With the advent and growth of esports, gamers are the new student athletes

 

It’s a sport so inclusive that participants can be any size or gender. They can be differently abled. It requires communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills. It offers socialization for traditionally underserved students. It has been extolled as a learning platform for STEM subjects.

Video gaming is gaining acceptance as a high school and collegiate sport. The exploding competitive video gaming industry worldwide has made its mark on the world of school athletics over the past two years. Depending on where school leaders stand on issues of screen time and physical activity, this trend will seem either alarming or amazing.

The influence and attraction of gaming on students are undeniable, with 66 percent of tweens and 56 percent of teens already using some sort of gaming system. As these games have grown in sophistication, single-player games have given way to a new generation of online games that are social events with friends.

A girl in front of a computer wearing a headset gives a thumbs up to the camera

Esports, as competitive gaming is called, offers potential opportunities for students. Nearly 200 U.S. colleges give out esports scholarships and aid. More than half of them offer $15 million per year, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, founded in 2016.

In October, the University of Akron opened what was then the largest dedicated gaming space on any college or university campus in the country, a space that the university, in a news release, said will provide “an innovative pathway for students to flourish academically, socially and professionally.” Already that record has been surpassed by a gaming arena more than twice its size, an 11,200-square-foot facility at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.

Polarizing Subject

The surge in interest in higher education “breaks that stereotype that all gamers are fat kids who will end up living in their parents’ basement at 30 and do nothing but play video games,” says Michael Mascone, head coach of the esports team at Rio Rancho High School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

That may be, but esports—which drew more spectators for the most recent League of Legends World Championship than the 2019 Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four combined—is a polarizing subject.

In fact, the New Mexico Activities Association was unconventionally divided in a 6-5 decision to name esports as an official activity for the 2018-19 school year, ending with a state tournament and trophy. Thirty schools are competing in three game titles—League of Legends, Rocket League, and Smite—during the state’s first season, which launched in February.

And the University of Akron did meet resistance from the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors, which interpreted the move as a message that playing video games would relieve the boredom
of being educated.

“Some ask the very accurate and critical question, ‘You’re telling me you’re going to sponsor an activity that encourages kids to play more video games and have more screen time?’” says Mark Uyl, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association. “That’s a very legitimate concern.”

Uyl and his colleagues have been debating for nearly a year over whether to add esports to its varsity sports roster. They are studying what other states are doing. What games are they offering, and are those games appropriate? What are their participation numbers? How do they organize competitions between schools?

“We need to leave no stone unturned,” Uyl says. “Certainly, we’ll not be one of the leading pioneers in this endeavor. We’re going to move slowly on this and make sure we get this right.”

There’s nothing slow about the growth of the Wisconsin High School Esports Association, which started with seven schools and 75 students in 2017—and now has 31 schools with nearly 700 students.

That’s just in four semesters of competition.

“I foresee high school competitions coming to every single state pretty soon,” says instructional designer and former business education teacher Mike Dahle, who created the association and serves as president.

Students hands at a gaming keyboard

Dahle, who played video games casually in college, used to teach at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wisconsin. In 2013, when a freshman chose to focus a passion project on League of Legends, he gained a deep appreciation for the video gaming industry’s evolution. He began incorporating video games into his lessons on programming and coding and started an after-school gaming club that competed with other schools around the country.

When Arrowhead received an invitation to participate in an esports tournament in downtown Chicago, Dahle says he battled to get his players there. The tournament was free but, because transportation for a school-sanctioned event runs 75 cents per mile, it would wind up costing around $250.

“I fought with my athletic department to make it happen, but we made it happen,” recalls Dahle. “The adviser for our Business Competition Club said he’d pay for it.”

Dahle continues to see pushback—and apathy—from school officials in many districts: “Just getting responses from administrators, even teachers, has been the hardest thing. I have students emailing me every single day about wanting to participate, but the biggest challenge is finding active advisers or coaches to oversee these kids. We need that oversight, that encouragement, that accountability
to make this really successful.”

Inclusivity and Diversity

Video game competitions have the potential to attract students who are alienated or disengaged from school.

High schools in 15 states participate in the online gaming provider PlayVS esports league. It has partnered since May 2018 with the National Federation of State High School Associations, which governs most high school sports and now sanctions competitions within its network of more than 19,500 high schools.

More than 40 percent of PlayVS participants in the fall 2018 esports season—named Season Zero—had never participated in a high school sport or activity, according to Laz Alberto, vice president of PlayVS, which is based
in Los Angeles.

While that is encouraging for the industry, gender diversity remains a problem, though girls are beginning to find their way in what has been known for decades as a hypermasculine space.

“We were incredibly encouraged that two out of our five state champions in the fall season had girls on their team, and a couple had female coaches,” Alberto says. “We just see ourselves as a platform that’s open to everyone. Certainly, there’s a long way to go—gaming in general has struggled with this.”

