t even in one physical place, apart from three students huddled near the window of a campus computer lab.

But somewhere, all of them had headsets on, clicking and clacking away in the battlefield known as League of Legends, an online strategy multiplayer game set in a fantasy world, with each player having a specific role to fill. Despite a solid showing by Lambert, they lost their first of two matches of the day, and with it, their No. 1 ranking.

“It's unfortunate,” team captain Christian Holmburg said. “We didn't play as well as we should have -- we could have beat that team. I'm confident that when we see them in (the) playoffs, we will.”

The world of esports is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but it’s boomed in recent years. Console and computer games from different genres, from strategy to fighting to sports games, have all found their followings, sometimes filling convention centers for tournaments. This year, the GHSA has found its way into this new arena by officially sanctioning esports, providing new opportunities for students to represent their schools.

Forsyth County schools haven’t hesitated to get involved — all of its public schools, even the brand-new Denmark High School, have esports teams. Lambert was at the forefront of esports well before the GHSA decided to recognize it, with a student-run club already in place over the last few years.

Knowing that they’d need someone to oversee the official esports team heading into this season, Lambert athletic director Drew Ferrer and principal Gary Davison tapped first-year history teacher Kevin Sapp to be the head coach. As a former football player and wrestler at North Forsyth, and after a stint as an offensive line coach at Liberty Middle School last year, he has experience with traditional sports, but he was excited to take his enthusiasm to something else.

“I interviewed in January,” Sapp said. “We were sitting there talking and I'm like, ‘Yeah, I play video games. I used to play competitively long ago.’ So they're like, ‘Hey, guess what you're going to do now?’”

Lambert’s esports team is divided up into two different subteams, White and Crimson, each with five players and a few sub players. There aren’t any classifications for schools in esports like most traditional sports in Georgia. The GHSA runs its esports league through PlayVS, an online gaming provider that specializes in high school competition. State playoffs are set to begin in January, with the season culminating with the state championship in Atlanta.

The GHSA’s offering is currently in what’s being dubbed ‘season zero,’ a testing of sorts. So far, League of Legends, a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), is the only game being offered, but there are plans to roll out two new ones for next year: Rocket League, a game that combines soccer and driving rocket-powered cars, and SMITE, another arena-based game much in League’s vein. Lambert has plans to compete in both.

“I think (League of Legends) was a good choice because it's a lot of teamwork, a lot of communication to accomplish the goal, which is like every sport,” Sapp said.

With season zero, teams are still attempting to iron out the kinks. In Lambert’s case, most of the hurdles are technology-related, with the school’s computers not suited to be gaming rigs. That usually means players compete online from their homes, as most of them did on Tuesday. Sapp says he’s working on bringing in 13 new computers to allow them all to be in one place.

“They were showing me playing here and (one player) showed me a video from his house,” Sapp said. “The same move took three extra seconds to do. But that's not the school's problem -- they weren't expecting this.”

Sapp and the rest of the team have seen nothing but support from Ferrer and Forsyth County athletic director Nathan Turner. Players will even be getting jerseys down the line, but there’s still a little bit of a stigma attached to esports, especially when contrasted with traditional athletics.

“I'm not putting down any other coaches, but whenever I first started, I'd be like, ‘My athletes’ and they'd be like, ‘Don't call them that,’” Sapp said. “So we actually coined our own term, Gathletes -- Gaming athletes. I actually really like it. It sounds better than athletes to me.”

Now ranked second in the state, Lambert’s “gathletes” already have revenge on their minds, and can’t wait for a rematch with Mount de Sales in the upcoming state playoffs. The players feel like the sport will continue to grow as it has over the last few years, and with it, the recognition will come.

“League is fun,” Holmburg said. “We're playing it as an esport, but it's a video game, and video games are fun. I think that building relationships predicated on having fun with each other is the best way to do it, and that's what we've done.

“People don't really know about it, but it's super cool to be the first people to do it, and it's super cool to be winning.”