A rural school’s newest athletic facility has neither nets nor painted lines, but the coaches who use it say the site — which visitors could easily mistake for a computer lab — is an ideal backdrop to teach teamwork and sportsmanship skills.

École Dugald School is celebrating the opening of its so-called esports lab, a dark room outfitted with strips of multicoloured lights, more than two dozen computers and a cabinet filled with extra headphones and other gaming essentials.

“(Our athletes are part of) a population that isn’t always served in extracurricular activities and spaces,” says Nathan Koblun, a middle years teacher who founded the ÉDS Dragons’ esports team.

“For them, this is a home. These students see this as their space. They see this as a space where they are valued and they are successful, and it’s a place in the school where they’re excited to go to.”

Koblun says the facility ensures students can game in a safe and supervised environment, while providing equitable access to devices and reliable internet at school.

The K-8 building, located 10 kilometres east of the Perimeter Highway, is among those that have started dabbling in esports by pouring money into an after-school gaming program since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rising popularity of these teams led to the launch of the Manitoba School Esports Association last year. It oversees and facilitates competitive seasons for the Dragons and their competitors to duel via Brawlhalla, Pokemon Unite and other platforms.

While noting esports have long been up and coming, principal Chris Gusberti says the school’s team was born in 2020 in a bid to connect students and staff who were isolated and unable to socialize in-person.

The launch of the lab, built and equipped with technology from community donations, parent council fundraising and the Sunrise School Division, has cost roughly $10,000.

Following the dismissal bell, the facility is packed, primarily with Grades 6-8 boys. Many of them wear red-and-white jerseys, not unlike their peers who compete on traditional teams.

Today’s online matches will play out against other Manitoba middle schools in Rocket League, a fantastical game that mimics soccer, during which users try to score points on opponents and defend their goalposts while driving tricked-out cars.

“We know what it takes,” Koblun tells the athletes during a pre-game huddle.

“Being positive and building each other up is really, really important — so let’s support each other, let’s have fun,” the coach adds.

Ryder Harder, 13, is a player who often hangs around after regular school hours because he relishes the fast-paced nature of competitive gaming.

“I’ve always loved gaming and I’ve always liked school, so since both the things I really like are put together, I jumped at the chance to (get involved),” says Ryder, adding he has “never really been an athletic guy.”

The middle-schooler says he’s met new friends and learned about the value of persistence — “If I suck at a game, I just keep going until I get better” — since he joined.

Audible groans and sighs of frustration make up the room’s soundtrack. But so do words of encouragement and affirmation between teammates, as well as student technicians and “shoutcasters” who are tasked with streaming and narrating the live games.

“They play video games, but what they’re learning is that teamwork, that co-operation and they’re learning how to be a good person, in the end, and that’s what we all want out of this,” says coach Ryan Hrabi.

The Grades 6-7 teacher says he has witnessed reserved students come out of their shells, take on leadership roles and build confidence through the program.

The pre-season contract that all student-athletes are required to sign, in turn pledging to make academics a priority, motivates players to remain engaged in school, Hrabi says.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 24, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba
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