Spring sports are moving into high gear, and Sitka’s softball, baseball, and track athletes – as usual – are aiming for state championships. But if one of those teams takes a state title, it won’t be Sitka High’s first sports trophy this year. KCAW recently met with the competitors and a coach of Sitka’s E-Sports team, which won a breathtaking video game championship earlier this year.
This is Rocket League. If you’re unfamiliar with Rocket League, it’s probably not clear, just by listening, what this game looks like…The two commentators, Animal and Suplex+, pepper their narration with terms like dribbling…defense…a “dubious shot” down the field. But when they mention a player by name, like AK Pinecone, they’re not referring to a person wearing a numbered uniform and cleats.
“When you’re first hearing about this game, a lot of people seem to think it’s very silly…it’s essentially car soccer. It’s like rocket-powered cars playing soccer,” says Alex Earsley. He coaches the Sitka Rocket Wolves, a division of the SHS E-Sports team. Rocket League is one of several video games the E-Sports team plays competitively against other schools throughout the state.
“You can fly in the air, do a whole bunch of flips and tricks and stuff like that,” Earsley says. “Essentially the main goal is just like it would be in soccer, you want to score more goals than the enemy team.”
Old school athletes and their fans might roll their eyes, but participants say a lot of benefits come with playing E-sports. It still teaches many of the same skills that physical sports teach- like teamwork and sportsmanship. I ask Earsley what else the Rocket League team is walking away with, besides knowing how to kick a soccer ball with a flying car.
“This is something that I’ve been trying to really put out there,” Earsley says. “There’s so much more than just learning the video game…it’s that you’re learning how to learn…it is a very, very good form of media that really works as…not only a team building exercise, but also just really helps to make you more of an analytical person in general.”
“People think are for people that don’t play sports or…just kind of keep to themselves. But I think video games can be for everybody,” says Brett Ross.
Ross is a freshman at Sitka High School, but on the Rocket League field he’s AK Pinecone. And while he may not have his license yet, he’s been driving virtual cars for a while.
“I’ve been playing since I was about six,” Ross says. “I think it was Mario Kart on a Wii. I was as soon as I played that, I was hooked.”
He’s played Rocket League for around four years, honing his skills. Ross also plays baseball, basketball and runs cross country, and he plays other popular video games with his friends. But in Rocket League, he may have found his niche.
“It’s a way to escape real life and a way to, essentially, play your own game that you’re good at,” Ross says. “None of my friends ever really got good at it, so I just felt it was my game. So kept playing. And the community is amazing.”
Coach Earsley says he’s already been talking to Ross about E-Sports opportunities after high school. In addition to coaching the Rocket League team, Earsley is an IT specialist for the school district, but he’s achieved some success in E-Sports of his own. And he knows that there are opportunities out there for students.
“There are places offering scholarships now for things like this,” Earsley says. “It’s getting to be a really big deal. And once you get into college, they have a league of their own, where you’re competing against all other colleges in your area…you start to really run into players that are on the path to being an actual professional player.”
Ross has plenty of time to decide what’s next in his E-Sports journey. Right now, there’s joy and glory to be found just playing the game. Last fall, Ross played in the state championship alongside two teammates – juniors Tyson Delgado (KillaTy) and Dane Refshaw (LivingFlipper).
The seven game series against the Nome Beltz Bois was a nail-biter.
“Those first three matches, we just dominated them,” Delgado says. “What, they got, like, two goals in those three games? And then the next three games…they subbed a person out. And that guy really affected their team because we lost the next three games.”
So it all rode on the seventh game, which went into sudden death overtime. Refshaw says their training went out the window, and the Sitka team fell back on instinct.
“You can’t really concentrate,” says Refshaw. “You’re too nervous. You’re forgetting fundamentals of the game. And then you just get like tunnel vision at the very end.”
The teams were fighting neck and neck in overtime for a full five minutes.
“And then everything’s happening all at once,” Refshaw remembers. “And then the third person in our team, Brett, kind of took it on himself, and just ran it down the field, and just scored it right there. And I think that was pretty good. That’s pretty awesome.”
Ross says winning the game in overtime was surreal. And at the end of the game’s broadcast, commentators Animal and Suplex+ agree.
“I had no idea that we were going to see this level of tier performance. I had no idea that we were going to see this level of competition,” says Animal.
“Holy! Alaska, I didn’t know you were like that!” says Suplex+.
Watch the seven game state championship series between the Sitka Rocket Wolves and the Nome Beltz Bois here.