The best high school League of Legends team in Ohio lives in Morgan County

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MCCONNELSVILLE, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — For Aaron Dulaney, it was the perfect validation.

The Morgan High School teacher spent three years volunteering after hours with a group of students who wanted to participate in Ohio’s burgeoning school esports scene. This year, the district agreed to make him a paid coach.

“Just like a football coach, just like a baseball coach,” Dulaney said. “That was a huge thing for me.”

Now, one of the teams he mentors has claimed the state championship in League of Legends. The students clinched the final best-of-three series two games to one on March 12.

“To hear other kids congratulate us — like, students come up to me or come up to the team and congratulate us,” Dulaney said. “I was at the grocery store and somebody said congratulations to me the other day.”

A photo of Morgan High School teacher and esports coach Aaron Dulaney.
Esports coach Aaron Dulaney grew up in Morgan County but spent much of his life elsewhere. He now teaches classes at the high school on interactive media. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB Public Media]

League of what?

To those who follow esports — the preferred term for competitive video gaming — the significance of Morgan High School’s victory needs no explanation. To those who don’t know what an “esport” is, the whole thing can feel like a labyrinth of confusing terms, bizarre commentary and flashy computer graphics. Like traditional sports, each esport also has a distinct set of rules and jargon viewers have to learn.

This esport, League of Legends, came out in 2009. Each match occurs between two teams of five players. To start, everyone picks a “champion”: a fantasy character with a role like fighter or healer. Players then pilot their champions around a forest, battling opponents and collecting magical artifacts until one team is strong enough to topple the other’s base. The whole thing usually takes around half an hour.

That’s the simple explanation, anyway. League of Legends currently has over 160 champions, each of whom has a unique playstyle that requires countless hours to master. New ones come out periodically, upending dominant strategies. The tactical depth and catchy visuals helped make League — and its developer, Riot Games — an esports powerhouse. League’s reach into popular culture grew with the animated 2021 Netflix series “Arcane.”

A screenshot of a professional League of Legends match between Team Liquid and Dignitas.
Fans can watch their favorite League of Legends pros compete in a range of tournaments. This game featured a showdown between esports teams Dignitas and Team Liquid. [League of Legends | Riot Games]
It should come as no surprise, then, that the students who won Ohio’s League of Legends championship estimate putting in 20 to 30 hours a week to hone their craft.

“It’s an addiction,” joked Owen White, the team’s midlaner.

(Oh yes: There are positions, just like physical sports. The “midlaner” occupies the center of the map, where they often set the pace of the game. It’s a flashy, high-impact role, like a quarterback or a point guard.)

A screenshot from the League of Legends website explaining the map where players battle.
This is a zoomed-out representation of the forest where players battle. Note the three “lanes” leading between the two bases. The wooded areas in between are known as the “jungle.” [League of Legends | Riot Games]
There is a common, and occasionally very real, concern among grown-ups that kids may struggle to regulate their gaming. Coach Dulaney takes pains to ensure esports don’t interfere with life’s other responsibilities.

“We run this (esports program) during the day, during our seventh-inning stretch,” Dulaney said, referring to Morgan High School’s regular free period. “We let them practice during that time period if they have everything taken care of as far as their assignments go, as far as their tests and quizzes and grades. If they’re above board on everything, then we let them practice. If they have anything missing, if they’re behind on anything, they’re not able to practice that day.”

So far, it’s working.

“It does a really good job of motivating a lot of these kids,” Dulaney said.

It may also be paying off in the long term. One of the players, William Dodd, said he’s been scouted as a collegiate esports prospect since winning the championship.

“There’s a college up at Muskingum, they’ve been showing some interest in me now,” he said.

Four members of Morgan High School's championship-winning League of Legends team pose for a photo in the interactive media classroom.
Levi Kramer (jungler), Brandon Almas (top lane), William Dodd (ADC) and Owen White (midlaner) pose for a photo in Aaron Dulaney’s interactive media classroom. Not shown: Clayton Ferguson (support). [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB Public Media]

The Morgan High League of Legends team

The players who won Morgan the championship have been playing League of Legends in some form since middle school, though not always consistently. They barely finalized their roster this year before the registration deadline.

Dodd, who also plays football for Morgan, was one of the later additions. “These guys just kept bothering me about it, and I just decided to hop on one day and never got off,” he recalled.

