By Joey McWilliams
There’s a new sport in town.
The activity of computer gaming itself has been around for a few decades, originally in arcades and now online. But gaming is finding a place in colleges and high schools as a part of the athletic department.
Esports was officially recognized by the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association (OSSAA) as a sanctioned sport on Sept. 8, 2021. At that time, there were around 60 schools in Oklahoma that had established or were considering esports as an option. That number has since grown.
One of the schools with an esports program already in place and growing is Atoka. William Bray, the Esports Director and IT Director at Atoka Public Schools, said he saw in this a chance to get more students a way to connect and build community.
“A few years ago, we had a vision,” Bray said. “As esports began to creep into the public eye more and more, we saw an opportunity to provide something for our school district that would excite the student body, maybe in a way they hadn’t been excited in a while. Because we really had established there was a community of kids that weren’t interested in traditional athletic programs and were looking for something else.
“With that in mind, and having a personal background in gaming, I saw an opportunity where we could utilize what esports could provide for the students to provide another avenue for these kids to navigate their high school years.”
Atoka High School hosted the second Shadowcat Invitational last weekend at the Choctaw Event Center in Durant. There were 16 teams from schools of all sizes and from all around the state in attendance at the large-scale multimedia event.
“It was amazing,” Bray said. “We had to put in our dues last year, if you will. We did the invitational at Atoka in our gymnasium. There were infrastructure deficits there. We couldn’t handle much more than the eight teams that we had. We were running out of power. We had computers shutting off because the building just couldn’t provide the kind of power that this type of setup needs.
“So when we had a visitor, Mr. Anthony Dillard, who is our tribal councilman from the Atoka district, and he jokingly said, “Hey, we need to do this in Durant sometime,” I took him seriously. So we followed up on that and we were able to make some connections with the right people. And of course, having Chief Batton involved was amazing. Chief Batton has some family that enjoys esports and so we kind of had a kindred spirit on that and we got to speak and he said that it was something he would like to be a part of.”
The ball began to roll and the event became a reality. Bray said he was excited and he said the Choctaw Nation expressed that it would like to partner with Atoka on every year.
“We’re hoping that this becomes the home until hopefully, some day, Atoka has a facility in place that would provide the infrastructure to host an event like that.”
The Shadowcat Invitational was an exhibition match. The results did not have an impact on any of the school’s standings within the OSSAA or other leagues.
“There are a few different leagues in Oklahoma,” Bray said. “You have the OSSAA league, which is being hosted by a third party company called PlayVS.”
Of the two games with which competition was held at the Invitational – Overwatch and Super Smash Bros. – the OSSAA hosts competition in just Super Smash Bros.
“We actually play Overwatch with a different league in the state. Right now, there are no regulations which keep you from playing with multiple leagues. This league that we are playing with is the Oklahoma Esports League (OESL).
“They offer Overwatch, which is one of our main games. We have a lot of students that play Overwatch at Atoka. As with any activity, you want to have the things the kids are involved in. This is something that our kids are extremely involved in.”
The Shadowcats finished second in Overwatch at the event. Broken Arrow took the championship.
This is the second year of the esports program in Atoka. Bray said the growth has been amazing.
“It went from a 12-man program in Year One to 46 in Year Two. We are projected right now to have close to 70 next year with pre-signups.
“It’s tough because you are limited by space, you are limited by technology, you are limited by coaching staff, which is where there is a little bit of a disconnect and the state learning what it is going to take to run an esports program. If you look at the traditional football program for a 4A or 5A school, there going to have at the least four or five people on staff.
“Overwatch is a sport on its own. It has its own roster with their own things that they run. They have to watch film and do the same things a traditional sports team does. And that’s just one esport. We have four. Overwatch, Smash Bros. Rocket League and we’re bringing Valorant online, too. We’ll offer that next year.
“Limitations in our coaching staff will keep us to a few games right now, but we’re hoping that will grow, too, so we can offer more.”
Currently, there are no classifications in the OSSAA to divide programs by the size of the school. Atoka has a varsity program and a JV team. The Shadowcats also have a middle school program.
“We do our best to make sure every kid gets to play.”
Bray hopes the success of the Invitational last weekend will get the attention of many others.
“We hope this event will highlight what we are capable of here in Oklahoma. I really hope that everybody that is involved from the highest level in the OSSAA to the kid that is in a rural school here in Oklahoma just hoping to get to play in esports someday, can see an event like this and say, ‘Wow! This is what it can be.’
“The idea here is to understand that we are completely capable here in Oklahoma of making this an amazing event and opportunity for students to participate in esports and events like it. We want the public to become educated about what this is. We want people who are in places of leadership inside of regulating what esports is going to be in Oklahoma to lean in to organizations like ours and say, ‘Hey. This is a good setup. This is something we can grow from.’
“We want a unified organization in Oklahoma for esports so that we can all be on the same page and we can all work together. The more of us that get involved and the more of us that work together, the more amazing the activity is going to be for the state.”