Dowagiac Middle School Esports team finishes successful inaugural season

DOWAGIAC — There is a new sport on the block at Dowagiac Middle School, and students are taking notice.

DMS has joined schools across the country in establishing an electronic sports program, which wrapped up its inaugural season this spring.

Electronic sports, or Esports, is a term used to describe competitive video gaming.

The program’s teams, composed of both girls and boys, practiced Mondays and Tuesdays each week beginning in March. According to Wightman, the program competed in weekly online matches between other middle schools around the country in the Middle School Esports League, based out of Kansas City, Missouri. The DMS teams played vehicular soccer video game Rocket League on Thursdays and popular battle royale game Fortnite on Fridays through the end of April.

Two DMS teams finished the season ranked 50th and 56th out of 284 teams, and two players finished the season ranked top 10 out of 840 players in Fortnite.

“Our kids did very well,” said DMS principal Dr. Sean Wightman. “We didn’t quite make the playoffs for a couple of games that we missed with some of our squads, but they did extremely well and were very competitive. I thought it was very good, and we are very proud of that.”

The Esports industry is one of the fastest-growing entertainment industries in the world. According to Newzoo’s Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report, Esports is expected to surpass $1 billion in revenue in 2021.

While Esports is not yet recognized by the Michigan High School Athletic Association as a sanctioned sport, Wightman believes it is only a matter of time.

More than 20 students participated in the program, created by a collaboration between the middle school and Southwestern Michigan College’s Educational Talent Search, a federally funded TRiO Program committed to enhancing and ensuring the academic and personal success of local eligible middle and high school students.

SMC’s ETS program serves 750 students in Brandywine, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Marcellus school districts and provides services including college visits, summer camps, financial aid information, tutoring and more.

Wightman approached ETS advisor Bethani Eichel and ETS director Maria Kulka in 2020 about the possibility of supporting an ESports program at the middle school. SMC recently started an Esports program of its own.

“When I mentioned it to them, they were very supportive,” Wightman said. “They said let us know what you need, and they provided us with all the equipment that we are using and some extra support to hire a coach, so it worked out really well.”

According to Wightman, making sure the computers and equipment were ready for use was quite the undertaking. Wightman himself put together each computer and district technology director Randy Gross played a pivotal role in the setup process.

“His team helped us get the systems up and running for our Wi-Fi so that kids can participate and play,” Wightman said. “We’re really thankful for our Dowagiac technology department to put that together for us as well.”

Ryan Juroff was hired to coach the upstart program. Juroff, the son of Building and Maintenance Supervisor John Juroff, plays semi-professionally for the South Bend Lions Rocket League Team.

“He’s in a league with some other really good players and he also competes nationally, which I felt was a real bonus for us,” Wightman said.

“It was nice to be able to use my knowledge and pass it on,” Juroff said. “Esports is becoming one of the biggest things in entertainment. I think it’s still in its infancy and will only continue to grow.”

Just like traditional sports, both Eichel and Wightman believe Esports teach kids valuable life skills including decision-making and problem-solving, communication and teamwork.

“The kids aren’t just coming in to play video games,” Eichel said. “These students came in and built a team together and had teamwork skills and had to learn how to practice together, play together and be respectful to not only their teammates but other people that they’re playing against.”

“Esports teach kids to be disciplined,” Wightman said. “Time management is very important to learn when you’re committed to a sport. It also taught kids how to work together and collaborate. It’s persistence — failing forward and finding out what you’ve done wrong and learning from mistakes and not quitting and giving up. You have to be supportive of other people and encourage them all while showing growth and improvement over time. It’s stuff that you can’t necessarily teach in anything else other than a sport.”

Colleges and universities across the country have taken notice of Esports’ rapid growth, with more than 170 schools offering varsity Esports programs recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Member schools provide more than $16 million in scholarships and financial aid.

“You always hear kids say ‘I’m gonna go play football in college’ or ‘I’m gonna go play basketball in college’,” Eichel said. “You don’t hear them say that they’re going to play Esports in college, but that’s the reality now. You really can go to a college and play Esports. It gets the kids excited. It can be difficult sometimes to spark middle schoolers’ interest in college but if you talk about Esports, they’re ready.”

Juroff aims to help players attend college for free with the help of Esport scholarships.

“Colleges are offering thousands of dollars in scholarships,” Juroff said. “If I can help a kid get into college Esports, that would be very fulfilling for me.”

Following the success of the middle school program’s first year, Wightman and Juroff hope to eventually expand the program to include Dowagiac Union High School.

“To be able to have a high school program for these kids to transition to where they can continue to compete would be excellent,” Wightman said.

“We’re hoping we can do that because high school is where you’ll see scouts for colleges,” Juroff said. “Juniors and seniors will be able to showcase their skills and compete to earn scholarships.”

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