How Broomfield, Jefferson Academy knocked down barriers to start esports

Part 2 of series looks at coaching and working through early issues with esports clubs

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After seeing esports in person during a summer summit, Broomfield athletic director Steven Shelton knew he wanted to take on the club at his school.

The first job, he said, was finding the right people to head it up.

“You’re talking about an activity that is generationally a challenge for older teachers that didn’t grow up with it as an opportunity,” Shelton said, “so I had to find that balance between teachers that were good with kids, connect with kids and were teachers the kids would want to be around, and also a balance of some young teachers that might have played a couple of these games in their more recent college experience and grownup experience.”

To fit those needs and help with the potential high numbers, Shelton selected four teachers that fit to help with the esports program: Stacy Harkness, Stephen Kelly, Tyler Oliver and Ferris Alexander.

At Jefferson Academy, computer science teacher Jennifer Davis spearheaded the start of the esports program at the school and is the only teacher running the club, though she says the students were the ones that started the conversation about bringing the club to the school.

“I had kids ask me about it last year,” Davis said. “In investigating, I discovered how many (colleges) have recruiters for esports teams. Some of the big schools are now building esports stadiums, which blew my mind. The scholarship opportunities that are out there for esports, it’s growing so fast. That was a lot of it for me.”

Ferris Alexander addresses his team and ...
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Ferris Alexander addresses his team and helps run through an esports practice at Broomfield High School on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.

Teachers in place, the two schools began working to set up their respective esports clubs to get underway this fall.

Alexander and Davis both play a critical role as each work in the IT department of their schools. In order for the students to get online and play these games, they must allow the students access online to play and get around the firewalls that typically block video games and other content during the school day.

“There are quite a few barriers and hurdles we had to clear to get this going,” Alexander said. “On the tech side, we do have a pretty advanced web filter. On a day-to-day basis, certain things like gaming and certain gaming terms gets filtered out, so the kids at the school when they get on the internet are seeing that filtered out. In order to get the esports platform going here, we had to make some modifications to that. We were able to target a location and set hours to make those modifications.”

Davis also had to work around their school’s firewalls to allow video gaming with her school. As the person who wrote the IT firewall, it required a few similar modifications on her side that allow the games to be played before and after school only.

“I was able to put time-based rules into the firewall to allow the sites and the ports for the video games for before and after school only,” Davis said. “They are still locked down during the school day but open up before and after school.”

A few trial runs were required to test the workarounds and make sure the games were able to be played in the school’s computer labs that would be the site for practices and competitions. Each school said a few minor tweaks were needed early, but both schools are now online and able to play the games.

While still serving in the role to keep the games online, Alexander and Davis are now working as coaches for their clubs. They help coordinate practices and work with the students while making sure the games are still able to play online. Most of the coaching from the teachers is about playing together, good sportsmanship and making sure everything is running smoothly than it is about how the students play the game, though they do offer pointers when they feel it’s warranted.

Alexander is a former gamer himself and has done it all from playing with friends to traveling to play in tournaments. He relies on his previous experience when working with the students at Broomfield.

“In my junior and senior year in high school, I did compete and played semi-pro throughout the state of Michigan, as well as some tournaments in the Chicago area,” Alexander said. “It was different types of games then because it was more underground, and it was more a group of friends that grew up together and played video games. After practices, we got together and played games, and games turned into LAN parties. That turned into tournaments, and tournaments turned into having to travel across the state to play Call of Duty in pretty big tournaments. I did that for a few years before college.”

With his previous experience, Alexander has worked on helping the students play together and have strategies in place for competitions. With the background most students have playing the games they will compete in with the CHSAA pilot program, it will primarily be up to the students in terms of how they play the game and work together to win, he added.

“These kids are so smart and know these games so well,” Alexander said. “I think my job is to facilitate as much of the player development as I can so the kids are showing and participating in the teamwork, the discipline and being good sports. When it comes to the actual strategy, I will find myself more in an advisory role.”

Jefferson Academy teacher Jennifer Davis watches ...
Brandon Boles/BoCoPreps.com
Jefferson Academy teacher Jennifer Davis watches as some of her students play in an esports competition at Jefferson Academy School on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019.

Davis is also a former gamer and has some previous background playing to help the students, but just like at Broomfield, her students at Jefferson Academy hold the primary responsibility when it comes to how they play the game.

“My coaching responsibility is centered more around working as a team, etiquette when you’re playing and competing and less with the video games themselves,” Davis said. “The kids have been playing these games for years. I have a team captain for each team and they function more like the coach (for their group) to give suggestions and advice.”

The students at Broomfield and Jefferson Academy have played their first competitions of the season through PlayVS and the High School Esports League. Time will tell how the teams stack up with others in the state and country, but for now both programs have entered a new era at their respective schools and are looking to make sure the first blocks in place will help each club continue to grow.

“First and foremost, let’s have fun with this,” Alexander said. “We want the kids to have fun playing these games, building these teams and working with their teammates. That’s the number one thing… I want kids banging down the doors in January to play in the spring league.”

Brandon Boles/BoCoPreps.com
Jefferson Academy student Logan Davis-Miller plays Overwatch during an esports competition at Jefferson Academy on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019.