'Super Smash Brothers,' on phone, foreground, and laptop, left, and 'NBA2K20,' on laptop at right, some of what is played by Southern Lab School Esports gaming team members, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. Credit: Travis Spradling / The Advocate via AP

When Brewer High School administrators visited various middle schools in the area in recent years in search of potential tuition students, they typically were met with three questions related to extracurricular activities.

Two involved the availability of lacrosse and volleyball at the high school.

“The third question always centered around esports,” Brewer athletic administrator Dave Utterback said.

The high school already has added lacrosse and volleyball to their interscholastic offerings, and now Brewer has joined the state’s fledgling esports movement.

The Maine Principals’ Association added esports to its interscholastic menu in 2020 and 13 schools took part in last fall’s initial offering. There are now 30 schools and more than 200 students participating in the spring 2021 season.

“I think that tells you that the potential for esports is huge and that there is student interest out there,” MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson said. “I think the growth is very quick this year because people were just trying to find some avenue for their kids to have something positive [during the COVID-19 pandemic].

“But I’m very optimistic about where this is going down the road.”

A survey conducted in December 2019 of Brewer students in grades 7-11 also revealed support for having an esports program at the high school.

“That was overwhelmingly the No. 1 thing that the student body that we had just in Brewer at the time wanted, so when you couple that with the questions we were getting on the recruiting trail for tuition students, we felt it was a natural fit for us,” Utterback said.

Brewer’s esports roster numbers 11 students and is coached by Frank Rapp, a technology specialist with the school department. The team, for at least its first season, is based in a large conference area within Utterback’s office that enables the program to comply with coronavirus-related social distancing guidelines.

“We’ve got seven computer stations set up,” Utterback said. “We did buy 20 machines with the mindset that we’re probably going to expand the program and we’re going to have more people as this thing grows, just as volleyball did. The first year we had volleyball we had 16 girls out and now we have 40.

“We think this is going to grow and we think we have enough machines to meet the demand.”

One reason for anticipated growth is that esports often attracts students who traditionally don’t compete as much in other sports. At Brewer, a student-athlete may play only one varsity sport in a season.

“For the most part these are kids that don’t engage in the extracurricular program at all, these are new students in our extracurricular program,” Utterback said. “Generally these are kids who show up at 8 o’clock when the bus or their parents drop them off and leave at 2:10 when the bell rings.

“Now they have a way to identify with the school as far as being a member of an activity within the school.”

The MPA is offering five different esports platforms this season through the PlayVS platform, which hosts varsity esports leagues for the National Federation of State High School Associations and 23 state associations around the country.

The MPA offered competition in two games last fall, Rocket League and League of Legends, and since then have added Madden NFL 21, FIFA 21, and Super Smash Brothers.

The MPA requires at least 20 schools to compete in one of the games before it awards a state championship in that event.

Rocket League has been the most popular game offered for Maine’s high school teams to date. There are 27 schools set to compete in that activity against instate rivals this spring for the status of being crowned as the first official MPA esports state champion.

Maine’s spring season for esports started March 2, and the date for the virtual Rocket League state championship will be announced later this month.

The in-state competition is complemented by the opportunity for Maine esports teams to have additional matches against teams from beyond the state’s borders.

“The other day we played a team out of Canada, and who knows what kind of friendships can develop from that?” Utterback said.

The MPA is receiving additional support for its esports programming from Hussey Seating Co., the Maine-based seating manufacturer for the sports and entertainment, education, esports and performing arts businesses.

Hussey Seating will award the 2021 Rocket League state champion with a customized gaming chair and a series of customized Clarin by Hussey Seating portable folding chairs.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...