Video games as high school athletics? It's happening
Can you define sport? It's become more complicated in recent years and even more so since the National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) sanctioned Esports (video-gaming competition) this past year — and will continue it on an even bigger scale this coming year.
"The traditional question people ask is, 'Is this really a sport?'" NFHS CEO Mark Koski said. "But I got out of that game a long time ago, debating whether or not it's a sport, because we're in the activities business, so if students can be involved under the direction of a teacher/coach, it's a great thing."
Last year, the NFHS paired with PlayVS — a burgeoning online gaming platform founded and run by Delane Parnell, a former venture capital firm employee turned Esports CEO — to roll out Esports competition in high schools throughout the nation. They started with 12 states, and this year hope to have more than 20 as gaming popularity continues to spread like wildfire — not just here, but around the world.
Koski said the NFHS started looking into Eesports two years ago as a way of "engaging kids more nationally." The organization currently has 12 million student participants, 8 million of whom are student athletes and 4 million who participate in activities such as speech and debate, music, drama and band.
"So we're always looking to include kids in after-school activities, and one of the ways that we started to hear more and more from schools and coaches about, was through Esports," said Koski. "So we started to look into it two years ago and worked with a number of companies, then partnered with PlayVS, and launched it last fall."
How does it work?
In cooperation with PlayVS, Esports is played over two seasons (October to January and February to May), each of which consist of preseason, regular and postseason competition, with a state champion crowned for each of the three games on the Esports roster at its culmination. The three games on that roster — at least for now — include League of Legends, Rocket League and Smite. All three are team games, which was far from a coincidence, according to Koski.
"One thing we're very big on is that they're all team-oriented games," he said. "Which allows for teaching and helping these kids learn team concepts."
Student teams are matched with other schools across the states based on level of skill. Schools can field an unlimited number of teams and are required to have a faculty advisor, along with access to Internet and computers. There's a $16 participation fee per player each month, but according to Koski, the limited cost is one of the primary objectives of the sport that requires little to no travel.
"Our philosophy is to keep kids on site, playing virtually with no additional costs," Koski said. "We also worried about computer labs not being up to par to compete in these games, and I'm happy to say that we haven't had one school that didn't already have the capabilities of playing our games ... that was exciting for us."
An obvious question, considering the climate we're living in, is whether there are shooting games. Koski's answer: "absolutely not." Another common question, was whether popular sports games such as Madden and/or NBA 2K be incorporated in the near or further off future? Koski said that's a hope of his, but also that there are various hoops to jump through in order to make that happen.
"Our athletic directors are sport-minded individuals and NBA 2K is one of the most popular games around the world, so any game we can get that might get more kids involved, we want to do that," Koski said. "So we're heavily into talks and negotiations for both of those games (Madden, 2K), but there are a lot of things that have to happen regarding IP rights and publisher contracts and those type of things."
Forest Grove High School athletic director Doug Thompson said he has heard quiet rumblings regarding Esports around his school, but was admittedly a bit dumbfounded by its prospects until he became further educated on its popularity.
"My first reaction was, 'are you kidding me?'" Thompson said. "Then I went home and researched it and saw how big it was, and my boys thought that would be great for kids to get involved with."
And it's that involvement that has Thompson and Koski excited about the prospects of Esports going forward.
Koski said initial studies showed that 90 percent of the kids that participated in last year's inaugural season were not and had not participated in any school activity before — something that excited him.
"Why wouldn't we want to capture them in the after school hours and put them in a setting where they learn team concepts and are motivated by a teacher/coach?" he said. "They're also now required to meet academic and attendance standards, and those are good things."
Oregon isn't one of the states offering Esports, but OSAA executive director Peter Weber said that — like a number of other sports, such as lacrosse and clay target — Esports is on his radar. But it's also somewhat behind the eight-ball thanks in part to a policy that requires 50 schools to offer it before it can be considered.
"We actually talked to our board about that in July and talked about maybe changing that," Weber said. "Other states have developed an emerging activity policy that gives those activities that don't reach that threshold but have some interest, an acknowledgement or provisional acceptance that allows them to grow in some way. So were looking at developing a policy like that."
Weber said that interest has been somewhat limited in Oregon thus far, but like Koski and Thompson, he said he and others at the OSAA would be foolish not to look at Esports as something that can help kids get more involved with their schools.
"When I've talked to directors of other states involved, that's what they're seeing, that they're reaching people they don't reach with more traditional options," Weber said. "Hopefully as we continue to look at it, if we can put those people in team atmospheres, hold them accountable academically, and they can benefit from those positive things later in life."
Often, people who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of video games think of the activity simply as a means of "vegging-out." And many — upon hearing of Esports — question whether kids should be further encouraged to sit in front of their television or computer, when they'd be far better served getting away from it and being physically active. Yet, studies have shown that video game/Esports offer far more benefits than how they're often portrayed.
Pew Research Report states that video games play a vital role in teen friendships and character development, and NCES reported that students who participated in extracurricular activities of any sort perform higher on math and reading assessments.
Also, Esports — while in the initial and somewhat experimental stage at the high school level — is a bona fide collegiate sport, with more than 200 colleges and universities offering nearly $15 million in scholarships.
So while Koski, Weber and Thompson all admitted to some initial concern about promoting something that even they at times have fought against (getting kids away from the TV or computer), each acknowledged they see and are enthusiastic about what the future may hold in the arena of Esports.
"I don't think we're going to have a bunch of kids quit playing other sports to play Esports, but it's going to tap in to a group of kids that aren't or haven't been involved," Thompson said. "And if that helps them be a part of the school, that's great."
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