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Bogue Chitto Bobcats may start eSports program

Not all sports are played with a ball.

The Lincoln County School Board is considering allowing a whole new type of student-athlete to compete under the Bobcat flag after Bogue Chitto Attendance Center Principal Scott Merrell on Monday asked permission to start an eSports team, a group of digital warriors who would compete against other schools by playing competitive computer games. Merrell said he’s still piecing an eSports plan together, but he believes a varsity team would generate a great deal of interest among the Bogue Chitto student body.

“As the instructional leader of a school, it’s incumbent upon me to make certain that, despite — and occasionally skewed toward — my personal preferences and biases, students should be offered every opportunity for learning and growth that we can give them. ” he said. “There are more than 200 colleges in the U.S. and Canada that offer scholarships — real money — for kids to come in and play video games.”

The board tabled action on Merrell’s request for an eSports team and asked him to come back to the next meeting with more information for them to consider.

The Mississippi High School Activities Association is rolling out eSports in a program designed by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which is partnering with online gaming provider PlayVS. Merrell said MHSAA has been “low-key” about promoting the program, and messages left with MHSAA Tuesday were not immediately returned. 

An eSports team at Bogue Chitto would function like any other sports team, only without the need to ever travel to and from games. Competitors would be coached by an advisor and play in two seasons on games approved by MHSAA — the association has yet to release a list of approved games — and pay a $16 per-month participation fee.

A school can field as many teams and play as many games in a season as desired, and matchups with other schools will be based on skill level.

“I’m telling you, we will have a mad rush for kids to sign up,” Merrell told the board. “We will probably have to have some sort of tryouts.”

Merrell pointed out eSports has become an international pastime, with high school students competing in tournaments around the world and taking home huge prizes.

“Even though our older generation, like me, may be skeptical or even outright opposed to the concept, eSports is an opportunity for students to learn and participate in a team environment and make lasting friendships,” he said. “And, you can get scholarships for it.”

The main concern among members of the board were the type of games an eSports team would play — they were hesitant to approve a program what would play mature games with shooting and violence. Without an MHSAA-approved list, Merrell could only guess.

“I have a feeling it will be one of two things. It will probably center around sports games, like Madden, or maybe popular games like Fortnite or Overwatch, which do involve shooting, but there’s no blood or gore,” he said.

Board attorney Jim Keith told the board they didn’t have to approve eSports if they didn’t want to — some school boards around the country have dropped football because of violence and injury, he said. But the Jackson lawyer also seemed to have a soft spot for Bogue Chitto’s probable gamers.

“I think it has the potential to offer sports to a group of kids who normally wouldn’t participate,” Keith said.

Superintendent Mickey Myers backed up Merrell’s claims of gaming scholarships. He told the board they weren’t the only school overseers in Mississippi who were interested in eSports, but not quite sure what to do.

“I was talking to Ken Byars, the superintendent up in Amory, about eSports earlier today. I asked him if he was going to start a team, and he said, ‘I will if you will,’” Myers said.