Fresno Unified has a new sports league, but it might not be what you expect.
Students are playing “soccer, but with cars,” according to Edison High player Christian Ledesma, and the district hopes that students who master the eSport will go on to win scholarships, just like their peers who play traditional sports. A report by Forbes estimated that there were 120 varsity eSports programs in the U.S. and Canada this year, though that number is growing.
But Ledesma said that doesn’t mean he can tell his parents that he needs to spend his evenings practicing Rocket League, Fresno Unified’s video game of choice that’s played by an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
“I still get in trouble, because it’s still a game,” Ledesma said.
Kurt Madden, the district’s chief technology officer, said he believes the Fresno Unified eSports League (FUeL) is one of the few of its kind at a school district. Other Valley high schools have leagues specific to their campus, but an inter-district league gives students a chance to represent their schools and build team spirit, according to Madden.
“They’re learning, they’re helping each other, and that’s the type of stuff we look for in athletes,” Madden said. “It’s the best part of athletic competitions. Maybe you do well because you’re big and burly, OK, but we want you to be a good citizen, too.”
At Edison, the seven three-person teams are a mix of all grades and skill levels. They’re coached by computer science teacher Kyle Wiebe, who said his primary role is to provide tech support and a welcoming space for all students.
“The person who loves playing video games can sometimes be alienated from school because there’s nothing really for them,” Wiebe said. “So this is a way of bringing them into the picture.”
Students who wish to join the league are subject to academic requirements and a code of conduct: no harassment, no cheating, no violent language or actions.
Madden said the district chose Rocket League for its inaugural season because the game doesn’t have guns or weapons.
Some FUeL players have already attained the highest ranks in Rocket League while playing on their own time. But Grand Champion Faustino Sambrano said he prefers to play in teams rather than solo, as it allows him to develop his skills faster.
“When you’re playing alone, there’s no communication, but when we can all talk, we all play better,” Sambrano said, adding that the skills have also translated beyond the game. “When I’m down to my last minute on a test, I know how to strategize to get the most out of that time.”
Just like physical sports, Rocket League brings out a competitive streak in its players. Team members also rotate positions, adding to the challenge, according to senior Henry Quan.
“There is a steep learning curve,” Quan said. “But for me, that’s a good thing, because I’ve put in the time to get to this point.”
FUeL will culminate in a district-wide competition on Dec. 1 at a site to be determined. Spectators are invited and snacks will be served.