A conference room inside Mandan's Brave Center will soon be transformed into a gamer's paradise.
Mandan High School is one of 14 in North Dakota that have signed up to start an esports team this upcoming school year. Esports refers to competitive video gaming, typically involving multiplayer games such as League of Legends and Rocket League.
Esports is growing nationwide, including at the collegiate level where colleges and universities offer scholarships to students to play on their varsity esports teams.
In North Dakota, the University of Jamestown has an esports team, and Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College will start teams this fall.
Mandan will spend about $20,000 this year to purchase computers and other equipment to create an esports lab for students, according to Superintendent Mike Bitz.
"It's a one-time cost of getting the room set up," Bitz said, adding that the school district also will need to fund a coach's salary.
Esports will help foster a sense of belonging among an "underrepresented population" of students who might not otherwise participate in school athletics or activities, Bitz said.
The idea to start an esports league in North Dakota began in earnest with Mark Rerick, the athletic director for Grand Forks Public Schools, who reached out to districts across the state last year to gauge their interest.
Some administrators he spoke to questioned why they should promote playing video games, he said.
The video game culture is often negatively stereotyped, but the benefits of esports is far-reaching, Rerick said, including increasing student participation and creating scholarship opportunities.
"These kids are going to game, anyways," Rerick said. "If you can get kids (to play video games) in your school, it's far better for everybody. We'll be able to put a team polo shirt on more kids. Kids that typically don't represent our schools are now going to be able to represent our schools."
The North Dakota high school esports league includes a mix of large and small schools. They'll participate in a pilot program for a year, with the goal of getting esports sanctioned in North Dakota for the 2020-21 school year, according to Rerick.
In order for an activity to become sanctioned, the North Dakota High School Activities Association requires that it have at least 12 schools competing and that it exist for at least a year, Rerick said.
Having esports sanctioned would "hold more weight" and allow for a statewide championship, he said.
"We believe in (esports) enough that we really believe that if we can get a few schools started, it'll grow like wildfire," he said.
As more North Dakota high schools form their own esports teams, state colleges and universities stand to benefit from having a larger recruitment pool.
The University of Jamestown started its esports team in 2017, and it offers scholarships that range from $2,000 to $2,500, according to Chris Hoke, the university's chief information officer.
Hoke said the school has recruited students from high school leagues across the country but has struggled to recruit within North Dakota.
"When it came to trying to draw local students, it was always kind of a challenge, so having these high school teams is going to make things a little bit easier for us to draw local kids to the University of Jamestown," Hoke said.
There are 30 students on the school's esports team roster, including students from Las Vegas, Wisconsin and other Midwest states.
Hoke said he's pleased to see not only high schools forming esports teams but also more colleges and universities in the state jumping on board. This will increase opportunities for local tournaments, in which college and universities will be able to compete face-to-face, rather than remotely.
"It's fun seeing these new schools come in and join and see how esports is exploding on the national level, and now the local level," he said.
Registration for Mandan's esports team will open this fall, with the season scheduled to start in October and last through December.