Gilson's Goons are now ready to take on schools from across the country during the virtual component of the esports national competition in May.
Students from Caribou High School's esports team recently became state championships in the Rocket League division. Pictured from left to right are Noah Anderson, Brady Jalbert, Alex Belanger, Ben Leavitt, Justin Walton and Coach Kyle Gilson. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican & News

CARIBOU, Maine — Intense focus and teamwork helped an Aroostook County sports squad bring home a state championship, and the battle played out on video.

For many teens, video games are a fun way to hang out and bond with their friends. But for one group of Caribou High School students, those games also have helped them learn teamwork and secure a rank as top Maine esports athletes.

Esports, organized video gaming competitions, have gained momentum in high school and college sports since the pandemic. The Maine Principals Association added esports to its list of high school sports in 2020 and has since partnered with PlayVS to host regional and state competitions every fall and spring. The games not only teach students how to work as a team, but spark their performance in school.

“Students who really didn’t say anything in class before now want to be more of a member of their class and their school,” Caribou coach Kyle Gilson said.

Since 2021, two Aroostook County schools — Caribou High School and the Maine School of Science Mathematics in Limestone — have seen their students place as runners-up or champions, with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics winning the spring 2022 state League of Leagues championship.

Another victory came north last month, when Caribou’s high school team became Maine’s fall esports champions, beating out students from Millinocket, Pittsfield and North Berwick.

Known as Gilson’s Goons, after their coach, juniors Noah Anderson, Ben Leavitt, Alex Belanger and Brady Jalbert and senior Justin Walton specialize in a video game called Rocket League.

All players except Anderson joined the team in 2020 just after Gilson and Athletic Director Evan Graves launched esports at Caribou High School. The program now has 15 students, including Gilson’s Goons, who compete every season. Other students are part of Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros Ultimate and NBA 2K leagues.

Esports began as a way for students to connect through shared interests during the pandemic. But like other sports, esports has taught them important life lessons and skills.

Unlike playing video games just for fun, Walton said, competition requires you to rely on your teammates’ strengths and know when to let them make the right moves.

“You have to focus and communicate as a team,” Walton said. “Rocket League is very fast-paced, so you need to have quick decision-making skills.”

Gilson, who teaches math at Caribou High School, said that he has seen esports help students become more confident leaders during competitions and in school.

With their first state championship under their belts, Gilson’s Goons are now ready to take on schools from across the country during the virtual component of the esports national competition in May.

As esports gains momentum in Maine schools, the Caribou students hope to expand their school’s esports community and help students understand the benefits.

“It teaches you how to work with other people,” Belanger said. “We play together all the time, but it’s different when you’re competing as a team.”