Q&A with esports scholarship athlete Ryan Ruehle

Game: On!

Ryan Ruehle is headed to college on a scholarship, a monumental achievement that so many high school students hope to experience—whether academic or athletic or a bit of both. 

But the Van Buren High School (Ark.) grad’s story is not the typical journey … well, at least not yet.

Ruehle is a standout esports athlete, part of a growing landscape that has progressed from the days when playing video games was viewed as nothing more than a hobby, an activity that wouldn’t lead to anything substantial.

Now, after coming off a senior year where his team finished second in the state playing Rocket League, he’ll have the opportunity to further his education at Oklahoma Christian University (Ruehle has high praise for the school’s computer science program) while playing esports for the Eagles.

“After talking for a while and a couple of practices [Oklahoma Christian Director of Esports Lucas Hayworth] sent over a scholarship offer!” Ruehle expressed via email ahead of the Q&A with USA TODAY High School Sports. 

Courtesy of PlayVS

If this seems unfamiliar, you’re not alone. But those feelings might be fleeting.

As the digital age has skyrocketed, the taboos associated with “gaming” have practically been erased: with the addition of live-stream tech and the wide reach of YouTube and Instagram, you’ll find everyone from the next-door neighbor to A-list celebrities playing video games and broadcasting as part of the millions who play. 

When looking at it from the high school demographic, gaming is nothing new. However, the organizational efforts are somewhat murky, which is where PlayVS comes into the picture.

The company has worked to make esports a varsity-level competitive sport, providing opportunities for students across the country to participate, connect, and in some instances, like Ryan Ruehle, earn scholarships for esports at the collegiate level. 

It’s a mission with outcomes worth telling, with moments that make high school sports stories—regardless if it’s under the Friday Night Lights or an LED desk lamp— so vastly unique.

And with that mind, we entered into this new territory in high school sports with student-athlete Ryan Ruehle at the controls…

(Edited for length and clarity)

Q: Heading into your high school years, did you ever think that you’d have a college scholarship for playing esports at the end of that timeframe?

Ryan: The first time I found out that recruiters were looking for kids with talent in esports was from my coach. My first year at Van Buren High School—I was a sophomore—at least two people in my school got scholarships for esports that same year. I kept reaching out to coaches; all I had as a young high schooler was a dream that I would get the same thing as the other seniors.

Q: In that short time, how has high school esports progressed—improvements, expansion of more teams and individuals, the general organization?

Ryan: At first, when the program started, it was very small. Throughout the years, the program just kept getting bigger, and so did the number of teams that played for the high school. I was on many different teams and gathered a ton of experience playing around different types of players. The Esports program grew from this tiny individualized club to a community that felt like everyone was your friend and always had your back the more that it developed throughout the years.

Q: You mentioned how vital Coach Wes Wendell was to your development—what is the importance of having a great coach like that in esports?

Ryan: There is no single coach that I know that is like Wes. This man single-handedly made the program what it is today. No matter rain or shine, there is always something positive for Coach Wes to say to cheer you up. He is the most considerate and uplifting person that I can possibly think of. My favorite thing about coach Wes is his genuine passion for high school esports. When coach Wes was watching anyone play, he felt the hurt of a loss and joined in on all of us cheering after a well-earned victory.

Q: What was the practice schedule like for high school esports? For you specifically, Rocket League?

Ryan: My practice consisted of around 40 hours a week for Rocket League. There are infinite things you can improve in Rocket League; one thing to consistent improvement is to have a consistent playing schedule. I took an esports class in the middle of the school day that helped me get more hours in—having 40 hours in Rocket League on top of working shows that this game is truly a grind and is something that I still love to learn every day.

Q: What is your greatest memory/moment that you’ll never forget from your time playing in high school? 

Ryan: My favorite memory was is in my senior year. To set the scene, we needed to win to progress in the tournament. We lost our first game, but throughout the whole series, we were yelling at every goal because we were so excited. We eventually rallied back and won the entire series. That day I lost my voice for the first time in a couple of years, but I would do it 1000 times again for the excitement and teamwork we accomplished.

Q: How has playing esports in high school helped shape you as a person and the growth into your next chapter?

Ryan: I have truly learned many things about interacting with people and making friends. I would say that I’ve become more extroverted and confident in myself, which is derived directly from high school esports at Van Buren. Esports has taught me to have a positive outlook on my future and life in general.

Q: How do you foresee the high school esports landscape in 5 years? Are the growth and popularity going to place it in the same category as your typical high school sports?

Ryan: I can only see esports growing at this point. Gaming is becoming more and more popular as well as accepted. Just having a class where you can learn esports can make kids want to go to school. I don’t know if esports will outpace physical sports in the next five years, but I do think that it has the potential to get near the popularity and participation that traditional sports currently have.

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