“Is the dragon ready?”

“I need someone on top level, I need help.”

“Let it go, let it go, protect bottom.”

It might sound like something out of a sci-fi film, but those phrases are thrown around almost every week at Culpeper County High School’s esports team. The team, playing League of Legends, consists of 11 CCHS students who are all interested in competitive gaming.

Sanctioned through the Virginia High School League for the first year, CCHS started on the bottom floor thanks to junior Reilly Tanner and his passion for gaming.

“It’s an odd origin story,” Tanner said with a laugh. 

Last year, Tanner started a Smash Club for the game Super Smash Brothers. The students had a lot of fun doing that, playing against Eastern View High School, and Tanner realized there was a need for that style of camaraderie at the school.

“I have a lot of friends that don’t make friends other than people that play video games,” Tanner said. “I realized that a great way for people to grow is cooperation. Competitive team-based games like this are amazing ways for this to happen.”

The stars aligned as this year the VHSL started Play VHS - a league sanctioned by the governing body of Virginia high school sports. They had 70 teams sign up to play three games - League of Legends, Smite and Rocket League.

Tanner held an interest meeting and more than 50 students showed up. However, many of them were discouraged by the fact the game they wanted to play was not offered and by the $100 activity fee the school charges for all sanctioned sports.

Nonetheless, the team formed with 11 members and on a recent Tuesday they met to take on Tuscarora High School out of Leesburg.

The team members are fairly new to the game mostly, but Tanner said they are having fun while learning the game. 

“A lot of the players can’t play at home - they don’t have PCs or they don’t have WiFi to play at home, so this is an amazing opportunity for them to play games with their friends,” Tanner said. “It’s a scheduled time where everyone can come together and play the same game and learn together. That’s really the best part - the cooperation. We’ve got a whole bunch of team building. We’ve been having a lot of fun and competition.”

Tanner admits they aren’t the best team in Virginia - many of the team members were inexperienced when it came to competitive play - but they are learning and growing. 

The team is playing League of Legends this year, since that was the game with the most interest. It’s one of the most popular games in the world and has a professional league as well. Of the 72 high school teams in Virginia, one will be named state champ and will fly to Nationals.

Tanner was surprised by the support he received at CCHS this year, citing administration’s willingness to accept the team. CCHS principal Daniel Soderholm, Instructional Technology Specialist and Assistant Athletic Director Cathy Uribe and coach Gabe Roman helped the team find five computers and room to play in after school and the esports Blue Devils were on their way.

“We are excited to offer this new opportunity to our students to get involved in and represent our school,” Soderholm said. “eSports isn't just about playing video games.  It is another pathway to show students that we are interested in them and want to provide ways for them to be involved with their peers at school. We are teaching healthy lifestyle practices, self-management, and teaming skills.  Players are communicating, collaborating, problem-solving, analyzing, and practicing leadership in their various roles. eSports is a great venue for students who may feel disengaged at school or feel that their interests are marginalized.”

Tanner said that in time, he expects eSports to grow to be as big as football. The only thing holding it back is monetization. 

Until then, he’s just happy to play with his friends at CCHS - something he didn’t think would happen this quickly. 

“I didn’t think I’d even get to benefit from it until I was in college,” Tanner said. “I thought it would be a multi-year thing, that I would have to build up and come back after I was in high school. The fact it only took three weeks, I’m really proud. I didn’t realize people would cooperate as much.”

They’ve also got a coach who’s engaged in Roman. Just fresh out of college himself, Roman, 22, has played League of Legends for years with his friends.

“I also grew up on League of Legends, so I guess for me and my friends it was sometimes hard to sync up a time to all hang out somewhere - this is where you can all go on at any time of the day to just play with each other,” Roman said. “It’s something that takes a lot of focus.”

“It’s what’s really going strong,” Roman said. 

Tanner praised him for helping develop a strategy for the game and researching opponents. 

“(He’s) by far the greatest blessing we got,” Tanner said. “We were prepared to have some random librarian watch over us while we played the game. In having Mr. Roman, not only can he help us with tournaments, he’s our coach. He writes down our game plans for us. He researches the other team to know what they are good and bad at. He gets us ready for each game. He takes a lot of time out of his day to help us and we really appreciate it.”

Tanner equates the game to a mixture of capture the flag and football. The objective is to “work together to get to the other side, find this crystal ball thingy and hit it,” before the other team of five. Each team plays in three lanes - top, middle and bottom - and there are five roles. Each player can pick from nearly 150 “legends,” though the teams get a chance to ban before the other team picks. It’s the teamwork and communication that Tanner loves. 

“Learn your part well and you’ll find a spot on any team,” Tanner said.

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