Dodd’s role on the team has been fluid, but he settled into playing mainly ADC, which stands for “attack damage carry.” These are characters who start out weak but eventually become strong enough to “carry” their team to victory.

“I picked up a character named Yasuo: High mobility, high damage, and I feel really free doing that. I can kind of do whatever I want and be really creative,” Dodd said. “He felt fluent to me. It felt … It felt like me.”

An image of the League of Legends character Yasuo.
Yasuo is Dodd’s favorite League of Legends character. [League of Legends | Riot Games]
Giving Dodd’s ADC the space to power up were White’s midlaner, Levi Kramer’s jungler, Brandon Almas’ top laner and Clayton Ferguson’s support. White, Kramer and Almas each said they favor characters who fight early and often, which gave the Morgan squad an aggressive style.

“You get ahead, and you get ahead quickly,” White explained.

At the professional level, teams are adept at parrying this kind of aggression while patiently building their own strength. At the high school level, however, teams struggle to bounce back from early pressure. Dodd said that was a major factor in Morgan’s success during the regular season.

“They (other high school teams) watch pro League of Legends and they see how their favorite League of Legends player plays so passive, and they see the people they play against play so passive. So when we play aggressive against them, they’re not ready for that,” Dodd said.

White said he prepared for every match by scouting out the other team. This is a key part of the League of Legends metagame: If you know what champions your opponent will pick before you face them, you can prepare a counter strategy. Of course, the same can happen to your own team.

“I would play really good in game one, or they would look at my match history coming up to the games, and they would ban my main characters. So I would be forced to play just random people that I play part-time,” White recalled.

(Each team bans a handful of champions at the start of each match. Done well, it can force opponents outside their comfort zones.)

White said he always kept a few “pocket characters” in reserve for such occasions. “Or like, before a game, I’ll play like 30 games with support with Levi,” White said.

Unlike White’s typical midlaner champions, supports are largely invisible, setting up favorable conditions for fights without dealing much damage themselves. Playing supports made it harder for scouts to figure out who White’s favorite champions were.

The winning moment

The regular League of Legends season lasted eight weeks and divided high schools in two groups. At the end of the season, the top two teams from each group advanced to the playoffs. Morgan was seeded fourth, but they managed to upset their first round opponents to face Louisville High School in the finals March 12.

That evening, the team assembled at the high school. For the first time, a few of their parents sat behind them. According to Dulaney, most knew next to nothing about the game, but wanted to see their kids in a state final.

Game one of the best-of-three series saw Morgan’s players switch around their roles. The result was a disastrous loss. They went back to their bread-and-butter in game two, bringing the series to a tie.

In game three, Louisville made an unusual choice: They picked the champion Swain for their midlaner.

Almas described Swain as a flexible character who can go midlane in a pinch but is better suited to support. The problem is that the longer the game goes, the harder it is for Swain to keep up with more specialized champions.

Brandon Almas reviews the replay of his team's winning game.
Brandon Almas reviews the replay of his team’s championship-winning game. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB Public Media]
That meant Morgan just needed to outwait Louisville.

This was easier said than done. Kramer found himself facing an unfamiliar foe, the champion Trundle. “I just wasn’t used to its armor penetration and speed,” he recalled. That made it harder for him to approach fights effectively.

For the first several minutes of the game, Louisville maintained a lead in item value (the strength of its magical artifacts) and kill count (champions die in fights, but they return after a brief stint on the sidelines). However, they couldn’t shut down Dodd, who was piloting Yasuo to devastating effect. Slowly, the momentum shifted back to Morgan, whose champions were becoming just too powerful to beat.

The game ended with a devastating push down the midlane as Morgan’s players stormed the opposing base, sweeping away any enemy champion who tried to stop them.

“It was really awesome. The room kind of went crazy,” Dulaney recalled.

William Dodd, Brandon Almas, Levi Kramer, Clayton Ferguson and Owen White pose in front of a classroom screen displaying the League of Legends title.
The team poses for a photo shortly after winning the state championship. Support player Clayton Ferguson is second from the right. [Photo provided by Morgan High School Interactive Media]
Dodd went 15-1 (that’s 15 kills to just one death), earning himself MVP.

“It’s weird to say I’m a state champion, you know what I mean?” Dodd said. “It’s just odd to say.”