A tournament this month will see about 140 junior high and high school students go head-to-head in an electronic sport competition, part of an effort to power up the burgeoning scene in Alberta.
For two weekends this month, 22 teams from 16 Edmonton public junior high and high schools will face off in the 2021 League of Legends tournament.
The video gaming event is spearheaded by Edmonton Public School Esports, a group of teachers within the division who started the league two years ago.
"This is by far the largest event that we've had so far," said Corbett Artym, a teacher at McNally High School who helped found Edmonton Public Schools Esports.
League of Legends is a popular battle arena game that is free-to-play and requires teamwork.
"There are some kind of misconceptions about gaming being a solo thing that people do individually but with League of Legends, you do have a team of five different people playing and communicating together at one time."
Artym said the goal is to create a sense of community, giving students who might not otherwise participate in athletic competitions the chance to represent their school and take part in the social experience.
"Gaming is an activity that students are participating in whether the school is supporting it or not," he said. "To provide proper role modelling and just a safe space for them to compete in that, I think that that is a huge part of this."
With COVID-19 shuttering many team sports, esports offers students a safe alternative.
"Especially this year with the pandemic, just being able to connect and compete — it's possible."
Growing the Alberta scene
The pandemic has actually seen an acceleration for esports development in Alberta. In 2020, the non-profit Alberta Esports Association stood up with an aim to promote and support growth in the province.
President and co-founder Victor Ly, who is also an instructor with the esports program at Mount Royal University, says esports has grown exponentially in recent years to become a billion-dollar industry with global reach, much of it centred in Asia.
"But the rest of the world over the last five, seven years has really started to pick up the pace," he said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
"The energy and momentum is really growing in the U.S., Europe, and, of course, here in Canada."
Part of the AESA's mandate is to grow the sport in academic and scholastic settings. The March tournament will be the first time the association partners with the Edmonton public committee for an event, but it likely won't be the last.
"We'll continue to scale and grow as we get buy-in from other schools and other districts," Ly said. "It's certainly a first step in a bigger picture."
Ly says there is little training and development of players in esports in Canada or elsewhere.
"The pathways are slightly different, a lot of those opportunities simply don't exist at this time."
Other important pieces well-established in typical physical sports are still being developed, including mental wellness supports. AESA is working to partner with organizations, coaches and health-care professionals to fill in some of these gaps in Alberta.
It also wants to keep local talent in the province. In the United States, many universities have introduced tuition scholarships to recruit players but across Alberta competition between college-age players is largely informal and sequestered by campus.
"There's some really great anecdotes that I have of incredible local talent that became professional players or became industry talent that simply left the province," Ly said.
In November, the AESA partnered with the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference in hosting a pilot online esports competition to gauge interest among post-secondary students in the field.
Andrew Wong, operations manager with the ACAC, said the organization is now reviewing an application with support from several institutions. The process can take up to 18 months as the organization, which facilitates varsity-level sports, determines the viability and longevity of taking on the project.
Part of the challenge is selecting games from the myriad of competitive ones available.
"That's part of the process of where we want to go to in the next probably six or seven months of research into this and then bring esports on as a sanctioned sport," Wong said.
Meanwhile, Artym says he has been in talks with organizations across western Canada and has heard interest in the development of scholarship opportunities from community partners.
"Our esports scene is getting larger," he said.
As the scene grows, they may also be able to include students from across age groups, Artym said.
"Maybe we'll eventually be able to expand also to our younger grades or elementary schools to make this opportunity available to everybody."
The EPS Esports League of Legends Spring 2021 Tournament will run its group stage on March 13-14 with finals on March 20-21. It will be streamed online with live commentary.