Esports champs: Hamilton Southeastern High School gaming team brings home state title


By Ken Severson

The seats are not filled with thousands of cheering or jeering fans, the players are not arguing their case with referees, there’s no lines to the bathroom or the concession stands and there’s no major television contract.

At least, not yet.

But esports continues to grow in participation and popularity, especially at the high school level.

“It’s not under the banner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association yet,” Hamilton Southeastern High School esports coach Keaton Squires said. “But esports (participation) only increases, and I’ve never seen it decrease. It’s just a matter of time before it gets at least to the club sport level like rugby.”

Esports has been popular for several years locally, and it’s likely to get even more popular after HSE won an esports state championship in April.

Esports is competitive gaming at a high or intense level of play. Run by the Indiana Esports Network, the league is all volunteer and led by educators. The goal is to use esports as a vehicle to engage students not involved in traditional athletics or afterschool activities.

Indiana’s league season is played in two splits from September to November and again from January to March. The season is followed by a playoff bracket for top-ranked teams from the season. A split season allows players who compete in fall or spring sports, or other activities, to participate in their high school esports programs.

The primary games offered in the state’s league are League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Super Smash Brothers and Valorant. Smaller, single-player titles are Tetris, iRacing, Minecraft and Fortnite.

All games have a “T” (Teen) rating or lower, which means they’re approved for any high school-age student. Any “M” (Mature) rated games are used exclusively in the collegiate and above leagues.

Like traditional sports, esports players train several hours a week. Some games are based on individual competition, but the games with team dynamics usually require much more training to hone tactics and skills.

One never has to worry about a knee injury, but sore wrists and fingers occasionally happen.

There are no positions per say. They are versatile.

“They all have different parameters,” Squires said. “For example, the way a game is formatted is out of your five players — they all have characters, but only one can be in a defensive role (high health, low damage), two will play more of a damage role (low health, high damage) and support characters who heal and boost. The permutations and combinations are too much to count. The kids work hard, and they adapt to what’s best for the team and sometimes the scenario.”

The state championship, which includes several schools, is decided in six different games across varying school-size divisions (A, AA and AAA), resulting in 17 total state champions, one of which was Hamilton Southeastern in AAA, which won the Overwatch 2 championship.

Overwatch is a multimedia franchise centered on a series of online multiplayer first-person shooter video games.

Members of the Royals state-winning Overwatch varsity squad comprised seniors Trey Johnson (captain), Aiden Forrester, Noah Huter, Colin Reardon, Nguyen Tat and Peyton Warner.

There are 30 students in the Royals esports program.

“I hold the informational meetings at the beginning of the school year, and we hold tryouts that the students can attend from their houses via online game play to determine who makes the varsity squad,” Squires said. “If we have a JV team, there is usually one to two players designated as ‘swing’ players who have abilities that could place them on either team as needed, just like any traditional sport.”

The sport is drawing attention from colleges and universities — so much so that one HSE player, Lucas Bratton, has received a scholarship from Ball State University. Bratton was on the Valerant game team.

“He is a very talented kid,” Squires said.

Squires marvels at how talented and passionate his team is. A former soccer coach, Squires quit that sport to coach esports. He said he is more of the Royals’ life coach than anything else, although officially he’s the team’s coordinator, ensuring they keep their grades up and work well together.

“As far as tactics are concerned, there’s very little I bring to the table,” he said. “Tactics and technical abilities, they are all on. I don’t have to teach them anything.”

Except one thing: Physical fitness.

“Staying inside is a foreign concept for me, as I was a soccer player and coach for so long,” Squires said. “I try to implement a little more activity for them like a walk-a-thon. One of the kids commented that it was the longest he had been on his feet in one day in his life.”

Despite winning a championship, Squires said the Royals play with a handicap, because they practice remotely instead of at the school. HSE is the only school in the AAA division that does not have an esports facility within its building.

“It’s better in the same room as you get the same response,” Squires said. “We’re constantly playing at a disadvantage.”

CIF COM EsportsChamps 060424 2
Hamilton Southeastern High School esports coach Keaton Squires, left, with team members Nguyen Tat, Aiden Forrester, Noah Huter, Trey Johnson, Peyton Warner, Colin Reardon and Reece Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Keaton Squires)

Esports team building

The camaraderie that sometimes defines team championships in sports like baseball, basketball or football is well known and is usually a factor in getting to the top.

The same could apply to how Hamilton Southeastern High School earned its esports championship.

Royals team captain Trey Johnson was no less ecstatic about his team’s championship.

A senior, Johnson and his Overwatch varsity teammates, Aiden Forrester, Noah Huter, Colin Reardon, Nguyen Tat and Peyton Warner, brought the trophy home to Hamilton Southeastern in April with their 3-0 win over Fort Wayne Snider.

The win was no less exciting than a game-ending basket or walk-off home run.

“Regarding the state championship, I think we as a team demonstrated clearly what unity is through struggle,” Johnson said. “Though our team usually doesn’t lose often, we have learned together to take our losses as opportunities to reflect and grow, giving each other advice and practicing as a group.”

Johnson said all his teammates dedicated themselves to the team and what HSE stands for and he is happy and proud to be part of the team as their captain.

Johnson was introduced to esports during perhaps the worst time to ever be a student in high school — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I discovered it as I was searching for opportunities during quarantine,” Johnson said. “It was my first year of high school and I didn’t want to let it go to waste. I found a group of people who not only understood and shared my love for video games, but a love for cooperation.”