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Grant funding launches esports in Lincoln County Schools

East Lincoln Middle School students compete in Rocket League during tryouts for the school’s new esports team. /Matt Chapman

DENVER – Aided by grants awarded at the state level, Lincoln County Schools is working to establish esports teams at each of its middle and high schools. 

“The initiative has been launched at each of our four middle schools, which means we’ve purchased the gaming desktop computers with the full capacity to run the requisite games using our grant funds,” LCS Associate Superintendent Heath Belcher said. “Each middle school is equipped with six of those computers initially and the necessary accessories like keyboards and mouses.”

“We’ll use the same equipment in our high schools so that there’s continuity, with the plan being to roll this out in our four high schools next year,” he added. 

Certain schools like West and North Middle are further along in the process, meaning their students were able to compete in the Fall season last semester. In fact, one team at North managed to take first place during their inaugural campaign. 

“In our middle schools, the program is sponsored by the Association for Middle Level Education, which has partnered with a company called Vanta that organizes the competition within our league,” Belcher said. “At the high school level the N.C. Association for Scholastic Activities is evaluating the opportunity to include esports in their operation as the sponsoring body to help bring consistency to the competition.”

East Lincoln Middle School recently held tryouts for its inaugural season, which is set to begin in a matter of weeks. As has been the case at each school, overwhelming interest among students meant not everyone was able to make the team. 

“We got our equipment in October/November, but unfortunately we missed Vanta’s cutoff date to join the league last semester,” ELMS esports coach Ben Workman said. “We’ve used the last couple months to gauge interest through a morning club where the kids had an opportunity to use the equipment and ask questions, so now we’re ready to fully implement the program.”

“We held three days of tryouts because there’s only a certain number of spots available on the teams for each of the two games we plan to compete in,” he added. “The interest was massive, with like 80 kids showing up in the Fall to participate. It’s been neat to see the cross-representation because we have athletes who like to game and then kids who will never play an organized sport but this gives them the opportunity to be part of a team.”

The students at ELMS will compete in Rocket League, a vehicular soccer game that pits teams of three against one another, and League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena video game in which the kids will play in teams of five.

“Rocket League doesn’t adhere to the laws of gravity, so you can do all kinds of crazy moves where the cars are flipping and it’s really fun, but it’s also a team sport that requires focused communication,” Workman said. “League of Legends is very different and involves higher-level thinking in my opinion because each student has to understand their job within their specific role and be able to execute the overall team strategy.”

Vanta serves as the matchmaker when scheduling games, with Lincoln County teams being pitted against teams from other schools across the country. 

“My children attend Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and they just did an esports tournament among schools in that system,” Workman said. “With Vanta, I don’t know if that’s something we’d be able to do, but I hope one day we can have a tournament including the four Lincoln County middle schools with a trophy that we can award to the winner each year.” 

The grant funding the initiative at the middle school level is tied to after-school math enrichment, while the costs in the high schools are covered by a grant awarded to aide career acceleration. 

“Traditionally, students don’t want to stay after school for regular remediation or tutoring programs, but hopefully we can connect some of that to other activities like esports to engage students,” Belcher said. “On the career acceleration side of things, that involves looking into perhaps some community partners and connections within computer programming or game design, making sure that Lincoln County Schools is at the forefront of some of these opportunities that are available.”

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