'Not a Fad': Esports Will Continue to Grow in Texas High Schools Whether Sanctioned or Not

Members of team OG sit inside glass-enclosed rooms as they play a match during the International Dota 2 Championships Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, in Seattle.
Members of team OG sit inside glass-enclosed rooms as they play a match during the International Dota 2 Championships Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, in Seattle.
—Elaine Thompson/AP
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Inside one of the oldest venues in Burleson ISD, a transformation is happening. A stage is set, smoke machines and multicolored lights are added, and more screens—from personal-sized computer monitors to big-screen televisions—are needed for an event that this gymnasium has never seen before.

This happened back in February, when the district hosted its inaugural esports tournament. It was a huge success, according to Leslie Bender Jutzi, the district’s chief academic officer. And if you would’ve told her in seven months that the district would be hosting a similar event inside the largest esports arena in North America, she wouldn’t have believed you.

“Never in our wildest dreams would we have ever thought that,” she said.

But that’s exactly what happened on Sept. 7, when buses from 20 school districts, stretching as far as Lubbock, brought over 400 students to the Esports Stadium in Arlington to compete all day in four different video games. Winners stretched from high school seniors to middle schoolers in a sport those in the community are calling the great equalizer.

The two tournaments and the major difference in venue illustrates just how big, and how fast, esports is growing. Texas’ University Interscholastic League (UIL) has noticed.

The UIL will meet Sunday for its bi-annual legislative council meeting. Adding esports as a UIL sanctioned sport is on the agenda, four months after UIL Deputy Director Jamey Harrison acknowledged it’s a matter of when, not if, esports becomes sanctioned. Harrison said the same thing about water polo back in 2017, and though there’s been momentum, it hasn’t been sanctioned yet.

Esports, however, is unique. It’s growing not only in Texas, but on a global scale. The global audience for the sport is expected to be 458.3 million, according to Newzoo, a gaming industry analytics firm. Newzoo also said esports revenue will top $1 billion in 2019 and could grow to $1.8 billion by 2022. Last July, a 16-year-old high school student from Pennsylvania won $3 million at the Fortnite World Cup, and over two million viewers watched it happen live.

Many in the current esports community think it’s only a matter of time before the UIL gets involved, but they caution any legislation that could possibly limit a sport that’s constantly growing and expanding.

“I don't think there's any question that it's an area that's growing so fast, that it's one the UIL will ultimately find some participation in,” Harrison said, “we just don't know exactly when or exactly how.”

The growth of esports is something Kyle Berger, the chief technical officer for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, noticed a couple years ago. He saw more and more colleges across the country offering scholarships for esports. Currently, over 170 schools offering a total of $16 million in scholarships, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, including the University of North Texas.

There’s an obvious connection between colleges and high schools, and new opportunities at the former affects the latter.

“For us, always in education, we’re looking for what’s changing out there to prepare our students for a future that sometimes can be unknown,” Berger said. “Whenever we see an industry growth or trend happening, we want to see how we can adapt and really get out kids ready to fill that gap.”

Last year, Berger and his district started an esports team. There was so much interest that they had to cap the total at 75 students—the majority of whom were participating in esports and nothing else on campus. This year, the district has 155 students on the team and 30 other students in support positions.

Grapevine-Colleyville ISD isn’t the only district in the state with an esports team, but it’s been somewhat of a pioneer. The district has a structure filled with standards they predicted the UIL would use if the sport ever became sanctioned. Like other sports, last year the team scouted its opponent—they play teams from across the country online and in person—on Mondays, played on Tuesdays, and practiced after school the rest of the week with STEM curriculum fitted in.

The district also held a coaching clinic in June for districts that were interested in starting a team or that already had one. That’s when the idea for the Texas Alliance for Scholastic Esports (TASE) started, according to Marcy Ventle, the career and technical coordinator for Lubbock ISD and one of a few members on TASE’s board.

“If Texas wants to have esports, and we want to provide opportunities for our kids, then Texas needs to organize for Texas,” Ventle said.

Ventle said TASE, which also features Dallas ISD’s Roberto Velasco on its board, will file for non-profit status in the next month and will start enrolling schools after that. The organization hopes to provide pipelines for students from high school esports to college, educate school districts considering starting their own esports program, and create live, in-person events, including a state championship next year.

Ventle thinks it could be a couple years before the UIL sanctions esports. But according to her, it’s not necessary. The UIL-sanctioned seal of approval could add validity in the eyes of superintendents and school boards considering it, but regardless, there are plenty of districts across the state already participating.

If the UIL did sanction esports, it would be far from the first state to do it. There are 17 states participating in esports this year with the National Federation of High School Sports and PlayVS, an online gaming provider. There were five for last year’s inaugural season, including the Georgia High School Association.

Penny Pitts Mitchell is the associate director for the GHSA and the esports coordinator. She said the state sanctioned esports last year, though they didn’t know what to expect. They were looking for a way to reach kids who weren’t play sports or participating in other activates at their schools, so they got in on the ground floor with the NFHS. They started last season with 43 schools participating, she said. This year, they have over 100 schools. That makes up nearly a quarter of the state, with participation about even from schools in the Atlanta metro area, to the rural parts of the state.

“It’s just been very positive,” she said.

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This Sunday, the UIL will announce results from a survey of superintendents across the state, regarding the possibility of sanctioning esports. It did the same thing in 2016 with water polo and lacrosse: 43 percent voted yes for water polo, while only 19 percent voted year for lacrosse. Neither have been sanctioned yet.

Regardless of what happens with the UIL, high school esports has shown incredible growth in the last year. Those in the esports community don’t think that will change, either.

“It’s not a fad, it’s not something novel that’s here for a year,” Ventle said. “It’s not going away and it’s here to stay.”

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