Evan DeMott, a member of the Messalonskee High School’s esports team, practices the game Rocket League on Thursday at his home in Fairfield. DeMott and other team members are preparing for the start of the spring season. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

OAKLAND — Esports could be the safest sport to play in the middle of a waging pandemic. And organizers of the newly formed Messalonskee High School esports team feel like their upcoming season is as sure as anything can be at this point in time.

For Evan DeMott — who plays baseball, basketball and runs cross-country — having an uninterrupted activity will be a welcome reprieve from the starts and stops to the season other sports have endured since last March.

Messalonskee High School senior David Cunningham. Contributed photo

“To be able to have a sport that I know for sure, it’s going to work, and I’m going to be able to be part of a team, that’s definitely comforting,” said DeMott, one of the three Messalonskee seniors who helped put the team together. “Especially when for the last almost-year now, things have been up in the air.”

DeMott of Waterville, David Cunningham of Oakland, and Wyatt Patterson of Sidney spearheaded the program’s creation. A sophomores they started playing Rocket League together, a three-player soccer game using rocket powered cars.

“We always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if the school had an esports team?'” Cunningham said. “But we never really did anything with it until this year.”

When COVID-19 came, the trio was unsure of what extracurricular opportunities would be available for their final year of high school. They already play together at their own houses, they thought, so how could it not be approved?

The Maine Principals’ Association, the governing body of high school sports across the state, sanctioned esports last summer. Teams compete through a partnership with Play VS, an official high school esports league.

The association sponsored League of Legends and Rocket League competitions beginning this past fall, but the MPA did not sponsor a state championship. Deering High School won the first ever, but unofficial, Rocket League state title in December. Messalonskee did not have its program approved until after the deadline to sign up for the fall season. There are also FIFA 21 and Madden 21 competitions this spring.

Michael Bisson, assistant executive director with the principals’ association, said there were 14 Rocket League teams in the fall and a handful of League of Legends teams. Bisson anticipates there to be more teams in the fall when registration closes. If they get to 20 schools, there will be an official MPA championship. A recent webinar to gauge interest had 21 schools.

“Its grown incredibly fast,” Bisson said. “People are jumping on right now and getting it through their school board. It’s happening rather quickly, faster than I’ve ever seen.”

Last year, Patterson approached teacher Nathan Davis and Principal Paula Callan about starting a team.

“I’m like, ‘Yo, can we get an esports team here? Because that would be neat,'” Patterson said.

Callan was ready to take steps to get the program started, but it didn’t get off the ground due to the pandemic. The group circled back with administration over the summer about starting the program.

Wyatt Patterson, a Messalonskee High School senior, helped organize the school’s esports team. Submitted photo

“The virus hit and we went into shutdown mode, and we couldn’t move anything forward,” Callan said. “They approached me again in the fall. We presented to the extra curricular committee and got their approval.”

After a meeting with school administration and school board members, the pilot program was brought before the whole board and approved unanimously. For all programs, there is a two-year club status before bumping up to varsity, Callan said. The goal is to maintain interest and build a program rather than a “one and done season.”

“They compete just like a varsity team,” Callan said. “If they’re lucky enough to compete in the playoffs, we’ll treat it just like playoffs for basketball or soccer.”

Registration costs $60 per player, and each school has a certified coach. Players are physically distant during competition.

Messalonskee is paying the registration cost for this year. In fact, players can compete from home so long as they are equipped with a computer, mouse and headset. They are officially known as MHS Eagles.

Davis, a mathematics teacher, is the program’s coach.

“We approached him because he’s the cool teacher,” Cunningham said.

Davis played video games growing up. Patterson is in Davis’ advisory group and heard about the potential for all four years. Davis, who also coaches with the boys’ basketball program, volunteered his room.

“It’s not just one of those things when kids are messing around and doing nothing,” Davis said. “They’re learning communication skills and how to strategize. There are aspects like with other sports where they’re learning to work with others to communicate.”

The regular spring season runs from March 1-April 29 and the playoffs will be in May. Messalonskee will play in a Rocket League game each Thursday until playoffs begin. There is no travel involved.

There is a state team, which the seniors who started the program play on, as well as a regional team that has three students. If more students sign up for the team, the program can expand with more regional teams. Each program is only allowed one state team, however.

The regional team has one senior and two sophomores, and a handful more students have expressed interest. There can only be one state team, but there is no limit for regional participation.

Evan DeMott, a member of Messalonskee High School’s esports team, practices the game Rocket League on Thursday at his home in Fairfield. DeMott and other team members are preparing for the start of the season. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Once we got the word out, there were a lot of people who wanted to be a part of this,” DeMott said.

Davis said he’d be interested in expanding to more games if the first season works out well. “If we can get those up and running, we can get it to grow even more,” he said.

The goal is to officially practice twice a week in person at the high school immediately after school. The team plans on using Davis’ homeroom to practice with a school Apple TV and bringing their own consoles from home. After a remote week due to COVID-19, the team plans on getting together to set up a schedule this coming week.

Cunningham plays on Xbox, DeMott on PlayStation 4 and Patterson on his personal computer. Despite using different consoles, they can play the game together from wherever they have an internet connection.

The senior trio may only get one season, but they’re hoping the program lasts.

“The initial thing was, ‘Let’s have an esports team because we want one,'” Cunningham said. “Then we saw that underclassmen were interested in it too, so now we all want it to continue when we’re gone.”

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