After the final bell, they filed into the computer lab. It was a warm spring afternoon and the members of the Pinetree Timberwolves Omega esports team were gathering ahead of what could be their final match of the season.

The team of five prepared extensively for the games, soaking up all the online guides and spreadsheets, strategizing over group text and warming up with a scrimmage among whoever was available after school. They would be playing League of Legends, a popular online multiplayer game that sees two teams of five face-off in an arena.

It was the second round of the playoffs for the BC School Sports (BCSS) trial esports season. The Omegas had won their first round and were now readying to take on their school’s other team, the Alphas. Despite their preparations, things were not going well.

An early mistake had allowed the Alphas to score the first kill, giving them an influx of gold, and a headstart on the path to victory.

Putting it all on the line, online

In this photo illustration, a gamer plays League of Legends on their laptop in Coquitlam. photo Marissa Tiel

No matter the winner, Pinetree Secondary would have a team in the final of the BCSS trial esport playoffs. It’s no surprise to see a Timberwolves team in the final. The school has offered electronic sports (esports) programming ever since IT teacher Aaron Lu has held a permanent position at the school.

An esports club would have been the exact type of extracurricular that Lu would have signed up for, had it been an option when he was growing up. Instead,he frequented an e-cafe where he played computer games. He once saw a classmate there that he recognized but had never spoken to. In the school hallway they were strangers but here, at a cafe off school grounds, they bonded.

Lu would have loved to take part in an esports club as a student. However, the next best thing he could do was start one as a teacher.

In the beginning, his esports team used the library computers to play games like League of Legends and Overwatch that wouldn’t challenge the systems.

Esports can be expensive, even if the games are free. Last year, Lu’s computer lab got upgraded. “I needed computers that could be strong enough and powerful enough to run 3D processing and film editing and things like that,” he says. “They just happen to also run games really well.” The stronger computers meant the esports team had more games they could play because they weren’t limited by the hardware.

Modern electronic sports (esports) can trace its lineage back to California. In 1972, Stanford University held its first-ever esport competition for Spacewars. The game, which had been developed 10 years prior, saw players navigate space in their own craft, dodging hazards like asteroids and other players’ attacks in a bid to be the last ship flying. The contest was covered by Rolling Stone and the prize was a year’s subscription to the now-iconic magazine.

Software and hard cash

Today, players have the potential to earn big bucks playing on the international stage. Korean gamer Lee San-hyeok (username: Faker) has made more than $1-million winning esports tournaments. The 25-year-old has over one million followers on YouTube.

The growth of the sport has largely been top-down with massive multi-million-dollar tournaments leading the way for smaller organizations developing players’ talent.

An industry report estimates that global esports revenues will grow to $1.08 billion this year, up more than 14.5 percent from 2020. The growth trend is expected to continue with global esports revenue forecast to reach $1.6 billion in 2024.

Riot, which developed League of Legends, also offers a season for post-secondary teams. In 2015 and 2016 UBC was the grand champion, beating out U.S. schools. The teams were competing for up to $180,000 in scholarship money.

Being able to dangle the carrot of post-secondary scholarships didn’t hurt the case for esports at his academically-focused school, says Lu. With administration already on board, the parent advisory council (PAC) was soon aligned as well. They bought the club their first console, a Nintendo Switch, a few years back, then a Playstation 4. This last year, they approved a budget for Lu to purchase a Playstation 5. He just can’t find one in stock. “We get updates like, have you bought it yet?” he says.

The Coquitlam School District’s program grew steadily and at its height had eight different schools participating. That season culminated with a large event at Gleneagle Secondary. A gaming business came in and set up the literal stage for them, preparing the hardware to handle a smooth League of Legends competition. The game play was even broadcasted online.

Esports aren’t just big for the players, they also have a growing global audience. The 2020 League of Legends World Championship had 91.9 million hours of combined live viewership on YouTube and Twitch.

The School District’s finals setup at Gleneagle was: “kind of the pinnacle of where we had taken our esports program,” says Lu. “Then COVID happened.”

That’s when BCSS popped onto the screen. They partnered with a pair of recent graduates from Simon Fraser University who had developed a platform for esports that was school-friendly. It would also provide the logistical support for students and their coaches to see statistics from games.

Gamers wanted

According to BCSS, one in three kids will participate in a school sport. There’s nearly 20 on offer. But they’re always trying to bump up the participation numbers. So when esports emerged as a popular pastime for young people, executive director Jordan Abney saw an opportunity. He brought it to the board a few years back, but they weren’t quite ready to get onboard. They weren’t really “gamer” types, says Abney, and wanted more information before diving into the world of esports.

