McALLEN — The McAllen school district hosted its first video game tournament on Saturday, bringing four communities of gamers together amid increasing interest in esports as a competitive event.

Teams from the McAllen, San Benito, Mission and Weslaco school districts competed in the Super Smash Brothers Tournament at McAllen High School, where about 110 students participated in an event organized with the assistance of RGV eSports, UTRGV Club eSports, Kaboom Comics of McAllen and Critical Hit Arcade of Pharr.

“This is the first year that we’ve implemented esports in our high schools,” said Ann Vega, director of instructional technology and library services with McAllen ISD. “We’re extremely excited to have all the kids enthusiastic about esports in general and this event.”

Esports, which is competitive organized gaming, has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years. In December 2019, the International Olympic Committee declared that esports could be considered sports, however that designation was in reference to games based on traditional sports such as basketball and soccer.

Saturday’s tournament had participants competing against one another with the game Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a fighting game exclusive to the Nintendo Switch console that allows players to choose fighters from Nintendo’s long lineup of games, including characters from Super Mario, Pokemon and Star Fox, among others.

“Dr. (J.A.) Gonzalez, who is our superintendent, reached out to me about a year and a half ago, and he said that he had heard that there are a lot of scholarships in esports,” said Vega, who explained that the district had done extensive research into competitive gaming so that they could build an esports program. “This is the first year that we offer esports for our high schools. We’re going to implement esports in our middle schools next year, and then little esports for our elementary kids.”

Competitors, many with their own Nintendo Switch devices, waited in the school auditorium before being divided into five competitive pools. The students were then escorted to their designated areas in the library where stations with TVs and Switch consoles were set up.

The winner of each round was determined by a best-of-three gaming scenario, with the winner moving on to the next round.

Students from area schools participate in the Super Smash Brothers Tournament at McAllen High School on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Alex Hernandez, who is the vice president of Club eSports at UTRGV, served as the tournament organizer and created the player brackets, as well as making sure that all the equipment was running correctly.

“I’ve been around the (esports) block for quite a while,” Hernandez, an alumni of McAllen High School, said. “Community-wise, I’m actually relatively new, but I’ve been doing esports since my senior year of high school. Me and an associate are actually the ones who started the club here at McAllen High School, and it just kind of exploded since.”

Hernandez said that his goal is to create an esports league for all students throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

“Esports itself is being pushed,” Hernandez said. “Schools want it to happen. There’s just no direction for it. Somehow me and my associates ended up in the front end of it. We’re probably acting as the glue and bringing everyone together.”

Matthew Casares, 18, a senior at Weslaco East High School, said he attended the tournament as a fill-in for someone else who couldn’t make it. He was able to find success as one of the few remaining competitors in the later rounds of the tournament.

“It’s a new experience for me,” Casares, who has been gaming his entire life, said. “I’ve never really been to anything like this in my life. It’s just fun. I’m having fun out here.”

Dariel Arriaga, 16, a junior at Lamar Academy in McAllen, said he has been gaming for about three years. He said that his two brothers are responsible for his enthusiasm for gaming.

“(The tournament) is definitely interesting,” Arriaga said. “There are a lot of competitors who are definitely really good at the game. It’s really surprising to see other people who play it, and play it well. I really enjoy the atmosphere. A lot of people are really friendly. Even though they’re competitive, you can make a friend or two here. It’s really nice.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include Critical Hit Arcade as one of the organizers of the tournament.