McCallie is home to reigning high school state champions in cross country, football, tennis, soccer and swimming, but a lesser-known Blue Tornado team is excelling in a comparatively new and increasingly popular form of competition and entertainment.
Electronic sports, commonly known as esports, are multiplayer video game competitions — between individuals or teams — that have grown in their organization and visibility this century. The technology consulting firm Activate estimates esports will have more viewers than every professional sports league but the NFL by 2021.
This is the second school year for esports at McCallie, and the team of six mentored by Caleb Bagby — a member of the computer science department, he is the school's director of technology, engineering and design — reached impressive heights this past winter. In a field of more than 600 teams playing "Overwatch," one of the most popular first-person shooter video games in the world, McCallie finished sixth at the championship for the High School Esports League, which bills itself as the largest high school league in the nation.
"Overwatch" has its own league and world championship event for professional players, and the game's developer, Blizzard Entertainment, partnered with Disney in 2018 to televise competitions on its channels, including ABC and ESPN.
With nearly 45 million players, "Overwatch" has allowed McCallie students to find a competitive niche that is far from small. It's one that could certainly grow even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in many governments issuing orders restricting movement and leading to more time at home for many people.
"I have played the game since eighth grade," McCallie senior Denver Oliver said. "It was neat to meet others who played, and we started talking about how cool it would be to form a team. Just like someone would go to football practice or another sport, we game planned and strategized for our matches after school. To be able to have an esports room where we have desks and our PCs in the school was so unique to us."
'Growth and passion'
Other popular esports video games include "Fortnite," "League of Legends," "FIFA 20" and "Dota 2." More than 100 million unique viewers watched the "League of Legends" world finals that were held in South Korea in 2019, a year when esports brought in $1.1 billion, according to Nezoo analyst group.
Colleges across the country have started to offer esports scholarships, and Oliver and fellow McCallie esports team co-captain Jack Eftink have received emails from colleges recruiting them for their "Overwatch" teams. Also on McCallie's roster are Ethan Jones, Reagan Yates, Sean Youner and Jeff Yu.
The game features more than 30 characters to choose from, each with three abilities and most with one weapon. Six-person teams compete online and can choose from seven different game modes and 21 maps.
"There is a lot of communication and strategy that goes into the game. It's really mentally stimulating and has been a great way to make friends," said Eftink, who will play for Tufts University in Boston, where he will be a student next school year. "It has been really cool to see the growth and passion for the game at our school. Esports as a whole has really grown a lot."
The Atlanta Reign are one of the 20 "Overwatch" professional teams in a league that had a $3.5 million prize pool in 2019, with the San Francisco Shock winning the world title and $1.1 million last September. There are more than 50 esports games played professionally, with those broken down into genres including fighting, first-person shooters, real-time strategy and multiplayer online battle arena.
In February the Georgia High School Association crowned state champions in both "League of Legends" and "Rocket League."
Game on at home
The attraction of esports for younger people isn't limited to participation. Where viewers are concerned, Esports has been most popular for the 18-34 age group, with that range making up nearly 75% of the audience, according to Global Web Index. By 2020, Activate estimates there will be 500 million global esports fans.
Twitch, a livestreaming service owned by Amazon, has become the world's leading social video platform and community for gamers such as Fortnite legend Tyler "Ninja" Blevins. Blevins has made up to $500,000 a month playing the game, and this past September he became the first professional gamer to appear on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
McCallie's "Overwatch" team believes its two-hour practices after school and additional work on the weekend were worth every second, with the sixth-place national finish the proof. McCallie is also close to reaching the top 0.1% in the country in the game's skill rating index, which is called Grand Masters.
While McCallie is among the long list of schools nationwide completing the academic year via online courses due to the COVID-19 crisis, unlike other teams unable to play together because of isolation intended to curb the spread of the virus, the Blue Tornado's esports participants continue to game at home and have sparked interest in friends looking for a way to pass the time.
"No team in the state could challenge us when it comes to 'Overwatch,' and Baylor doesn't even stand a chance," said Oliver, who hopes to start a team next school year at Furman. "We have made so many memories and are so thankful to Caleb Babgy and McCallie for making it possible for us to create an esports team."