Jack Ketchum was looking death in the face.

 

As the Heritage Academy eighth grader watched his assailant draw closer, Ketchum knew the end was near.

 

His enemy leapt, poised for the final blow … then missed the landing and fell to his death, sparing Ketchum in the process.

 

 

“I got really lucky,” Ketchum said. “That was close.”

 

He wasn’t describing a real near-death encounter, of course. Ketchum was recounting a narrow win in the video game Fortnite against Elijah Vining of East Rankin Academy in the second round of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools’ first-ever eSports tournament, held Friday.

 

In lieu of getting on the field, Ketchum, who plays football, basketball and baseball on the Patriots’ junior high teams, was happy for the MAIS’ foray into Fortnite.

 

“It gives me something to do,” said Ketchum, who came up just one win short of qualifying for the MAIS overall tournament, to be held Monday. “It gives me some kind of competition.”

 

‘A fun experience’

 

Ketchum was one of 11 local students to participate in the tournament, held Thursday through Saturday from the comfort of the players’ own homes thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ketchum was his school’s only representative, but competitors came from Hebron Christian School in Pheba, three hailed from Oak Hill Academy in West Point, and three were from Starkville Academy.

 

Hebron junior Elijah Parrish, who plays football and baseball, said his friends — fellow juniors Dash Turman and Braeden Triplett — told him about the event, and the three of them signed up alongside freshman Kenneth O’Brian when registration opened.

 

“I’m not the biggest Fortnite player; I just got talked into it,” Parrish said. “(Turman and Triplett) were just like, ‘Hey, why don’t we represent Hebron?’ and I said, ‘Sounds cool.'”

 

The four Eagles hunkered down in an Xbox Party during Friday evening’s competition. Parrish, Turman and O’Brian all lost in the first round of the Class 2A tournament, but Triplett won twice to make the quarterfinals.

 

Parrish, who also plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Dying Light, Far Cry, and Grand Theft Auto — the last of which “might not be Hebron’s standard,” he said — was happy to see the novel event regardless of his early exit.

 

“Usually when you see tournaments and stuff like this, you only see it with big gamers and streamers,” he said. “Bringing it to high schools like 2A, 1A, all of us in the MAIS, that’s just so unique itself. It was a fun experience.”

 

But for Wilkes Stubbs of Starkville Academy — a three-sport athlete in soccer, football and track — the tournament grew tough from the outset when he was matched up with Ketchum in the first round. Stubbs had heard from Ketchum’s brother Cole, a freshman pitcher at Heritage Academy, that Jack was good; he soon found out how good when Jack won the best-of-three series in two games (amid some friendly trash talk due to their schools’ rivalry).

 

“If I was matched up against somebody else in that bracket, I think I would have made it pretty far,” Stubbs said.

 

Stubbs’ schoolmates Sam Lyle and Charlie Guest were also eliminated by skilled players early on in the tournament. The trio of Volunteers was surprised by their tough draw, Stubbs said: “It was just competition that we didn’t expect.”

 

After he dispatched Stubbs, Ketchum beat two more competitors to reach the semifinal round of the Class 5A bracket. In that fateful second-round matchup, Vining forgot to place some flooring in the building-based game, and the misstep cost him in the decisive third contest of the best-of-three series.

 

Ketchum then beat Owen Hardin of Washington School in Greenville before losing to Washington’s Nadeem Abu-Hamdan in the semifinals, missing out on a chance to play for the MAIS title.

 

“We’re about the same,” said Ketchum, who has been playing Fortnite for the past two years. “I just got a little unlucky.”

 

Another way to compete

 

Parrish said he hopes to sign up again should the MAIS host other eSports tournaments in other games (Ketchum is holding out hope for an NBA 2K competition.)

 

Should that happen, Parrish and his friends won’t be the only Eagles in it. The junior said he expects increased participation from his school — including girls, none of whom represented local schools in this weekend’s tournament.

 

Oak Hill freshman John Ross Craven, who plays football, basketball and tennis at the school, said the competition offered him a chance to feel like he was back on the field. The MAIS hasn’t canceled its spring sports yet and is holding out hope for a return to play, but games have been suspended for the past month.

 

“I think it’s great because especially with all this coronavirus stuff, it gives you something to do since you can’t play any sports,” Craven said.

 

Parrish admitted the virtual tournament isn’t quite like football or baseball, but he was happy to participate in something that evoked the feeling of playing the sports he enjoys again.

 

“Being at home, all of us not getting to go out, it was good of them to do a tournament like this — get you in contact with other people from other schools again,” Parrish said. “It’s not the same, but it’s still cool to be able to do something like this.”