Hartselle esports team drawing support, building character
By Wes Tomlinson
For the Enquirer
Despite the program being only in its second year, the esports team at Hartselle High School has one of the top 10 teams in Rocket League this year, and their coach said the sport is building confidence within the team and motivating them to succeed in the classroom.
The Hartselle esports program consists of 25 players, with five teams playing Rocket League and two teams playing Super Smash Bros.
Rocket League combines elements of soccer with rocket-powered vehicles as players use the vehicle to hit a ball into the opposing team’s goal to score points. Two of Hartselle’s Rocket League teams and both of their Super Smash Bros. teams qualified for the playoffs this year. Athens High School also has a team in the playoffs.
The esports regular season ended Nov. 17 and playoffs will begin Nov. 29. The championship game will be hosted Dec. 11 at Huntingdon College’s Leo J. Drum Jr. Theater in Montgomery.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association officially recognized esports in 2018 and there are currently more than 151,000 Alabama high school students participating.
Juniors Houston Downs and Will Booth are among the key players on the Hartselle team this year as the team adjusts to playing Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. for the first time this season. The team plays Super Smash Bros. on a Nintendo Wii and Rocket League on a personal computer.
The Smash Bros. game is a platform fighting game where gamers play with multiple fictional characters ranging from Mario to Pikachu and have them fight to the death. While the game features multi-player settings, esports players face their competition in one-on-one matches.
Booth played a match against Russell County High School last Wednesday and barely lost. As he expressed his frustration, seniors Landon Blackwood and Alex Hatfield were there to encourage him.
“Great game, you’ll get ‘em next time,” they told Booth.
Blackwood letters in football and baseball and Hatfield plays football and soccer, but they are also dedicated fans of the Hartselle esports team. Bucky Garner, a basketball coach and computer science teacher who is leading the esports team again this year, said having respected athletes like those two come and show their support gives the team a boost.
“I think it makes a real strong statement to these kids who may have never played on a team to have these varsity athletes come and support them,” Garner said.
Garner said he reached out to students in his computer science classes last year about the opportunity to join the esports team, knowing many of them played the same games at home.
As junior Robert Childers drop-kicked his opponent off the platform and into oblivion, Blackwood pulled out a broom and started fervently sweeping the floor.
Why? “Because he just swept the floor with that guy,” Blackwood explained.
At a recent Hartselle City Schools board meeting, Garner, Downs and Booth made a presentation about the esports program.
Downs, the team captain, told the board that since the program started at the school, he has developed more social skills and made more friends.
“I used to be, in my words, a social outcast, but now I’ve started opening up more and allowing myself to talk to others,” Downs said.
Garner said colleges have esports teams now and are giving full scholarships to high school prospects just as they do with traditional sports.
“There are scholarships involved and I get a call once a month it seems and (colleges) ask, ‘Hey, got any players interested in a $15,000 scholarship?’” Garner said. “A lot of esports players at universities are STEM majors and engineering of all varieties.”