Bronx high school students heading to Esports national championship

On Tuesday afternoon, on the third floor of All Hallows High School, a 113-year-old Catholic boys' high school in the Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx, 12 high schoolers sat before computer monitors all playing the same video game.

"They sort of make fun of my meager level of ability at the game," All Hallows Gael Gamers Overwatch team coach/moderator Damian Verutes said.

Verutes, who also chairs the school's English department, first signed up to oversee this activity when it was still just the gamers club.

"I am regularly floored just by the level of talent and the commitment and dedication from the students on the team," he said.

The Gael Gamers earned varsity status in the fall of 2019, winning a berth in the Electronic Gaming Federation High School National Championship in each of the team's first two seasons in existence.

"The first year was very much a learning experience for us," Verutes said.

"We were probably bottom 20% overall," 18-year-old senior Kadeem Collins said.

As team captain this season, Collins has led the Gaels to a perfect 13-0 record, winning All Hallows the Eastern Regional Championship and sending them to their first in-person Overwatch National Championship in Orlando, June 17, as the tourney's No. 2 seed.

"It feels absolutely amazing," 17-year-old junior Bryan Negron said.

The only freshman to make the team in its inaugural season, Negron admitted it had taken his fellow students some time to recognize that he and his teammates putting on headphones and mashing away on a keyboard for a few hours a day should count as a varsity sport.

"It's like, oh, a non-sports team is the top team in our school?" he said.

To succeed at this six-on-six, first-person-shooter strategy game requires some parental tolerance ("The students' parents are definitely more understanding than my own mom would've been," Verutes said) but mostly coordination and teamwork, which Coach Verutes admits he's mostly just watched evolve organically over time.

"They're able to work together as a team in the game almost to the point that you would get the impression they're telepathically communicating," he said.

"Using the abilities of your specific character to essentially work together to complete an objective," Negron said.

"We can kind of without speaking, know what each other is going to do," Collins said.

What they do championship weekend probably depends a bit on how well that ESP holds up against the other best high school Overwatch teams in America---all of them from wealthier congressional districts than All Hallows, but, thanks in part to an Intel scholarship, the Gaels too will travel down to Florida to play in, hopefully, three days of tournament games broadcast live on Twitch, with the goal of adding to a century of All Hallows basketball, bowling and baseball trophies on display in the school lobby.

"Hopefully bring home a first place championship to the little school in the South Bronx," Verutes said.