In its 48 years in existence, success in the world of athletics and extracurriculars has been frequent at Apple Valley High School, producing 68 team champions and numerous individual state champions across the spectrum of competitive activities.

It's time to add one more collection of talent to the school's assemblage of champions: The Apple Valley e-sports program, an organized team of 50 or so students who represent the high school in video-game competitions against other high school teams as part of the Minnesota Varsity League (MNVL). The league sponsors scholastic competition in online games such as Valorant, Fortnite and Super Smash Brothers.

In January, Apple Valley won its fourth consecutive championship in Valorant, arguably the premier competition in the MNVL. It's the sixth championship overall for Apple Valley, which began fielding a competitive team just four years ago.

Apple Valley is not only busy prepping to be honored by the school at an upcoming Parade of Champions but also for national recognition as one of the nation's top high school e-sports program.

On Saturday, Apple Valley will be featured during the Walter Day National High School & Collegiate Esports Award Ceremony in Iowa. It is considered one of the most prestigious honors awarded in e-sports.

In his nearly seven years since beginning the program, Apple Valley coach Isaac Johnson has become a strident advocate for e-sports. He has firsthand knowledge of the benefits.

"They develop those necessary soft skills … such as intra- and interpersonal skills essential for human development, social participation and success in the workplace," Johnson said. "Such as communication and the ability to work with others on simple or complex tasks. I've seen them build a community together; they sit together at lunch. They're proud to wear their jerseys on game days, like the football team does."

The benefits are the same ones competitors in traditional sports gain — connections at school, motivation in the classroom — but they are going to a new set of students.

"For many, e-sports is the only activity they participate in … other than work," Johnson said. "I actively monitor their grades, and they need to be on track to participate in competitions. Over the years, I have witnessed students go from being a passive player to the captain of their teams and leading the charge."

There's also an ever-growing financial component.

Colleges across the country are offering scholarships in e-sports. In the Upper Midwest, Concordia (St. Paul), North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin-River Falls have e-sports programs and thriving e-sports teams.

Nate Junker is a former Apple Valley team captain who now is a vital component of one of the nation's top e-sports collegiate program, competing on scholarship for Concordia (St. Paul). Junker admits that college was barely on his personal radar when he started in e-sports.

"When I was in middle school, I was involved in a lot, but not when I got to high school. I wasn't even sure I was going to go to college," he said. "When I started in e-sports, I met more people and I developed a different friend group. It just made school more enjoyable."

When the family of senior Santiago Lala moved into the Apple Valley school district in 2020, Lala began looking for ways to develop friendships.

That's when he stumbled onto the e-sports program. "It instantly piqued my interest. I was motivated by the idea of joining a community that shared my enthusiasm for gaming," Lala wrote in an email. "Thanks to the guidance of Mr. Johnson, I was introduced to the team, marking the beginning of a journey that has positively impacted my life."

He's since become a team captain and an ambassador for e-sports.

"I have met individuals whose friendships will be lifelong," Lala wrote. "The college opportunities for scholarships have expanded my outlook on potential career paths. Apple Valley High School and Mr. Johnson have created a new perspective on what I thought was just a game to something to be really proud of."