Amy Whitlock’s varsity team at Oswego East High School in Illinois is a state champion. Whitlock, a French teacher at the school, leads her students in practices three times a week. They review footage of competitions, strategize for upcoming games, and scrimmage to prepare for future events.
But the students Whitlock coaches are involved in a form of sports much different from traditional high school athletics. They are playing League of Legends—one of the most popular video games in the world of esports.
Esports, a movement that features competitive video game play that grew out of the commercial gaming industry, is popular at the college and professional levels. Now, it is gaining a greater foothold in K-12.
The High School Esports League, an online league that allows club teams to participate in tournaments, has 15,000 students on its platform representing 800 schools nationwide, said Mason Mullenioux, the CEO of HSEL, an online gaming company based in Kentucky.
More organizations and companies are looking to enter the space and capture a new generation of players. PlayVS, a tech startup, just announced plans to start an official national league this October in partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for high school sports and activities.
“It is a lot more like an athletic team and a lot less like hanging out,” Whitlock said of the students who participate on her varsity, junior varsity, and beginner esports teams. “I think it’s going to explode.”
Some teachers and administrators have found that esports engages students who might not otherwise participate in school activities, teaching teamwork and potentially opening new college and career opportunities. At the same time, school leaders are grappling with some of the darker aspects of gaming culture: addressing toxic language, concerns about the violent nature of gameplay, and persistent equity issues in esports.
National and State Leagues
Esports is a far bigger phenomenon than a few players with headsets gaming in their bedrooms, said Nyle Sky Kauweloa, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa whose research focuses on competitive online gaming. He said it is a growing industry.
Professional leagues have publicity teams and commentators, and have seen investment from NFL team owners. At the college level, more than 475 schools offer club teams and about 50 offer esports scholarships, according to the NCAA. The Paris 2024 Olympic organizers are in discussions to include esports as a demonstration sport, and it will be included as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games.
“The spectatorship numbers are huge,” said Kauweloa. Twitch, the online streaming platform that broadcasts live videocasts of games, has a larger viewership than HBO, Netflix, and ESPN, according to market intelligence firm SuperData Research.
Though there are several national and state-level league options at the high school level, most of them operate similarly. A team trains in one game—Overwatch and League of Legends are two of the most popular—and play in online, tournament-style competitions over the course a semester. Most leagues provide instructional resources for teachers or other staff members who will be managing the team, explaining game play and offering suggestions for promoting good sportsmanship.
Some leagues offer first-person shooter games on their platforms, while others don’t, and some charge a per student monthly fee. These costs vary: the High School Esports League charges $5 per student per month, while PlayVS plans to charge $16.
The National Federation of State High School Associations authorized esports as an activity—not a sport—for the upcoming school year. The organization and PlayVS hope to partner with 18 to 20 states in the first year, with the eventual goal of reaching all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“There are more students who are participating in gaming than there are in most of our sports at this time,” said Mark Koski, the CEO of the high school federation. Esports would give many of these students the opportunity to be part of a team for the first time, he said.
“You see valedictorians gaming cheek to jowl with kids who are doing poorly in basic coursework,” said Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of education and game-based learning at the University of California, Irvine.
For students who haven’t previously shown interest in extracurricular activities, having one of their passions validated by teachers and school administrators can change their outlook on school altogether, said Steinkuehler. “They feel for the first time that school is a place where they might belong and fit in,” she said, adding that the California-based North America Scholastic Esports Federation, formerly the Orange County High School Esports League, has seen a decrease in school absenteeism among participants.
‘Showcase Their Skills’
At Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wis., the opportunity to game together has engaged a broad group of students, said Mike Dahle, a former business education teacher at the school and the coordinator of the Wisconsin High School eSports Conference. Some kids who he’s seen struggle socially are now eager to stay after school and work with their classmates. Esports is an opportunity for them to “showcase their skills and abilities,” he said.
However, others argue that esports is inherently inappropriate for school.
Even if teams avoid first-person shooters, the other games available can still include significant violence, said Josh Golin, the executive director of the advocacy organization Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Schools should be investing in extracurriculars that allow students to do activities they wouldn’t be able to do on their own at home, and that keep them active, he said. “Given how much time kids are spending on screens, [schools] should be designing afterschool programming that doesn’t involve screens.”
Even though Whitlock’s practices revolve around screens, they depend on the structure of a traditional school activity. Like in traditional sports, players adhere to a practice schedule and focus on developing strategy.
