The sporting world has a bustling new ground for competition, and it’s digital. But esports’s realm of possibility lies far beyond the contest.
The esports industry is on a trajectory to surpass $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year. Programs in high schools and colleges throughout the country are continuing to emerge, giving young people an avenue to find careers in competitive gaming – or at least expand their hobby.
Tahlequah High School Esports has been one of them, and the club is searching for new members, whether it be with quick fingers or otherwise.
Adrien Nong, owner of Start in Tahlequah, helped develop the local esports team and said one misconception is that the industry only provides a future for professional gamers.
“One of the big things about esports and taking it into college is the journalism, streaming, production and management,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff for kids who don’t want to compete, but still want to participate.”
Esports needs software and network engineers, event coordinators, graphic designers, content creators, marketing specialists and more. Nong is hoping to reach some of the local journalism students to help promote the team and publicize its progress, highlights and events.
“I base a lot of what I do on [Oklahoma University], because Start is an OU partner, and OU is one of the best success stories in collegiate esports in the country,” he said. “A large majority of their scholarships don’t go to players; they go to everybody else – coaches, management, production people, journalists.”
One argument against video games is that players are wasting their time. The THS team members wholeheartedly disagree, as participating in high school esports can open more doors than some people think. While Jorryn Rider said he’s part of the team to play video games with people he enjoys going into battle with, he also has other plans.
“Honestly, I would like to get a scholarship out of it,” he said. “That’s pretty possible to do. I want to go to OSU so I can start studying on animal science and health care.”
As the competitive gaming industry grows, so has the pool of players. Last year, THS only had two teams, which competed in Super Smash Bros. and Overwatch. This year, the school is looking to expand its lineup to four or five teams to include games like Valorant, Apex Legends, Rocket League or Madden. Word is growing among students, too.
“A lot of the kids have been recruiting,” said Nong. “The kids from last year have just been telling their friends and classmates. So we have a lot more, like 50 people in the server now.”
While gaming in the past has been a male-dominated area, that’s changing, too. Nearly half of gamers in the U.S. are women, and it’s noticeable at the local level. After Sierra Wiggins was the only girl on the team last year, she’s gained several more female teammates.
“It’s lovely and I’m so happy about it,” Wiggins said.
THS Esports is also a no-judgment zone. Players don’t have to be experts in whatever game they want to play. Jovaun McCully said he was anxious about joining the team, because he knew he was below some of the players’ skill level. But he offered a mindset for others to relate to.
“Honestly, my mindset when I joined – and this should be anybody’s that’s a little nervous: If you’re not as good and you know it, don’t take it offensively,” he said. “Look at it as you’re here for a good time and not a long time. Then track your progress and eventually you’ll see you’re getting better and you’ll start to feel more comfortable.”
It’s not always about competitiveness, THS team members say. It’s about building social skills, learning how to communicate, learning how to win and lose, and finding a community. The local players admit that finding a team to play with can help release the bashful from their shells.
"I feel like playing video games is one of the best ways to meet friends and socialize," said Snow White. "A lot of the people who play video games are some of the shiest people, but also some of the best people that you can meet.
It’s also just more fun to play with friends than it is strangers, said new member Jaden Neugin.
“They’re all my friends and I love to play video games,” he said. “I’ve just always wanted to play for an actual team.”