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Fri, 01/11/2019 – 11:44
Athletes at Mission Viejo High School in California huddle after their matches, pushing each other to improve. “The kids will say, ‘We need to communicate better, let’s meet to talk about our strategy,’” says Tiffany Bui, the team’s faculty adviser. “They’ll talk about what went well, what didn’t go well. It’s interesting to see the players guide each other. You see leaders emerge.”
Roughly 100 miles north, at Duncan Polytechnical High School in Fresno, officials hope that student-athletes are building skills that transcend sports. “What we really want is for the students to come out of the sport knowing how to collaborate, how to communicate, how to value and respect their team members,” says Fresno Unified School District CTO Kurt Madden.
These athletes chase glory, not on the track or football field, but on video game screens. Responding to the rise in competitive gaming — professional esports tournaments garner millions of online viewers, and some colleges and universities now offer scholarships for top players — school-sanctioned leagues have arrived at the high school level.
In just the past year, the number of schools represented by the High School Esports League (HSEL) has grown from around 200 to more than 1,200.
Esports Offers Tangible Benefits Beyond the Field
Proponents say that high school esports programs transform what is often an isolating activity into a social experience, leading to many of the same rewards as traditional athletics. By creating an esports program, Mission Viejo and Duncan high schools hoped to give their student gamers a chance not only to hone their craft but also to learn how to be team players.
“There’s historically been a stigma associated with gaming,” says Steve Jaworski, head of strategic partnerships for HSEL. “Teenage gamers have been stereotyped as ‘basement dwellers,’ especially when others in their school communities frown on gaming as a waste of time. Now, instead of feeling alone, they’re welcomed into the community. They’re contributing to the school ecosystem, and they’re passionate about being rewarded. These previously disenfranchised young people are being accepted — and, in many cases, celebrated.”
How K–12 Schools Get Their Esports Programs Started
Often, schools can leverage their existing IT investments to support esports programs. At Saddleback Valley Unified School District (home of Mission Viejo High), getting a program off the ground mostly involved purchasing some extra memory and better video cards for existing desktops, as well as making firewall adjustments to allow video games through the district’s content filter. Students in the district compete in the games “Overwatch” and “League of Legends.”
“We did a lot of preplanning,” says Ozzy Cortez, CTO for the district. “It was a group effort to say, here’s this awesome opportunity, here are teachers who are willing to jump into this. And the student response was overwhelming. It was very exciting.”
Fresno USD created its own esports tournament, with the district’s 12 high schools squaring off in “Rocket League,” a game that has been described as “soccer, but with rocket-powered cars.” To prepare, students practice with their teams after school and compete against other schools in scrimmages.