Undeterred, he tried again a few years later, and got the support needed to proceed. However BCSS isn’t ready to call esports a sport, like soccer or volleyball, rather, in this, its pilot season, BCSS is calling it an activity. They opted to go with League of Legends for its emphasis on teamwork and communication among players and its relative ease of use on older computer systems. The pilot was originally supposed to begin last spring, but like everything else in the world, was put on pause as COVID-19 took over the scene and school doors were closed. It started this fall with 36 schools taking part.

There were some growing pains. Before Christmas, the company was taken over by PlayVS, a larger version of the same type of company and based in the U.S. They’re now the largest scholastic esports provider and operate in more than 20,000 schools. The software allows coaches like Lu to schedule practices and matches and allows players to watch their replays. When you’re playing, it’s not just you anymore, you’re representing your school.

Being able to represent his school on screen is part of what led Grade 10 student Benson Yan (username: Ch3mson) to join the Pinetree Timberwolves. He’d been playing games his whole life, and picked up League of Legends (LoL) after he saw his brother playing four years ago. He likes the teamwork required in the game.

Major League

LoL sees teams of five face each other on a map that never changes. You pick your character and hope that it works well with your team’s choices, that they work better together than the other team. As the game goes on, you follow little minions as they blunder their way up the lanes. As you eliminate the other team, you get gold. You spend that gold on items to make your champion stronger and to kill the other team’s minions and champions. And here’s the really important thing: you try really hard not to die. Don’t do it. Your team will hate you. Worse, they will be disappointed in you.

When a team finally destroys the other team’s base, it’s game over. And here’s the thing. Losing is the worst. Both Yan and his teammate, Matthias Chun (username: Mooster) agree. The. Worst.

“And when something goes wrong that we thought we actually saw beforehand, and we still made that mistake,” says Chun. “That’s something that doesn’t feel pleasant.”

So they prepare themselves. They parse the internet and see who goes with who for the best score, what items to get. “It’s funny when they put that much effort into this, which makes sense,” says Lu, “but then when it comes to school, sometimes they’re not as resourceful.”

Playing for the school in a tournament is completely different than logging in and playing at home, says Yan.

One of the main differences is that when the students play, they’re all in the same space, rather than anonymous online. They can see each other. “You have to manage yourself just like in basketball and football,” says Lu. “You have this aspect of sportsmanship that, let’s be honest, when it comes to video games online, it’s not known for its, you know, good manners.”

Teams also need to have superior communication and teamwork. Improving these skills is what led Yan’s teammate, Chun, to join. The Grade 11 student had been introduced to the game by his siblings around the same time as Yan and began playing when he got his own computer. Both boys wish people would stop seeing video games as a waste of time.

“Gaming can give you lots of skills outside of just gaming,”says Yan. It’s also incredibly social. “It really helps creating friendships with people that you otherwise wouldn’t create a really close friendship with.”

When Lu is making his teams, he has a lot of freedom. Unlike the traditional sports typically offered by BCSS, he’s not limited by gender, age, or physicality. And ability is just part of the equation. He’s quite proud of the social connections he’s helped foster. For Lu, the competition is just a small part of the puzzle. For him, the club is all about creating social connections for the students.

Esports illustrated

Aaron Lu, an IT teacher and the Pinetree Timberwolves brings a nearly-lifelong interest in computer games to his role as esports team coach. photo Marissa Tiel

Lu likes to share a story from 2019, the year the district had grown to host its biggest esports tournament, that one hosted on the stage at Gleneagle. He took everyone out for pizza afterwards – they’d played through dinner. The team had won the district championship, defeating Gleneagle 2-0.

At dinner, one of the Grade 12 international students said it would be his best memory from his time studying here. “For me, for him to finish out his Grade 12 year with this memory … that’s what makes all the stress and all the effort worth it,” says Lu.

There was so much interest at Lu’s school for the LoL pilot season with BCSS, he was able to field two teams: the Alphas and the Omegas. Although things didn’t pan out for the Omegas–they were ultimately eliminated by the Alphas in the second round– Pinetree would be in the final.

The pilot project has been a success. It will likely undergo another pilot season before joining BCSS activities officially. “It’s early days, so it’s hard to say exactly what that [the future of esports] can look like,” says Abney. “I think the possibilities could be quite big. I think there’s no shortage of demand for it.”

As for Lu, as long as his students are having fun and making friends, he’s going to continue volunteering his time to make esports happen. If his students keep in touch long after their time with the Pinetree Timberwolves, that will be a victory.