Kelly Corrigan is a programming instructor and coach for varsity and JV esports teams at Shawsheen Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Billerica, Massachusetts. She has 12 players altogether. Only two of them are girls, but she has noticed more girls coming to the school’s video club recently, and some of them have shown interest in joining.

Corrigan reached out to Becker College School of Design and Technology in Worcester and was invited to bring her players to an overnight “lock-in tournament” to compete with another high school in League of Legends, with coaching from some of the college’s varsity and club esports members. The college also has an esports management program, so Corrigan is helping to develop a pipeline for students who want to earn college credit by developing video games and programs before graduation.

“There’s huge money in this,” she says, adding that she teaches students JavaScript, C#, and C++ by helping them develop video games.

Boyle County High School in Danville, Kentucky, seems to buck the norm on the diversity front, for more than one reason.

Not only are there two girls on the esports team, but half of the team’s 27 participants are involved in other sports, including football, swimming, bowling, track, cross country, band, and soccer. In January 2019, when the team competed against 22 other teams to win the first esports championship sponsored by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, “some of the first people to congratulate us were football and track athletes,” recalls Damian Laymon, information technology teacher and the team’s head coach.

Concerns about Violence

Holding some school districts back from offering esports as a school-sponsored event are concerns that video games glorify and potentially encourage violence among gamers.

Chris Aviles, an innovation teacher for Fair Haven Public Schools in Fair Haven, New Jersey, and coach for the FH Knights esports team at Knollwood Middle School, wishes that weren’t the case.

“There’s absolutely no correlation between video games and violence,” Aviles says. He recently tweeted the results of an Oxford University study, published in February 2019, that found no relationship between aggressive behavior in teenagers and the amount of time spent playing violent video games.

Rows of students in a classroom with their computers

Studies have shown, however, that excessive screen time may affect learning. In December 2018 the National Institutes of Health released a $300 million project, known as the A.B.C.D. Study (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development), that found children who spent more than two hours a day of screen time scored lower on thinking and language tests. Children who spent more than seven hours a day with screens had prematurely thinning cortexes—the part of the brain responsible for processing sensory information such as vision, touch, and hearing—although cortical thinning is a natural process and researchers question whether the acceleration is causal. The study expects to follow 11,800 children through adolescence, so the data is preliminary and long-term effects won’t be known for years.

In New Mexico, Mascone’s point of view on esports violence has relaxed over time because of the attention he has seen higher education give to stellar players exposed to it. One student on the Rio Rancho High School esports team, for example, already has college scholarship offers from at least three colleges and universities—but that has nothing to do with the student’s performance on the team. The wooing is because of his scores on Overwatch, a first-person shooter game he plays at home.

Those games are not an easy sell in today’s K-12 school climate, but Mascone hopes that changes.

“Little by little, I’m going to push and tell [administrators] this is the next big thing,” he says. “I’ve got kids already used to competing against the best in the state, and colleges see that as a recruiting opportunity.

“You can be good at baseball,” he continues, “but if you don’t have a baseball team at school, it’s going to be really hard for colleges to scout you out.”

Fueling Passions

Aviles, from New Jersey’s Knollwood Middle School, says school board members should carefully consider the prospect of offering esports in their district as a potential career pathway. “I don’t think stakeholders understand the seriousness of esports as a career,” he says.

The FH Knights, comprised of 16 boys, is the first middle school esports team in the country. Students from nearby Rutgers University, which has a team of its own, play against and mentor the FH Knights, occasionally visiting the middle-schoolers to talk about what a high-level esports team looks like and how, for many of them, their interest in STEM majors was born from a passion for video games.

“We need to take what kids love and use that to fuel their passion for the future,” says Aviles, adding that careers in esports these days include marketing, accounting, and cybersecurity.

Aviles met with administrators and school board members over three months before getting the green light to start his team. A few people were hesitant, but ultimately gave the go-ahead.

“My biggest advice? Be those guys who say, ‘Let’s give it a try and see how it goes,’” says Aviles. “There’s no reason you can’t modify or tweak things. A lot of our board members feel excited that we’re at the center of a national conversation. There’s some pride when you do something great for children, as well as do something most schools haven’t recognized is great for children.”

And, say proponents, at little cost. Corrigan’s school in Massachusetts spends $64 per student per season—in the spring and fall—for a licensing fee with PlayVS, and a local company sponsors game jerseys for tournament competitions. IT requirements include a computer monitor, mouse, keyboard, gaming headphones, and graphics card for each player.

Miles Harvey, a media literacy and language arts instructor who heads a gaming club at James Monroe Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, calls the support of esports “a culturally responsive approach” to a changing world, one in which more people than ever are using digital media. Just as a quarterback can read the field, a gamer can read a battleground, he explains. And just as hockey players use their stick, gamers use their mouse.

That doesn’t mean he has all the answers to the burgeoning sport or the reaction of educators. “There’s definitely a gap that still exists between the players and the audience and the people in between like us, who are trying to figure out what the hell is going on with this scene and how it’s all going to play out,” Harvey says. “It’s not going to be an easy road. It’s about time and exposure.”

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