Mar. 6—Instead of throwing a curveball or shooting on goal this spring, players in Crestwood High School's newest sport might cast spells or fire healing darts.
They're the 34 students who signed up for the Comets' esports club.
They will compete against teams from Newfoundland to Florida, rather than playing only within the Wyoming Valley Conference.
Esports requires players to cooperate and strategize on games that take hundreds of hours to master, and they appeal to students who might not have joined other sports.
Club adviser Jimm Zabiegalski said 25-30% of students who signed up haven't taken part in extracurricular activities before.
"I think we all know that the more connections our students have with Crestwood in different ways, not just academic and extracurricular clubs, the better," Zabiegalski told the school board in February.
A science teacher, Zabiegalski hasn't played video games much, at least since he graduated from Crestwood and shelved his Atari set about 30 years ago.
"I"m not a gamer and I'm not going to pretend to be one," he said while talking about the club during video chat.
Kurt Grenzberg, though, is a gamer.
He's been playing for a decade.
"That's something when you're 18," said Grenzberg, a Crestwood senior.
During a video chat from his room, Grenzberg showed his computer, which has a see-through panel and a radiator to cool the central processor.
Grenzberg assembled his computer, which he recently updated with parts he got as birthday presents. He also advised Zabiegalski about computers and gaming systems to buy for an esports lab at Crestwood's secondary campus. Students will be able to do school work on the lab's computers during the day and play games on them after school.
"If other schools were to start blindly, they could make some serious financial mistakes," Grenzberg said.
As he talked, he practiced Overwatch, the game he chose to play in the club.
His screen showed McCree, an animated character who wore a cowboy hat and poncho and shot a Colt-style revolver.
"It looks a lot easier than it is," Grenzberg said while plinking robots.
Grenzberg prefers competitive shooter games where characters like McCree kill one another.
"Their job is to frag," he said in gamerspeak.
For him, games offer more than target practice; they present puzzles and obstacles.
"I love strategy games," said Grenzberg, who has played on Crestwood's chess club and tennis team.
In Overwatch, teams of six choose characters with varied abilities to make a well-rounded squad.
"It's really about teamwork and your ability to coordinate," Grenzberg said while he toggled between characters in Overwatch's lineup.
There's Ana, a hooded Bedouin whose sniper rifle shoots darts that heal. Road Hog, with spiked shoulder pads, snout-nosed mask and bulging belly, blocks for teammates.
Asked about on-screen violence, Zabiegalski said games are rated like movies. Crestwood Esports Club is open to high schoolers, but eventually will admit students in middle school.
"What one person finds appalling another finds entertaining," said Zabiegalski, adding that some games are cartoonish.
"You are this imaginary creature with this imaginary weapon doing imaginary damage," he said.
In addition to combat and conquest games like Overwatch, League of Legends and Fortnite, members of the esports club can play Madden football, FIFA soccer and Rocket League in which they drive supercharged cars.
Grenzberg opted for the youth division rather than the more competitive high school division.
He had his fill of intensity earlier in the pandemic, playing the same game 14 hours a day with competitors from different time zones.
Staying at the console that long taxes the mind more than the body, Grenzberg said, although he knows of one player who broke his wrist moving a mouse.
He now hates a game that he played incessantly, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege, but for months he enjoyed the marathons and felt stirrings to go pro.
"Waking up every day and playing video games and making money: Who wouldn't want to do that? That's a dream," said Grenzberg, who currently plans to attend college and study biology.
Esports is a business, however, that might lead to careers for Crestwood club members.
Gamers play professionally. Crowds tune in to watch streamers play and hear their banter.
Esportscasters broadcast competitions while programmers, graphic artists and musicians design and market esports.
Worldwide, esports takes in more than $1 billion, according to the University of New Haven, which offers a master's degree in esports management.
"If you're like me," Crestwood Superintendent Robert Mehalick said during a school board meeting, "I really don't understand these sports. I am learning so much about it, but what I do understand is the millions and millions of dollars a year that colleges set aside to students in scholarships."
Crestwood Athletic Director Dean Ambosie found that 23 local colleges and universities have esports teams.
At the high school level, the board of Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has discussed esports, taken surveys and learned that so far that not many schools sponsor teams, Mark Byers, chief operating officer, said in an email.
Crestwood's esports club will compete through PlayVS, a host that teamed with the National Federation of High School Associations to offer esports in all states.
Unlike the 28 interscholastic sports at Crestwood, esports is a club, not a team, which the superintendent approved.
"It's great and exciting news," school board President Barry Boone after Zabiegalski updated the board about the club.
Zabiegalski said parents complain that their children play too much, but he suggests that they learn storylines of games that their children enjoy.
He watches video games with his son online, and they've attended big matches together in arenas.
When Zabiegalski has questions about games, his son answers.
"That's very empowering to me," Zabiegalski said. "It's not something that should divide a family. It's something that should help bring them together. It's something important to your children. They spend hours doing it."
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