EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Brian Costello works as a robotics teacher at Fernwood Avenue Middle School. His tools of teaching: LEGO, not textbooks.
At 3 p.m. each school day, his classroom transforms into a world of gaming.
Students in grades six through eight laugh and chat, the energy high as they power up their computers. A snack cart is wheeled into the classroom. The group begins warm-ups as they go over the itinerary for the afternoon and practice belly breathing exercises.
Joon Lee, a personal financial literacy and computer coding teacher, leads the exercises. All eyes are on him. Lee says the belly breathing helps them game better: “Education is both physical and mental.”
Three years ago, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Costello formed an esports club at the school and joined the Garden State Esports league, which is open to middle and high school teams statewide. Recently, the team has done well enough to be able to attend the state championships April 1 at Kean University.
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The Fernwood Avenue club has teams for two games: Rocket League — think soccer but with rocket-powered cars passing giant balls around — and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, in which classic video game characters beat each other up on raised platforms.
Costello started the club after a student told him they were interested in forming a gaming group to play competitively. Teachers and students donated TVs and equipment to get the club running. Students bring in their own controllers and headsets to use.
“The team had 11 people in the beginning of the school year. Now, the team has 25 people. We want all kids to participate if they have an interest, no matter their gender or gaming background,” Lee said.
Students meet after school Tuesdays and Wednesdays to practice.
“The kids come in and respect each other and respect their opponents. Some of the eighth graders come in and game during their lunch. They take care of the space by cleaning up after themselves,” Costello said.
Bryan Daniel Perez, an eighth grader, star player and one of the original members of the gaming group, said he wants to become a professional “Smash Bros.” player.
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“I began playing games with my uncle at a really young age. Now I enjoy teaching new gamers who join. I don’t just teach them how to play, but I teach them why they lost so they don’t make the same mistakes again,” Perez said.
Afnan Azraf, who is in seventh grade, plays “Rocket League.”
“I have been playing video games since I was 4. When I come to the gaming club, it doesn’t feel like I’m in school. I can game and keep calm,” Azraf said.
This past season, Costello began streaming the gaming matches so the students’ families and friends can watch from home. The team’s streams can be viewed on YouTube at FAMSeSports, and the finals April 1 will be streamed on Twitch at GardenStateEsports.
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