Thunder Mountain High School junior Norman Abel, left, reacts as he practices “Rocket League” with teammate Hunter Greene as coach Mason Shearer looks on at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain High School junior Norman Abel, left, reacts as he practices “Rocket League” with teammate Hunter Greene as coach Mason Shearer looks on at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Pass the controller: Thunder Mountain High School launches new esports team

Competitive video gaming teams take off

Thomas Keopple is a man of routines.

After finishing school and homework, the Thunder Mountain High School junior devotes the rest of his day to video games like “Rocket League” before doing it all over again.

“I wake up, go to school, go home, play video games, go to sleep, repeat,” Keopple said.

In light of the regular routine, the 17-year-old’s gaming session of the popular vehicular soccer video game just after 4 p.m. Thursday at the high school seemed pretty normal.

However, this was not just another “Rocket League” match, this was a school-sanctioned esports practice.

Thunder Mountain High School junior Norman Abel practices “Rocket League” as part of the TMHS Esports team at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain High School junior Norman Abel practices “Rocket League” as part of the TMHS Esports team at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

“You have to practice each position to figure out which one you’re good at and which one you like,” TMHS teacher and esports coach Mason Shearer said. “There’s typically an attacker, defender, midfielder but then there’s also people who are good at kickoffs and aerials.” Currently, the TMHS esports roster consists of 18 students, with three three-person “Rocket League” squads, one five-person “SMITE” team and alternates.

The Alaska School Activities Association moved to sanction esports back in the spring, opening the door for teams from Ketchikan to Utqiagvik to compete online in “Rocket League,” “SMITE” and “League of Legends” over an eight-week regular season followed by the postseason.

Twenty-seven esports programs are up and running in Alaska, according to ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland, but that number is expected to more than double in the coming years.

“We seem to be tracking really similar to the national trend that when students join an esport team, roughly 35% have never participated in a school activity before,” Strickland said in a Friday phone interview. “So we’re really connecting with a group of students that our current offerings just weren’t enticing to them.”

There’s been no shortage of hiccups getting the program off the ground, according to Shearer, who hosts an after school video game club. The team’s computers weren’t installed in time for the beginning of the season — matches began in mid-October — resulting in numerous forfeited matches.

However, it’s all been worth it for Shearer, who sees the team providing the same benefits as other school activities.

“It’s connecting these friendships that weren’t there before,” Shearer said. “It’s molding people to cooperate, work together when they’ve never had to do that before. It’s building a team from people who have only ever been individuals.”

Mason Shearer, Thunder Mountain High School esports coach, watches junior Norman Abel, left, and senior Hunter Greene practice “Rocket League” at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Mason Shearer, Thunder Mountain High School esports coach, watches junior Norman Abel, left, and senior Hunter Greene practice “Rocket League” at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Keopple is one of the most experienced players on the team, having been hooked on “Rocket League” for over six months.

“It’s a very simple game, and I like that fact but there’s a lot to it,” Keopple said. “Seeing the game first off it’s like, ‘Oh, you drive a car into a ball and score into the net. It’s like soccer with cars.’ But us, we know call-outs, rotations, half flips, aerials, flip resets, ceiling shots. There’s a lot implemented into the game once you get more into it.”

TMHS junior Norman Abel, who spent Thursday’s practice learning “Rocket League” strategy under Keopple and Shearer’s tutelage, said he enjoys being on a team again. He didn’t have experience with the approved esports games before, but it wasn’t going to stop him from joining the squad.

“I love the teamwork aspect,” Abel said. “I used to do a lot of different sports back in elementary school, middle school time. I’d play baseball or track or cross country or any of those other sports and stuff and I loved the teamwork aspect of all of it.”

Senior Hunter Greene, 17, said he prefers esports or other activities like basketball or football because this is what his friends are into.

“I can play (other sports) but it’s also getting to know the people and because I know the people here I can be more efficient,” Greene said. “Because that’s one thing in the (esports) games, you have to know your team in order to be efficient.”

Now, just like his basketball- and football-playing peers, Greene has a way to represent his school.

“I can actually do something that I’m actually good at doing, which is video games,” he said.

The Thunder Mountain High School esports team practices at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

The Thunder Mountain High School esports team practices at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain High School junior Thomas Keopple reacts while practicing with the TMHS esports team at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain High School junior Thomas Keopple reacts while practicing with the TMHS esports team at TMHS on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)


• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nainsworth@juneauempire.com.


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