For some of you, this will be the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever read. Go ahead, laugh. We did at first, too. That was probably the reaction of a lot of people — at least those over a certain age — to the front page story earlier this week about how the Virginia High School League has authorized a one-year experiment for schools to field esports teams. For those of you not up on the lingo, esports — as in electronic sports — is a fancy way of saying what the rest of us would call video games.
We know what some of you are thinking: Video game teams? Really?
Yes, really. Why is that any more ridiculous than teams of high school kids running, throwing or kicking some inflatable bag of wind?
While the rest of us were paying attention to, oh, you know, the Mueller Report or something like that, esports have become big business. Reuters reports that esports will generate $1.1 billion this year — advertising, sponsorship, media rights, ticket sales, just like any other sport. There’s now a pro league that has teams all around the globe; it’s called the Overwatch League. Last year’s finals between the Philadelphia Fusion and the London Spitfire drew 22,434 fans over two days at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and a total viewership of 10.8 million. Why would anyone pay to watch someone else play a video game? Probably for the same reason that some people pay to watch someone play any sort of other game. This isn’t really about that, though, any more than high school football is about producing players for the National Football League. That’s not why schools field sports teams. They field them for lots of other reasons —not the least of which are that high school sports teach life skills beyond handling that aforementioned bag of wind. They teach teamwork, leadership, discipline and provide an activity for students who might not otherwise be fully engaged in school. Those also happen to be some of the benefits of an esports team.
Don’t get hung up on the “sports” part of esports. The “sports” part of the word seems a marketing gimmick. Schools, though, have lots of competitive teams, some through the VHSL, some otherwise. There are robotic teams whose students build robots; there are theatre troupes who enter one-act play competitions. There are band competitions, and choir competitions and student film festivals. Teams of video gamers may seem more frivolous than a robotic team, but are they anymore frivolous than a football team?
The Washington Post says Virginia is now the ninth state to formalize esports teams at the high school level. Other sources say the figure is 17 states; it depends on how you count “club sports” as opposed to official high school teams. Whether the number is nine or 17, let’s look to see what some of the others have learned. We don’t have to look far. Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington already has an esports program, even if there’s no formal state league-sanctioned competition to join. One of its teams won a national competition and the players split a $12,000 scholarship. In fact, the National Association of Collegiate Esports says there are more than $15 million in scholarships available. Who’s laughing now?
So what are those kids learning besides how to play League of Legends better than anyone else? Here’s what assistant principal Miles Carey told The Washington Post: “They’re learning cooperation and time management. They learn about not gaming too much. Just like a football player isn’t going to spend seven hours practicing, they can’t spend seven hours gaming. And being on a team means being able to take defeat and not blame each other.”
There’s also this: More than one-third of the kids who signed up weren’t involved in any other activity in school. That’s one of the big selling points in some quarters. “I look at esports as a vehicle for engaging kids,” one California school administrator told the website EdTech. “It’s really been a way for us to reach a different population.” That’s the stereotype, of course — that gamers are nerds who don’t fit in. In Arlington, Carey found something else: His gamers cut across all the school’s different cliques. “Gamers don’t walk around with a big flag, so it’s not easy to find others,” he told the Post. He wound up with both geeks and jocks— and immigrants whose English wasn’t the best. It is now. “We saw the kids [who were] working to learn English learn so much faster,” he said.
The EdTech website —which deals with technology in education — devoted a recent article to “4 ways esports improves K-12 skills.” That article said video games (1) improve multi-tasking skills, (2) teach problem-solving, and (3) teach the virtues of “practice, patience and perseverance.” The latter, the report noted, leads to “better study behaviors and decreased drug usage.” So what about the fourth way? A Harvard study found that esports actually lead to increased physical activity because “kids who played sports video games were frequently motivated to take up athletics in real life.” Maybe it’s something about the thrill of wearing a team jersey. The school officials that sportswriter Ray Cox talked to for his story were, well, “tempered” was the word he used. That’s understandable. This is something new and different. Coaches have to be found. Some administrators were worried about the hidden costs of yet another activity. These are all reasonable concerns. We also hope that schools get over these concerns and find faculty members willing to serve as sponsors. We come back to what schools around the country have found: Esports draw a lot of kids who aren’t involved in other activities. This seems something that rural schools, in particular, should be paying attention to. If you’re a kid who doesn’t fit in, a small, rural school can be a very lonely place indeed. And with just three players per team, it seems a lot easier to field an esports team than any other kind of team.
There is one other thing to consider. USA Today reports that 45% of video gamers are female, yet the Overwatch League is almost entirely all-male. If schools find only boys sign up for an esports team, they may want to ask why. Somewhere those schools likely have their local version of Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon. Who’s that, you ask? She plays for the Shanghai Dragons. Time magazine just named her one of this year’s “next generation leaders.” In other words, she’s an international role model. If you’re still laughing, flip on over to the sports pages to see how who’s winning with those inflatable bags of wind.