Battles over screen time, debates about violence in video games, online bullying and concerns about health impacts mean gaming is often seen as a youthful indulgence filled with more pitfalls than benefits, but high schools and colleges around the country are utilizing the emerging world of esports as a positive outlet to engage students in new ways.
Paul Vaughan, the esports team coordinator and coach for Oklahoma City University, says programs like the one at OCU “put competition in the hands of students that aren’t usually engaged.”
“Esports is more than playing games in a room alone,” explained Vaughan. “When several people engage and solve a problem together, it’s a powerful way for a team to bond and grow together.”
Jeff Bishop, a career and technology teacher at Putnam City West High School, has been a firsthand witness to this concept.
“My students flourish in this environment,” shared Bishop. “The kids have a common space with a common goal and a sense of belonging that maybe they didn’t have before. They all have their roles and a new place to express their leadership abilities.”
What are esports?
Bishop said the video gaming industry has shifted from an individualized game experience to competition platforms that have resulted in a new genre of team play. Vaughan likened the early esports world to the Wild West but says now there are structured leagues and governing associations.
“When I got started in college, there were 10 or 20 universities with varsity programs and as of last year there were well over 200,” said Vaughan. “The growth has been explosive.”
The Oklahoma eSports League (OESL), in which all three high schools in the Putnam City School District participate, has an extensive code of conduct, requirements and rules teams must follow. The Oklahoma Association of Collegiate Esports (OACE) held its inaugural meeting in September and planned its first all-state tournament this past fall.
“To compare esports to a traditional sport, it compares well to track and field where tournaments could have several different types of competitions or games in our case,” explained Vaughan.
Teams of varying sizes compete in games such as Super Smash Brothers, Rocket League, Overwatch, League of Legends, Madden and Clash Royale. Tournaments and school programs vary based on interest. Bishop said his program at PC West is comprised of newcomers and life-long gamers, and both boys and girls play together on the same teams.
“We are sort of reversing social norms,” said Bishop.
Cory Boggs, the executive director of information technology for the Putnam City School District, sees value in the opportunity to reach students for whom traditional athletics aren’t a fit.
“Esports opens up a world of inclusion to so many different students who may never be competition athletes, to those who may have physical restrictions, or maybe they just have a strong personal interest,” said Boggs. “It is so exciting to see the diverse group of students esports attracts. This is a great opportunity to reach an entirely different group of students and to make them part of something bigger. Esports is one of the fastest-growing markets out there.”
A place to belong and excel
Getting kids excited about going to school is not usually an easy task, especially as time stretches past the wide-eyed early years of elementary school. By the time high school comes, school is more of a have-to than a get-to. So when one of Bishop’s students returned to school after a break remarking “it was good to be home,” Bishop knew the program was paying off.
“The district went full tilt and has given our program a lot of equipment especially built for esports,” said Bishop. “Our chairs, computers and systems are our sports equipment, and if [it were] not for the school’s support, the kids would not be able to play the games like they do.”
Even though games are played on a screen, students still have to practice, train and watch film just as other competitive sports participants do to improve their game play.
Bishop said his students have elected captains, assigned duties and even worked with younger students to ensure the legacy of the program continues beyond their time at the school.
“It’s just as much of a sport as any other,” said Bishop. “The level of buy-in is really cool. These kids are creating a legacy, a multi-tier approach to hopefully make PC West a powerhouse.”
To be eligible to play, students must be in good academic standing, attend practices and adhere to the standards set by the OESL.
“I tell my students if you want to represent your school, you have to do it in a well-rounded manner,” said Bishop.
While the esports industry is booming, the industry itself is still relatively young and with that youth comes opportunity.
“Esports is about more than just playing games; there are job opportunities,” explained Vaughan. “It’s a young industry and needs everything other sports industries need: coaches, journalists, broadcasters, agents, analysts.”
In fact, OCU launched Oklahoma’s first esports degree program, an Esports Management degree. The bachelor of arts degree program includes courses in sports science, broadcasting, sport psychology, advertising, health, media relations and communications.
Bishop sees yet another opportunity for his students. He teaches video game design and animation and assures his students that the skills they learn through esports can apply to other areas of the industry.
“I use esports to get kids to take my tech classes,” said Bishop. “The reason I can justify writing grants and investing in equipment is it’s a big industry with big opportunity. Esports is wonderful in that it markets other career options that don’t fall on the mindset of a young person. Designers and builders have longer career opportunities. They could compose music for games or create apps like Words for Friends and Farmville. The industry hasn’t fully expanded out into a mature industry yet.”
He pointed to applications that cross into other industries, citing an example of game simulations where doctors could practice difficult or experimental surgeries.
Esports is also opening up new scholarship opportunities.
“Esports is being adopted in colleges and universities across the country, and there are scholarship opportunities available for good high school players,” confirmed Boggs.
If you think your child might have an interest in esports, Vaughan recommends talking with them about their goals.
“If they are interested in playing just for fun, that’s great, but if they are interested in playing competitively there are productive ways to practice,” said Vaughan. “My parents questioned if playing a lot of video games was good for me but if done correctly and safely, it can be.”
He encourages parents to acknowledge their child’s goals and to listen to what their child wants to accomplish.
“Kids need healthy moderation and balance of course but parents can help create a pipeline so they can engage in a productive and motivated way,” said Vaughan.
Bishop encourages parents to set expectations and make sure kids are following proper social decorum because sportsmanship is important.
“In esports, you are expected to maintain a professional vocabulary or you will be disqualified from the tournament,” explained Bishop. “If someone is a jerk in a game, no one is going to want to hang out with them at the end of the game either.”
The 2020-2021 OESL season starts in January with state championships usually held in April or May.
“Even though we are technology-based, one of the important parts of esports is interacting and competing in person,” said Vaughan. “COVID has been an obstacle but we are working to keep our students safe during this pandemic.”