Friendly Competition: Starting an eSports League at My High School

By Michael Vassos
August 15, 2018

It's do or die. I'm in the loser's bracket quarter finals. After a defeat to THUNDER, Ontario's third best Super Smash Bros 4 player, I move to the losers bracket to face s0rry. I've never heard of s0rry but I never underestimate a new opponent. After several nail-biting moments, the score is knotted at two wins apiece. The dying seconds of game five approach and I know I'm at a disadvantage. I struggle to distance myself from my opponent and with one flick of the thumbstick, I'm out of the tournament. While I feel a bitter defeat, this loss only ignites my desire to win the next game. At home that night, I turn on my Wii U and start to grind.

My interest in eSports began at a very rudimentary level, before I knew it existed. Little did I suspect that one day I would start my own league. My brothers and I would gather around our TV, the old-school one that had the slot for VHS tapes, and fight to the death on a variety of Nintendo consoles. Mario Kart (rated 6+ years), Goldeneye (rated 13+ years), and Mario Party (rated 8+ years) all brought out my competitive spirit. I always wanted to finish in first place. I'm not sure where this fire came from, but the thrill had me hooked.

I'd owned a few Call of Duty (rated 18+ years) games in the past, a first person shooter series in which teams compete to eliminate an enemy team and, in some cases, control an "objective" like capturing flags or securing building locations. I had always been below mediocre. Somewhere between laughable and horrible. In 2016, Call of Duty Black Ops III (rated 18+ years) was released and I actually became really good. My stats tripled, and I was boasting some impressive numbers. Initially, I didn't quite realize that I was excellent at the game, but when it finally sunk in I felt this moment of excitement and desire to play more. This development led me to establish my own eSports team, Onyx eSports, after connecting with people who matched my skill level.

Author (middle) and the two friends who helped him start the eSports league dressed as Luigi, Mario, and Wario for Halloween. Image: Author

After many tournament wins and climbing North American ranks, I developed a passion. Every gun fight I won, every clutch situation that went my way, made me feel unstoppable. I would daydream about eSports, replaying scenarios in my head of flanking enemy lines and memorizing capture point rotations. I would nerd out thinking about the game, and when competition crossed my mind I got excited. I loved it.

In my junior year I was offered a spot to run the Gamers Union club at my school, which was fun, but I felt like we could do more. Lightbulb. Let's feature eSports in the club! Around the same time I transitioned between playing Call of Duty at a professional level to playing Super Smash Bros 4. Super Smash Bros (rated 11+ years) is a Nintendo fighting game series where characters from a variety of different games duke it out in whacky combat. When Smash Bros was featured in the club it was always a big hit and, with my newfound love for the game, I knew that I would have no trouble using my passion to turn my idea of eSports in schools into a reality.

When I first announced it in assembly, this idea was met with laughter, primarily from staff. Frankly, I didn't blame them. My school had never been exposed to eSports and the idea might seem outlandish to the staff members who did not grow up playing video games or watching Twitch streams. That said, students were excited and the club's attendance tripled as a result. Several months went by. The Super Smash Bros Tournament had ended and it appeared that people were now on board with the idea. We packed a lunch hall with almost every student to witness the final match. It was breathtaking, and this tournament was just the beginning.

The thrill of a good challenge is written on students' faces at a league competition at Royal St. George's College for boys, Toronto, Canada. Image: Author

After the success of the league, I joined forces with two friends who participated in our first eSports tournament to create something big: the Coalition of Independent Schools eSports League. Our goal was not just to bring people together for friendly competition, but to compete against other schools. We marketed the idea to other schools and within a few months, the league was born.

From my experience operating these leagues over the past two years I now understand the profound impact that eSports has had on me and those who participated. I have always been a competitive person. But eSports is unlike any competitive energy I have ever experienced. There's something about the thrill of winning and the enraging feeling of losing that makes me push myself. This mindset of resilience has improved not only my gameplay, but my academic life, as I have seen a noticeable change in my work ethic over the past three years. My average has climbed up 10 points since I started competing, and I have no doubt that the mindset I carry with me to my everyday life is a contributing factor.

The beauty of eSports is that it is all you need to get started are a set of hands and a brain. I've seen a range of people compete, from those who have never touched a controller to those who have played games for years. eSports is a space where anyone can participate and succeed. You do not need to be an athlete or mathematician and that is a core strength of eSports.

In addition, I have seen some tremendous friendships grow from these friendly competitions. In my athletic career, I never made friends with my opponents unless I knew them from some other part of my life. Our eSports competitions are different. During downtime between matches the room is full of smiling, camaraderie, and laughter. I have known many quiet players who don't normally assert themselves in social situations flourish into charismatic people. The social connection that I have seen come out of eSports is something special and rare in other arenas of competition.

I believe this league is the start of something big. It was a relatively challenging task to get the league off its feet but I'm certain that it will continue to grow in popularity over time. The mindset that I have gained from my experience competing has a positive impact on my work ethic and who I am as a person. The number of people I have seen flourish, from the quiet types to the social butterflies, is vast. You give a gamer a game and they'll play it. You give a gamer an opponent and now they have something to play for.


About the Author

Michael Vassos is a student from Toronto, Ontario, currently enrolled to study Media, Information and Technoculture at the University of Western Ontario this fall, with early admission into the Richard Ivey School of Business. Michael's interest in video games has led him to a passion for eSports. He has participated in over 20 professional level tournaments under the name "KnucklesUp" for the game Super Smash Bros for Wii U. His best result is a fourth-place finish at No Chill Gaming Tournaments on July 15th, 2018. Aside from gaming, Michael enjoys creating artwork through photoshop, camping, politics, and cooking on the barbeque.