Students at Don Tyson Use Esports to Build Community
Built by students, for students, the esports program at one Arkansas school has spawned a unique intramural culture that encourages students to support each other.
Unlike many programs of its kind, esports at the Arkansas-based Don Tyson School of Innovation was not the brainchild of a teacher, but rather the work of a student.
“One of my kids made it his community project – 3 years ago now – to get involved in esports and start the school’s program,” explains Burl Sniff, the esports coach at Don Tyson.
Anthony White, AKA “eastphantom22”, was only in 9th grade when he decided to bring competitive gaming on a varsity level to his school. Today, he’s the captain of Don Tyson’s League of Legends team.
“I’ve been playing video games since I was 3 and always had the passion to compete. When I heard esports was an option at my school, I did everything I could to make it a reality,” says White. Through the program, White’s appreciation for the game bloomed into dedication for his team and the greater organizational aspects of esports.
“It started out because of the feeling I had when competing. When I started to improve, I felt immense satisfaction. The amount of skill, preparation and hard work that goes into esports amazes me. It’s not only about playing the game, but also scouting, creating draft plans, and leading the team’s decision making.”
“The amount of skill, preparation and hard work that goes into esports amazes me.”
- Anthony White, Player
White’s initiative was a boon for Sniff, who leveraged his own interest in gaming over the years to reach out to students. The former English teacher has now made video games his educational focus, having switched over to Computer Science this past year.
“I’m teaching programming and coding for the web. Next year, I’m teaching a Game Dev class, where we’ll be working with Unity and Unreal. I like building gaming rigs, it’s always been something that interested me.”
Coach Sniff doesn’t hide his excitement for the opportunities these programs offer his students.
“I tell these kids all the time how lucky they are. You get esports. You have a class where you can go to play video games, and now you can learn game development,” Sniff enthuses. “I have the state champ trophies in my classroom, and students see that and are curious about them. I have a conversation with them and they want to get involved in esports.”
Sniff’s integrated curriculum encourages players to keep up their performance both in-game and in the classroom.
“If my students start to fall behind in class, they know I’m available to tutor them during esports practice. They see the program, think it’s cool, and that gives them an incentive to keep their grades up. It’s nice to see that, because not only does that bring new players, but then they start to do better in class.”
“I tell these kids all the time how lucky they are. You get esports. You have a class where you can go to play video games, and now you can learn game development.”
- Burl Sniff, Coach
It’s not just Sniff that’s there to help. The students at Don Tyson have fostered a tradition of upperclassmen showing younger classmates the ropes.
“My more experienced guys are so helpful to all the new players. They'll sit them down, help them figure out their main, then work on technique,” Sniff elaborates. “We’ve won the past 3 state championships, coming on 4, and that lineup is helping train our newer players to keep that tradition going.”
Drake Mayes, who goes by “Catematics” in-game, is one of those veteran players. For him, mentoring incoming players is as much about building cohesion as it is about growing bonds between students.
“Being able to play video games competitively is awesome,” says Mayes. “I love being able to play on a team with my friends, and it feels incredibly rewarding to improve both as a player and as a team.”
“We spend all of our nights playing drafts together and hanging out after school,” adds White. “Now all of my teammates are my best friends and the people I trust most in my life.”
“I love being able to play on a team with my friends, and it feels incredibly rewarding to improve both as a player and as a team.”
- Drake Mayes, Player
That camaraderie, Sniff notes, has spread past the team and into the rest of the school.
“This year, we also got our school administration to have an esports pep rally. We played another school, sold concessions, and had a giant HD screen on the wall in the cafeteria. The kids were playing there live, and there were a lot of people in the audience cheering. It was a big success.”
“Esports has gotten me together with people who I now consider to be some of my best friends,” says Mayes. “Furthermore, esports has opened my eyes to how many opportunities there truly are in the field of gaming.”
Esports at Don Tyson has built friendships, fostered teamwork, and provided students with leadership skills they’ll use after they graduate. All of this was provided by the students themselves. What does the program’s creator have to say about its impact?
“My entire life revolves around my esports team,” says White. “I made all of my best friends because of the team. I’m going to go to college because of the team. Even my job is because of the team.”
Endorsements like that don’t come every day, but then again, neither do teams like White’s.