William Byrd High School and Grayson County High School are about to do something no other schools in this part of the state have ever done.
They’re about to field esports teams.
For those not up on their Fortnite — or in this case, their League of Legends, their Rocket League, their Smite —esports is what we used to call video games.
They’re still video games, of course, but now there are competitive video games. This summer, 40 million players (yes, you read that right) competed in the Fortnite World Cup for $30 million worth of prize money (yes, you read that right, too). The tournament was won by Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf of Pennsylvania. He’s 16. He won $3 million in a tournament at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
It’s almost as if Fortnite is a real sport. Or maybe it already is? For comparison, the Master’s golf tournament this year had a prize pool of $11.5 million. For winning, Tiger Woods got a green jacket and a check for $2,070,000.
The point is: Video games are being treated as real sports. And is clicking a mouse to blow up a monster really that sillier than tapping a white ball into a hole out in a field? Or carrying a bag of air down a field while people try to knock you down?
In any case, the Virginia High School League — which governs athletics and other competitions — has instituted a one-year pilot program on esports teams. At least eight other states have already started esports programs; other accounts say 17. Whatever the actual number, it’s new, and growing — and Virginia is on board.
Today is the deadline for schools to tell the VHSL whether they are fielding teams for the fall season, which clicks off Oct. 21 and culminates with a championship tournament in January. After that, there’s a separate spring season.
So far, more than 70 schools have signed up — and that number might grow before the deadline. Three of those schools are on this side of the state. William Byrd and Grayson will definitely have teams. William Fleming High School will have a team for the spring season. A fourth school, Lebanon High School, is trying to gauge whether there’s enough interest for a team — and what it would cost.
Here’s what we found out when we talked to school officials at Byrd and Grayson: The interest level in esports teams at both schools is high — much higher than school officials expected. At Byrd, 64 students turned out for an initial “interest meeting.” That’s more than are on the football team (38) and close to how many are in the marching band (88). At Grayson, a school about half the size as Byrd, the turnout was 25 to 30 — so about the same proportion. At both schools, 90% of those who showed up were boys, which probably understates the interest among girls. USA Today reports that 45% of video gamers are female.
In any case, the intense interest in esports probably isn’t unique to those two schools, which raises the question of why other schools don’t have teams. We bet students elsewhere are going to be very jealous when they find out Byrd and Grayson have teams and their school doesn’t. We realize time is tight, but we hope some other schools will scramble to put together teams before today’s deadline. (For details, see https://www.vhsl.org/esports/).
Here’s why: The argument for esports is basically the same as it is for any other extracurricular activity, be it sports or the one-act play competition or the debate team. This helps teach life skills: Communication, teamwork, self-discipline. All those things. Nobody realistically expects the local high school football team to produce a player for the National Football League team (although some have). Likewise, nobody realistically expects a high school esports team to produce a Fortnite champion with a $3 million check. But it might produce some other positive results, nonetheless. Just as with other sports, esports team members have to maintain a certain grade point average.
Here’s what Mitchel Burkhart, an English teacher at Byrd and now coach of the school’s esports program, discovered: Esports draw in a lot of students who otherwise don’t participate in school activities. “Some of these kids don’t have other places where they fit in, and they finally have a place where they fit in,” he said. “Most of these kids, they’re the type that would get out of school, get on bus, go home and then sit there and play video games, and they don’t really have an avenue for what’s that’s doing for them. They don’t understand what they can get out of this. This gives them that purpose.”
So what can they get out of it? Well, other than the things we cited above, there’s this: Some colleges now offer scholarships for esports players. “Some of these kids don’t really see a pathway to college,” Burkhart says. Now they do. And then there’s this: Video games are big business — said to be a $135 billion industry last year, with a forecast of hitting $230 billion by 2022. There are jobs out there somewhere. Those games don’t make themselves.
So how do high school esports work? Different schools are handling it different ways. Grayson held tryouts, the way it would for any other team (and yes, there’s a manual on how to hold esports tryouts). Athletic director Zack Hill expects to field two three-person teams, with two substitutes — for a total of eight students. He does fret about the cuts. “I have a feeling it’s going to cause some issues when little Johnny gets cut from the esports team,” he says. At Byrd, Burkhart expects about 20 players on the school’s teams (schools are allowed multiple teams). Many of those who showed up at the interest meeting had scheduling conflicts with other activities that preclude going to daily practices. His approach is “any kid who wants to participate can participate” — although some might wind up being substitutes. Grayson will have uniforms for its teams — collared shirts with the school’s logo. Byrd is still undecided on that point.
Uniforms or not, come game day, players will go to the computer lab and log in to play another school. There are no “away” games in esports, so no travel expenses, just the registration fee of $64 per player.
Here’s another surprise: “You’d think there would be some backlash,” Burkhart says. Video games, really?
Yet both schools say parents have been overwhelmingly supportive.
We hope other schools join them.