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High school esports is growing—and it’s changing who can be an athlete

But these growing opportunities aren't always accessible.

 

Sasha Rogelberg

IRL

Posted on Jan 19, 2024   Updated on Jan 18, 2024, 6:33 pm CST

Varsity teams across U.S. high schools have legitimized esports, paving the way for more students across diverse backgrounds to pursue it in college and professionally.

At Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi, Michigan, the varsity esports team gets the same treatment as any other sport.

In October, esports team members draped in blue and white wrestling robes burst into a dimly lit gymnasium to a raucous crowd of students. Smoke machines produced a fog around rows of gaming computers and a large projector.

The event—a pep rally and exhibition match of Rocket League, a soccer-style video game played with cars trying to score goals for their respective teams, against a local high school—was organized exactly like a pep rally, with the esports team borrowing supplies from the wrestling team’s event held earlier that year.

https://www.tiktok.com/@mnvarsityleague/video/7032135623636946223

Videos of the event circulated online, with ESPN’s TikTok of the assembly match generating over 4.2 million views. House of Highlights, MaxPreps, and other outlets shared clips of the match.

https://www.tiktok.com/@espn/video/7305025450512895278?is_from_webapp=1

Stephen Juncaj, Central Catholic’s esports coach, said the assembly match was more than just for show. The event helped legitimize the esports team, growing its popularity and respect among the school population.

“After the assembly match, and after the ESPN, SportsCenter, and House of Highlights [coverage], I think the kids are kind of walking around with a little bit of a sense of pride of being on the esports team,” Juncaj told the Daily Dot.

Throughout the fall and spring seasons, esports athletes at Central Catholic practice multiple times a week after school for matches. Instead of soccer or basketball, they play games such as Valorant, League of Legends, or Super Smash Bros. Instead of a field or court, they play in front of computer rigs. 

Since helping launch the Central Catholic team in 2019, Juncaj has recruited about 35 students per season to the school’s esports team. Thanks to Central Catholic’s growing student interest in the sport, in part because of enthusiasm generated from the October exhibition match, these numbers stand to increase. High school esports is growing across the U.S., with over 8,600 high schools starting esports teams since 2018. 

Along with attracting students to a team sport, the rise of high school esports has generated opportunities for college scholarships and certification and degrees in esports team management. 

However, participating in esports can be expensive, and financial barriers and video games’ white male-dominated history have meant these growing opportunities are not always accessible to students interested in joining esports teams.

Legitimizing esports

When Juncaj was a student at Central Catholic about 15 years ago, his video game community was confined to four or five other kids who played after school. Juncaj dabbled in streaming as a high schooler, but competing on a school team was a fantasy.

He remembered thinking, “I don’t think I’m not necessarily gonna get bullied for it, but I don’t think people are gonna think it’s that cool.”

But perceptions of esports have changed. Though online gaming has been on the rise since the 1990s, with World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Minecraft, Overwatch, and Fortnight popularizing the activity, COVID lockdowns made competitive online gaming dramatically increase.

At Central Catholic, the esports team was the only varsity sport to continue during the spring 2020 semester because of its capability to be adapted to remote gameplay.

At high schools around the country, increased support for esports has translated to successful fundraising to buy or repurpose PCs as gaming computers and to organize travel matches. At Central Catholic, support for a varsity team came from the top: Athletic Director Aaron Babicz helmed the team’s creation, believing it to be another source of competition and team-building.

As more parents saw their children playing video games over the pandemic, they began to understand the growing popularity of esports better.

Before Claire LaBeaux became the chief advancement officer of the Network of Academic and Scholastic Esports Federations (NASEF), part of the nonprofit World Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation working to increase esports opportunities in schools, she didn’t understand why her kids loved video games.

She sat down with her son, who had begun playing Fortnite with friends during the COVID lockdown, and approached his interest in the game with curiosity.

“A lot of parents, if they themselves weren’t gamers, they don’t understand it, and so they reject it,” LaBeaux told the Daily Dot.