During practice, Whitlock, the Illinois teacher, works with teams on strategy, researching their opponents’ rank and team composition—the characters they choose to play within the game. The varsity students meet together once a week and then practice on their own time, while the junior varsity teams also scrimmage together.
Esports presents opportunities for adults to teach students tenets of good sportsmanship, like how to communicate, or how to lose well, said Steinkuehler.
Toxic social behavior can be an unfortunate part of gaming culture, she said. Racist, sexist, and homophobic language are common in game chats, and have even shown up in professional competitions. And sometimes players abuse and insult each other when they’re “tilted,” a slang term for feeling angry and frustrated after a big loss.
But these aspects of the culture shouldn’t scare schools away, said Steinkuehler. For one, unsportsmanlike conduct isn’t unique to video games.
“Can you just imagine a football field where everyone in the stadium got a microphone?” she asked. But more importantly, she said, teachers and administrators have the power to change the discourse by modeling what appropriate behavior looks like and monitoring the space.
“I try to emphasize that you’re humble in your winnings and you’re graceful in your loss,” said Whitlock. When her students compete in matches, they are required to use a school channel on Discord, a voice and text chat platform for games, to communicate with each other and the opposing team. Whitlock monitors the channel during gameplay.
Occasionally, she has to remind her students about good sportsmanship—they sometimes display mastery symbols in their chats, reminders to the other team that they’re better at certain skills, she said. But most of the time she is proud of her team’s conduct. “Having a teacher there helps curb some of that behavior,” she said.
Several leagues have codes of conduct with penalties for bad behavior. In the High School Esports League’s summer 2017 finals, one team started repeatedly directing racial slurs at its opponents in a chat during a match. The league shut down the video stream during gameplay and immediately reached out to the school administration, said Mullenioux. This zero-tolerance approach to abusive language has set a helpful precedent, he said.
College and Career Opportunities?
Beyond teaching collaboration and healthy competition, esports proponents say that the game can be an avenue to college and career opportunities.
“Like any sport, there’s a giant structure of people that surround and work based on supporting that professional league,” said Tom Turner, the Director of Instruction for STEM and Health Sciences at the Orange County Department of Education in California. Working with the Scholastic Esports Federation, he helped create an esports English curriculum for grades 9-12 that integrates game design and aspects of the competitive gaming industry, like entrepreneurship, marketing, and hospitality. Each course aligns with a different industry sector within the California state career and technical education standards.
But Golin is skeptical that professional leagues are developed enough to be a major source of employment. Very few recreational players are going to become “rich and famous,” he said.
Esports can also provide college scholarships. Many are on the smaller side, around $5,000 a year or less, but some can cover a significant portion of tuition. One of Whitlock’s students received $20,000 a year to attend Illinois College.
Esports scholarships have made postsecondary education possible for several of her students who never would have thought they could afford it, she added. “You are preventing kids from going to college by not having a program at your high school,” she said.
Equity and Inclusion
The most popular games don’t require special hardware. If the school has computers with enough processing power to run Photoshop, they can run the games, said Dahle.
Often, schools have to restore access to gaming-related websites they’ve previously blocked on school networks, said Turner, who works with schools in the district to help them implement teams. If the administration is wary, he suggests school-appropriate alternatives: Students can use Google Classroom to communicate during games, rather than Discord, for example.
Some schools prefer that students practice at home, rather than on the campus network, but Turner said that’s not the best option. “If they’re playing under the banner of the school, you want them to practice at school, just like anybody else.”
Giving students a place to practice together can also help level the playing field for students from different backgrounds.
At the professional and collegiate level, esports is struggling with diversity, says Steinkuehler. Though esports teams are co-ed, girls are underrepresented on college teams.
Kids who have grown up playing games on personal computers are at an advantage, said Kauweloa, as the most popular esports games are PC-based. Players in these leagues at the college and professional level are mostly white and Asian, said Kauweloa, and games with more black and Latino players—Super Smash Bros. Melee and NBA2k18—don’t have as prominent a place in competitions.
League of Legends, the PC-based game Whitlock’s teams play, requires a lot of previous gaming experience and can exclude students who don’t have that, she said. Her school is adding an Overwatch team next year, a game that’s easier to learn for newcomers. Whitlock thinks this might attract a broader diversity of students—including girls—to her currently all-male teams.
It’s especially important to address these issues of equity and inclusion at the high school level, said Steinkuehler, where esports can be a powerful tool to engage students and reshape their relationship to school. “I don’t want another world where it’s like football or basketball,” she said, “where only a handful of kids get to play.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as Gamers Are the New High School Athletes: The Rise of Esports