There is only one sports team at AITE, the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering in Stamford.
On this team, athletes work together to defend and score goals. They practice multiple times a week to perfect strategy and communication, scrimmaging against themselves to develop efficient ways to move the ball forward.
But instead of cleats and shin guards, these athletes are equipped with headsets and keyboards.
In AITE’s first full regular esports season this fall, the Rams defeated two-time reigning Rocket League state champion Xavier High School 4-1 in the Connecticut state title match.
“It was so exciting,” said Brenda Zanga, the teacher advisor of AITE’s Varsity Rocket League esports team. “I mean, really, putting us on the map in something, because we’re not a sports school, so it’s something to call our own.”
While the pandemic canceled many in-person sports for the 2020-21 school year, esports has not only survived almost unscathed but in some cases thrived, with team rosters and overall interest for the sport at all-time high in its three-year history with the CIAC.
It’s provided high school student-athletes with a source of social interaction and competition while sparking deep passions during a time when socializing is already limited.
“Just watching the relationships grow, watching the programs grow and the confidence in the kids, it all comes together and it’s just very heartwarming to me,” said Dan Ungar, who teaches special education at Weston High School and helped bring high school esports to Connecticut.
A YOUNG BUT THRIVING SPORT
In 2018, Ungar helped launch Season 0 of esports through the CIAC with the help of PlayVS — an online platform partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations. Through PlayVS, high school esports teams connect with others and organize matches, and can access a variety of online games.
In its first year of competition, 12 schools across the state of Connecticut participated in Season 0 of PlayVs, along with four other states.”. Now, three years later, that number has reached between four and five thousand, with representation from all 50 states and 22 state association partnerships, including Connecticut.
Through the CIAC, participating schools can compete for recognized state championship titles in Rocket League and League of Legends. The cost of playing is $64 per player per school year, with specialized offers to schools with financial hardships available.
AITE’s esports team was created in February 2020 and played the modified 2020 spring season for free as a new team through PlayVS. It’s the first CIAC-recognized varsity sports team for the school, as AITE students who want to compete in athletics have to play for either Stamford or Westhill High School.
“A lot of our students enjoy playing games. I mean, given the name of our school and the type of school that we are, Academy of Info Tech and Engineering, it just kinda makes sense,” Zanga said. “We needed to represent ourselves and this is the best way for us to be able to compete in some arena.”
When the pandemic forced everything to shut down, not only was the esports spring state championship canceled, but AITE, an inter-district public magnet high school, struggled to raise enough funds to continue its program for the following school year.
AITE senior Zachary Frattaroli took matters into his own hands and reached out to PlayVS for help. He messaged PlayVS Super Coach Chase Chatfield on Twitter after seeing a team-wide $1 offer for new schools to join in the 2020-21 school year.
Through the help of Chatfield and PlayVS, AITE was able to receive the offer and registered 19 students for the fall 2020 season.
“COVID hit us hard. We have no fundraising, no way to raise money,” said Frattaroli, the founder, manager, and player-coach of AITE’s esports team. “Whenever I have a chance to give a kid a chance to play esports, I want them to play for free. I want them to play with passion. I want them to have the understanding of what playing competitively means. And if they don’t like it, I don’t want them to be out of money.”
ESPORTS DURING COVID
As society continues to adjust to functioning in a world affected by COVID-19, Connecticut esports teams have been able to play through it all, since the only equipment needed for each player is access to a home computer.
While some schools have transitioned into hybrid learning, most esports teams have remained remote only. The flexibility to play at home has brought growth despite a few setbacks.
Woodstock Academy, a two-time state champion, lost its League of Legends team this past spring when the pandemic forced at-home learning. Thomas Young, a math teacher at Woodstock and the school’s esports coach, said last year’s team consisted of international students who returned home to China and were unable to continue playing due to the time difference and lack of resources.
However, playing at home this year allowed more kids to join the Woodstock team who previously didn’t have access to rides to and from after-school activities.
Xavier esports has 40 members on its team this year — an increase of about double from last year. The team’s moderator, Jeremy Fowler, said a few of the new players are students who aren’t able to play their in-person sport because of the pandemic.
Weston High School has 13 kids this year with a new Rocket League team and enough players to have substitutes for the first time for its League of Legends team. Ungar, who said the team is split almost evenly with girls and boys, has had an increase of students show interest in the team this year with some asking to observe practices and games.
And after having 19 students on its roster in the fall, and winning the state Rocket League title, AITE now has 33 students registered to play this upcoming spring season.
The ability to remain involved has brought these students both an outlet for connection and joy during a time when high school activities are limited due to risks of COVID-19.
“For them, it’s been more of a relief than anything else because even some of their clubs are dwindled down to all online or anything like that,” said Fowler. “It’s kinda been a nice change of pace for them that they can bank on every Tuesday or Thursday knowing that they’ve got something they can do with their peers and actually be involved.”
Weston’s co-team captain, sophomore Rebecka Grunberg, said being able to play at home has given her a sense of comfort in connecting with her teammates.
“The quarantine actually gave me a chance to be a little bit calmer while doing esports because I’m in my room in front of my PC,” said Grunberg, who was the first girl to join Weston’s team and will be captain next year. “So I had a little bit more control of getting to know people even though it’s over the phone and I’m not directly looking at them. Personally, I’m a very introverted person, so it kinda helped in that way.”
ESPORTS BEYOND HIGH SCHOOL
There are over 170 colleges with varsity esports teams through the National Association of Collegiate esports (NACE). A large number of them offer esports scholarships, while fewer offer esports management majors.
Young was contacted by colleges to recruit some of the Woodstock players after the team received national attention from playing in the national championships in California in 2019.
Duane James, a junior at Xavier, has a goal to play esports collegiately. Winning two state championships in Rocket League has only solidified his passion for gaming.
“It’s really uplifting, to be completely honest,” he said. “It feels really good to be the first champions in Connecticut and holding that title will be really important to me as I go on in my career … It’s helped me to understand the meaning behind teamwork as well as to be able to accept a loss and move onward.”
Frattaroli wasn’t involved with esports before leading AITE’s team. In fact, he always wanted to be a teacher and doesn’t consider himself to be a top gamer by any means. But the esports world has brought him a new passion.
After graduating from AITE this spring, Frattaroli will be attending Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania and enrolling in its esports management, production and performance degree program.
For Frattaroli, esports isn’t about state titles, but about the ability to help others.
“I think that’s what the true definition of esports is. It’s what goes on behind (the scenes), not what goes on in,” Frattaroli said. “Going in, you have to have a certain skill, you have to be the best of the best, but when you’re behind the scenes of esports, manager, coach, you make them. You are what helps them become the better of themselves. … esports is the start of where they can find their passion, and that’s exactly what happened to me.”