By Nicholas Cervania, April 2 2021—
Video Game High School (VGHS) is a comedy/action web-series from RocketJump Studios that ran for three seasons, from 2012 to 2014. Set in the near future, video games have become the world’s most popular competitive sport and Video Game High School is an elite institution that specializes in teaching all different genres of games. After unwittingly defeating one of the international first-person shooter (FPS) stars on live TV, Brian D (Josh Blaylock) is offered a scholarship to VGHS, where he befriends Ted Wong (Jimmy Wong) and Ki Swan (Ellary Porterfield).
First and foremost, VGHS is a show about people. It just so happens that these people all play video games and I can understand how some people might be turned away at a first glance if they’re unfamiliar with gaming. However, I would make the argument that the amount of prerequisite gaming knowledge you’d need to enjoy the show is about the same as the level of football knowledge you’d need to enjoy something like Friday Night Lights. eSports are treated like regular sports in the real world and that goes for the world and the writing of VGHS. Games are really just a plot device that’s used for storytelling and some pretty cool action. Because the character work is so good, it’s able to appeal to a wider audience. If you don’t play video games, you’ll miss out on most of the references, but you’ll still be able to get invested in the characters and have a good time watching the show.
With video games being such an important means in the show’s story, nearly every action scene takes place within a video game. These scenes are done in live-action, with the actors portraying their in-game counterparts. Each action scene is built up naturally and they all do a great job of giving the viewer a sense of space and visual clarity. Plus, the effects are pretty impressive and well-placed — for example, the FPS games have quick and exciting gunplay and explosions and the drift racing games have practical street racing stunts that keep you on the edge of your seat.
Brian manages to secure a spot on the junior varsity (JV) FPS team as the honorary freshman. The first season focuses on his struggle to prove he belongs at VGHS and that he’s more than just a flash in the pan. Subsequent seasons have the JV team playing in the varsity tournament after the VGHS varsity team is disbanded. With his team, Brian competes against different high schools to win the championship, while Ted enters the world of drift race gaming and Ki focuses on making games instead of playing them.
Most people would probably be quick to judge this show at first glance. The first season is pretty campy and has some pretty weird dialogue, but the performances are charming enough to make it fun to watch. The first season isn’t even that long — there are only nine episodes that are ten minutes long. The real purpose of this season is to introduce us to the world and its characters. The second and third seasons are 40 and 60 minutes long respectively and there, the show starts to have episodes with themes of maturity, disillusionment with growing up and the role our parents play in our development with a surprising amount of depth for a show with this kind of subject matter.
Part of Brian’s struggle is to stand out amongst a team that’s exactly like him. While being one of the strongest players on his team, Brian still isn’t the star player. He’s the fish-out-of-water protagonist — he’s the everyman. His role is for the audience to project onto him and experience the world through his eyes. The star player role really belongs to his love interest and team captain, Jenny Matrix (Johanna Braddy). As the show goes on, this role ends up driving a wedge between her and Brian when she’s offered a chance to fulfill her life-long dream of joining her favorite eSports team. These types of subplots exist for everyone, each character is faced with different motivations and conflicts that are impactful and long-lasting over the course of the show.
One reason VGHS stands out compared to something like The Guild, another web-series targeted towards gamers, is the directing and cinematography. The Guild is shot and directed like a student film and while VGHS has a higher production value, there’s a lot more to it than that alone. RocketJump Studios puts a lot of thought into shot sizes, framing, angles and movement, which makes a huge difference when it comes to how enjoyable an episode can be. Even to the average viewer, a show that’s shot poorly isn’t going to look as good as one that’s shot well.
As a whole, I’d say VGHS is actually pretty reminiscent of early seasons of Community. While VGHS is fairly campy in its first season, both are comedies that employ similar camera techniques and share similar tones. Plus, the most memorable episodes of both shows are ones with character-driven high-concept plots. That first part is pretty important — character-driven. A high-concept plot is meaningless if it has nothing to offer outside of the gimmick.
Part of why VGHS works so well compared to something like Anime Crimes Division, RocketJump’s latest web series, is that there’s much more to the episodes than the concept alone. Joe Furuya and Detective Diesel of the Anime Crimes Division are not interesting characters and as such, they’re not fun to watch. None of the writing is actually focused on them as people, it’s just there to make jokes about different anime. When you watch an episode of Anime Crimes Division, you’ll see a bunch of cool anime references, but there isn’t anything more you’ll be able to take away from it. VGHS on the other hand manages to use these high concepts to bring more out of their characters, things that we wouldn’t normally see if we only ever saw their lives outside of the game.
Season three is by far the most effective at creating character-driven emotional moments. While the actors are charming enough to pull off some of the cheesy dialogue of the earlier seasons, they’re also able to break down into raw emotion when they really need to. All of the performances are rock-solid. It could be something subtle, like the way Ted’s lip-quivers and his eyes glisten with tears as he tries to hold in his emotions one last time or something over-the-top and hilarious like The Law (Brian Firenzi) eating bananas and walking down the hallway like a baboon.
The final scene of season three, episode four stands out especially to me, and I think it’s probably one of the most emotionally moving scenes I’ve ever watched. This scene focuses on Ted accepting the fact that his father was a terrible person, something that he’s been refusing to accept for most of the episode. Ted has always been a character that lived in his father’s shadow, and as such most of his character up to this point has been him searching for and defining himself by one of his male peers, such as Brian or the Drift King (Rocky Collins). With his father’s death, accepting the fact that his father was awful pushes him to become his own person and begin his growth into adulthood. Ted breaks down in a scene full of raw emotion as his friends gather around him in support, and this emotion is emphasized by the complete lack of the show’s score — nothing is there to distract us from the characters or what is happening on-screen. All of these scenes are built up to and contribute to their characters development in a way that’s interesting to watch while still managing to move the plot forward.
So long as you don’t immediately reject it, VGHS has a lot to offer. If you like great directing, explosive action, hilarious performances and character-driven drama that isn’t afraid to make you cry, VGHS will have you pleasantly surprised.