LAFAYETTE — Senior Chace Graves is still tucked away in a makeshift video game lab inside Justice High School.
It’s around 8-8:30 at night. The 17-year-old, on the autism spectrum, is playing Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo Switch, further perfecting a craft that has him headed to college on scholarship.
On this particular night, the school’s athletic director, Nels Thoreson, is the last of the faculty to leave.
Graves, who is known to bring just about everything he owns everywhere he goes — a sight that brings his teachers to a warm laugh — follows him out with a bundle of stuff in both arms.
He walks out with his trademark, gentle smile and heads home, which is just across the street.
“Last summer during summer school, we went on a hike one day and we’re on the top of Chautauqua and looked over and he had everything with him on the hike,” Thoreson smirks, which brings a smile to Graves. “He has his Nintendo Switch on the hike. I was like, ‘You can’t leave that anywhere, can you?’ That was kind of funny.”
During Wednesday’s lunch period, at a school dedicated to serving kids of different backgrounds who’ve struggled in the traditional system, Graves was decked out in his letterman jacket and a hat featuring Mario characters cascading down the crown to the bill.
In front of friends, teachers and administrators, a well-known, top-ranked player in the current electronic sports high school season, signed his letter of intent to play at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas.
He peered up after signing to a huge applause, a wide grin emerging behind his black-rimmed glasses.
This is Chace Graves, a senior at Justice High School. He committed to Bethany College (Ks.) for esports. Got a scholarship.
Graves, a gifted artist and video game savant, is on the autism spectrum. "A gift" as Principal Dr. TJ Cole puts it.@NelsThoreson @CHSAA @autismspeaks pic.twitter.com/tBmOgxdSMH
— Brent W. New (@BrentWNew) February 1, 2023
“He just connects with it, and it talks to him in a language he speaks,” says Dr. T.J. Cole, the school’s founder and principal. His autism “is a very good gift, and in some ways, it makes you better at certain tasks. For him, he is going to be able to go to college and pay for college because he has that skill.”
Graves found his place at Bethany when Cole led the school’s annual college road trip for incoming seniors.
Cole says they drive through Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska ahead of the start of school in the fall, checking out what he estimates is about 25 colleges.
He reminds his students during each college tour to focus on which school “feels like home.” Graves obviously listened as he is already playing online with players currently at Bethany.
“I was excited to hear that they had their own esports room and all that, and when I actually went to view it, it was pretty solid. It was pretty nice,” Graves says. “Some of the esporters there had talked to me about their community and they told me I could hit up the esports coach.”
Bethany College wasn’t the only school to offer Graves, either.
Like in other sports, esports college coaches look for attributes to help their team. Gaming skills and sense, coordination, being a good teammate, knowing how to adapt to multi-person situations — others like York University (Nebraska) and Jamestown (North Dakota) thought so highly of Graves, they offered him a scholarship, too.
Talking about his rise in the sport, Graves is quick to credit others for his growth since he joined esports only about three years ago.
Along the way, he says he’s tried to pick up what he can from friends and opposing players.
He started by playing Fortnite, a game won by the last team or player standing. He says he would go for hours with a neighborhood friend named Lou before Lou moved away.
Now, he and sophomore Kasei Frazier can be found playing inside the school, sometimes going until 8-9 at night.
“I just go with the flow and see where it gets me,” Graves says.
Graves is currently ranked inside the top-80 out of more than 1,000 players in the state through PlayVS.com, the hub for high school esports leagues around the country.
On it, he and his three other teammates connect and face off with other programs across Colorado. This season, they are playing Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart. The Phoenix, 6-2 on the year coming into Wednesday, are ranked 24th out of the 140 programs listed.
“He’s very versatile when it comes to playing the different games,” says Phoenix esports coach Ashley Kor, who also serves as the school’s mental health and outreach counselor. “He can jump into the game and if he doesn’t know it, he’ll start playing a little bit and he catches on right away. He’ll learn it on the spot if need be.”
And that’s just Graves, his teachers say. While autism presents issues in a traditional social sense, he has a brilliance you won’t find much elsewhere.
Thoreson, who is also his English teacher, says he has him draw out a summary or scene from a book or short story instead of writing about it. It better fits his learning style and still serves to show his understanding, he says.
And his art, like his gaming skills, is something to behold. Thoreson tells Graves he is going to work at Pixar someday.
“A lot of kids here usually have some kind of issue or thing they have to overcome. It’s kind of a staple here, whether that’s educational or probation or family issues,” Thoreson says. “We just try and figure out how to help them overcome it. With Chace, he’s on the spectrum and we do everything we can to accommodate it.”
Graves becomes the second student from Justice High School to gain a scholarship to play esports in college.
The first was Gabe Salee in 2019. Cole says Salee was also the first in Colorado to get a college scholarship for esports.