Members of Dalton's Esports team hope to rocket to the top

From left, Jayden Bearden, 16, Reid Rehberg, 15, and Jackson Percy, 15, compete in an Esports match on Nov. 7 at Dalton High School.

DALTON, Ga. — Though Dalton High School’s Esports team is only in its first season as part of an official Georgia High School Association sport after a few years as a club activity, team members expect to win every match, no matter their opponent.

“They aren’t just playing (electronic sports) games, they are competing,” said Jesús Jacobo Martínez, DHS Esports coach. “They take it very seriously. “

The CatastrophicGamers, a play on the high school’s nickname of Catamounts, received the “amazing amount” of $5,000 from a Dalton Education Foundation grant to upgrade equipment before its inaugural season as a GHSA-sanctioned sport, Jacobo said. The team members compete on Thursdays against high schools from around the state from inside a classroom at DHS — unlike other high school sports, there’s no missed class time due to travel with Esports — outfitted with all the necessary tools of the trade, and they practice several times per week, as well.

“They order pizza, play music and practice” their craft, Jacobo said. “It’s a party.” 

The Esports team accepts anyone who joins, but there’s a varsity squad, a junior varsity and several substitutes, said Jacobo, also an information technology teacher at the high school. “I kept 10 official squad players.” 

The CatastrophicGamers opened their season officially last month, and the schedule continues through December, with playoffs held off-site in January, he said. As teams advance deeper into the postseason, “they’re all on a stage, and they look like rock stars.” 

Each team can select one of three games to play in matches during their season — Rocket League, League of Legends and Smite — he said. They then compete against other teams who chose that game, and, based on experience and aptitude, Rocket League was an obvious choice for the CatastrophicGamers. 

“It’s soccer for cars,” so many of the strategies he uses with his soccer players — Jacobo is also a soccer coach — can also be incorporated with his gamers, he said, noting, “It’s meant to be.” 

Success in Rocket League is found the same way it is in any other sport, said freshman Jackson Percy. “It’s time, and a lot of practice.” 

Percy is the youngest member of a formidable trio at the top of the team’s lineup, along with sophomores Reid Rehberg and Jayden Bearden. All three acknowledged that having played together often prior to joining this squad has given them an edge on opponents this year. 

“I met Jackson online, and I’ve known Reid since (middle school),” Bearden said. “We thought we could be pretty good at this.” 

“We have chemistry, (because) we play so much outside of school, too,” Percy said. “We didn’t have to adapt.”

In fact, the only adjustment they had to make for the Esports team was using personal computers instead of Xbox, and that’s “an upgrade,” anyway, Rehberg said. “We know each other’s personalities and styles” of play. 

Like virtually any other sport, teamwork is paramount in Rocket League, and other video games, Rehberg said. “It’s more mentally demanding than physically.” 

As passionate as they are about gaming, Jacobo had to remind his players not to “be toxic” with teammates early in the season, and they quickly accepted his message that positive reinforcement yields better results that negativity, the coach said. Rather than criticizing the person, one can critique the performance.

Esports has been “a good (experience),” said Percy, who has been playing video games seriously since age 6. “I didn’t expect the computers to be as good as they are.” 

Rehberg was also pleasantly surprised by the shape of the technology for the team, he said. “The PCs are really nice.” 

Jacobo would still like to enhance his team’s equipment through sponsorships and grants, he said. “I need to get out there and fish for those.” 

Rehberg got a later start to gaming than most, diving in deeply two years ago when he received an Xbox from his parents for Christmas, he said. Video games provide “ease of access to other people around the world, and you don’t have to go anywhere.”  

Jacobo appreciates how “involved” his team members have been this season, he said. For example, Rehberg designed their team jerseys. 

But, more than anything else, Jacobo enjoys seeing the pure joy on the faces of his players as they do what they love.

“I can tell they feel comfortable being themselves in that room,” he said. “They are being celebrated for what they’re good at, and that makes me happy.” 

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