All is quiet in a second floor classroom at Archbishop M.C. O'Neill High School in Regina as students finish their assignment before lunch.
But shortly after they're dismissed, the room buzzes with life again as a new group of students, laughing and shouting, take over the room — but they aren't there to hit the books.
Instead, they grab Nintendo Switch controllers or sit at computers and begin playing games including Super Smash Bros. and Rocket League — a form of soccer played with vehicles.
The group of approximately 20 (and sometimes as many as 40) gathers daily at lunch as part of an esports club the school started up before the pandemic. Its popularity has been increasing since many school activities started resuming in the last year.
Dean Vendramin, a teacher at O'Neill who oversees the club, says his students have competed in local tournaments with another high school, and have live-streamed games on platforms including Discord and Twitch. They also competed at a recent national tournament organized by Esport Canada, taking on teams from across the country.
"There's a lot more hidden behind [video games] than just mashing buttons," Vendramin said. "There's lots of strategy, game play, teamship. I used to coach football and I see a lot of parallels [such as] your game planning, your practising."
Vendramin says the club is also a way to check with students about their eating and exercise habits so they can play better. They also talk about handling defeat and treating people respectfully online.
"There's also that camaraderie and being part of a group that, unfortunately, some kids might not ever … experience in school," he said.
Club a "freeing," creative outlet for students
"It was one of the clubs where I felt the most at home," said Annika Warren, a Grade 10 student who joined up in Grade 9. "It didn't matter how much skill you had or how different you looked. It just meant playing video games.
"It's actually really freeing."
Warren says she's made many friends through the club and hopes to continue with it until graduation.
"Without this club, I don't think I would have been as outgoing to people. To be able to just play video games and just do some fun stuff without having to … be athletic or anything, it's great."
Zech Selinger, a Grade 12 student, is currently the club's longest-serving member. His older friends started the club when he was in Grade 9.
He's working on introducing new games to the club, and organizing monthly tournaments with other schools.
Selinger says video games can be casual, but esports is a legitimate sport that requires skill.
"If you want to be a competitive player, you need that competitive spirit, just like any sport," he said. "It takes dexterity, it takes quick thinking and it takes commitment."
The club has also inspired him to study video game design after high school. He's already applied to a few schools and hopes to design for Nintendo one day.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped boost popularity in esports, because it was something people could do when other sports and activities were put on hold.
Colleges and universities across the country have also found success in starting leagues, including a Windsor, Ont. college that built a 4,572-square-metre esports facility, touted as the biggest publicly accessible space of its kind in the country.
Blake Zanidean, chief operating officer of SKL Esports — a Saskatchewan-based esports events organization — says he loves seeing educational institutions getting involved because it's not just about playing the game. Students also lr=earn about running streaming platforms, hosting and commentating, and even applying for sponsors.
"Some games have more viewership online for their finals than most sporting events do," Zanidean said. "So it's been nice to see the … normalcy of esports start to arise."
The organization is planning an educators' outreach this month to give schools more information on how to tie esports into their curriculum.
SKL Esports has also partnered with the Canadian Football League to bring an esports tournament to the 2022 Grey Cup festival in Regina. More than 200 professional players are expected to compete for prizes in the Super Smash Bros. competition, which will be live streamed.
Back in the classroom, Vendramin is hopeful that other schools will start esports clubs. His next idea: having a tournament on the big screen at the Kramer IMAX Theatre at the Saskatchewan Science Centre.
"It'd be nice to have a league just a football league or basketball league and … get the jerseys rolled out and really have the kids come together from all over the city," he said.