The Park Rapids High School eSports team asked the school board on Monday, June 21 to recognize them as a school activity and to provide the space and equipment they need.

Presenting information about the Varsity eSports Foundation were club president Carter Schultz, vice president Daniel Hoyt, secretary Nicholas Graham and treasurer Levi Trygstad.

Schultz explained that eSports is a live video gaming system in which young “cyber athletes” compete in a variety of events and tournaments.

Hoyt said benefits of eSports include the opportunity to learn from gaming in a safe environment, building a worldwide community and giving students something to be proud of.

Trygstad presented statistics showing that 97 percent of teens play video games; 82 percent of high school eSports athletes had not previously participated in a sport; more than 200 colleges offer varsity eSports, awarding $20 million in scholarships annually; and eSports gamers have a 10 percent increase in attendance and a 1.7 point increase in their grade point average.

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Additional benefits, Graham said, include enabling students to compete who aren’t on a school sports team; better chances of getting a scholarship through eSports than through a college athletics program; and developing mental stamina and preparation for the real world.

Hoyt showed a map of where Varsity eSports teams are located. He pointed out that there are not very many eSports teams in the area around Park Rapids. Graham said the closest eSports teams right now are in Bemidji and East Grand Forks.

Trygstad noted, however, that this is only one of several eSports leagues, and the activity is “growing exponentially.”

“How does this affect students?” Trygstad said. “It gives them a chance to enhance their participation, teamwork and leadership skills.”

He noted that with separate eSports seasons in spring, fall and winter, students participating in another sport can skip a season or take advantage of a flexible practice schedule to avoid conflicts with other team practices.

Staff adviser Todd Kumpula said the club currently has 16 members competing in four different games. He noted that they’ve held organizational meetings, elected officers and team captains for each game, and connected with adult supervisors.

Graham said the team needs six gaming rigs, each costing $1,500 but available for classes and other groups to use; a dedicated practice space, such as the middle school IT lab; and storage space for team equipment. Hoyt also asked the school board to approve eSports as a school activity.

Trygstad said the team could raise funds by selling merchandise or hosting gaming tournaments and charging admission. Also, he said, eSports grants and sponsorships are available, and local businesses could contribute.

Asked whether eSports is sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League, Kumpula said no.

Principal Jeff Johnson modified this to “not yet,” comparing eSports to the school’s trap shooting team and noting that the clay target league was recognized by MSHSL after competition started. He reminded the school board that the local trap team has become one of the best in the nation.

Other questions from the school board surrounded travel costs to attend tournaments and the possibility of eSports taking students away from other athletic activities. Team members confirmed that it’s a co-ed activity and that all games are rated as teen-appropriate.

Hoyt noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the league adapted to include online events, which could bring those costs down.

Board member Dennis Dodge said he likes the concept, comparing it to other schools’ robotics teams, which give some kids a chance to participate in an afterschool activity other than sports.

“Just like any other sport, this is a great team bonding moment,” Hoyt agreed. Trygstad added that participants can take away skills they can apply to other areas of life, such as cooperation, collaboration and leadership.

Asked for comment, Johnson said he supports recognizing the team on an “exploration” basis, but he also voiced concern about too many activities spreading the talent thin.

Superintendent Lance Bagstad said he supports it, so long as the team doesn’t take kids away from athletic activities.

Kumpula said they will work on the team’s practice schedule to avoid conflicts with other sports. Board member Stephanie Carlson said she thought dividing eSports games between three seasons will also help.

School board chair Sherry Safratowich observed that several of the eSports team members attending the meeting are involved in other sports as well.

Dodge praised the concept as providing an option for students who aren’t good at athletics. He moved to grant the club the permission, space and funding they requested. After thorough discussion, the motion passed without dissent.