A 2020 study by the University of California, Irvine’s Connected Learning Lab found that other parents had similar initial responses to video games as LaBeaux. Partnering with NASEF, the Connected Learning Lab asked parents of students involved with NASEF, which connects high schoolers with esports tournaments and career opportunities, about concerns about their children’s video gaming behaviors. 

While parents expressed concerns about video games being addictive and being an “excessive time commitment,” they also acknowledged the benefits of gaming in the context of school esports. All parents surveyed reported that student involvement in scholastic esports was a way to build community. Meanwhile, 85% percent of surveyed parents believed that their child’s involvement in school esports built greater affiliation with their school, and 65% reported that esports helped their children develop better general life skills.

Jon Chapman, CEO of online high school esports gaming platform PlayVS, has noticed those same positive traits in high school esports athletes.

“We’re literally giving them their first taste of all of the benefits you get from traditional sports, teamwork, communication, resiliency, persistence, preparation, ability to perform under pressure, the ability to learn from defeat and from success,” Chapman told the Daily Dot.

The growth of parental support for esports has also come from the dismissal of the once-held idea that video games cause violence among young teens, particularly boys. Chapman insists that platforms such as PlayVS are also able to regulate what games are played and the levels of graphic violence.

“The ability to find a sense of self on a team really outweighs any concerns,” he said.

Among the student body, esports has drawn in a diverse audience.

“In many cases, not everyone is physically gifted to be an outstanding basketball player or baseball player,” Chapman said. “In video games, that can level the playing field. You don’t need those physical gifts in order to compete at the highest level.”

A new type of athlete

Because esports does not require the athleticism needed in traditional varsity sports, school teams have attracted students across demographics and interest groups.

At P.S. 721M in New York, a public high school for students with intellectual disabilities, the esports team was designed four years ago as part of a New York Special Olympics Unified League pilot program. The Unified League is part of the Special Olympics’ Unified Sports program to build competitive sports teams made up of both athletes with and without disabilities.

Shortly after joining the Unified League pilot program in New York, the team joined the Unified Esports League on PlayVS, a gaming platform for high school esports teams.

P.S. 721M’s esports club, which existed about a decade before it became a competitive team, was hugely popular. Among the school’s population of 150, about 25 are club members, making it the P.S. 721M’s fastest-growing club, physical education teacher and esports coach Joe Stewart told the Daily Dot. 

“A lot of times with athletics programs, you kind of get the same types of kids that are good at soccer or good at basketball or good at volleyball,” he said. “But esports brings out a whole other group of kids.”

The esports team at Two Rivers High School in Wisconsin has also attracted a unique crowd.

“We have students who are on the football team, the musical, swim team. We even have some from robotics,” Two Rivers esports coach Noah Huckins told the Daily Dot.

Though predominantly male, the TRHS esports team has about three female and six nonbinary students. The team is a catch-all for students looking for belonging who haven’t been able to find it elsewhere.

“It’s a good place for them to hang out when they don’t usually fit in,” Huckins said.

Gaming culture has changed since Huckins was a teen. He grew up hearing insults and misogynistic comments over the mics of fellow gamers, but a school-supervised environment has helped to foster a culture of acceptance, he said.

“I feel very welcomed,” Two Rivers junior and esports team member Daizee Ducat told the Daily Dot. “After three years of being a part of the program, I’ve never felt excluded in anything.”

Though Two Rivers’ esports team offers a haven for students, acceptance for the esports team is not as widespread as at Central Catholic.

“The other groups, other sports, they don’t take too kindly to us,” Huckins said. “They don’t treat us as if we’re equal as a sport.”

Attracting non-traditional athletes may be responsible for esports’ growth, but it also means the team feels different than a traditional varsity sports team. The school may recognize all sports as equal on paper, but esports still occupies a separate space in the school’s sporting culture.

But Ducat and Huckins agree that the longer the student body has been exposed to esports, the more accepting it’s become.

“It’s just lack of understanding,” Huckins said. “It’s definitely getting better. It gets better every year.”

College opportunities

Student interest and efforts to legitimize esports have been helped by college scholarship programs hoping to grow their competitive esports programs.

Juncaj said that since the founding of the varsity team, at least 10 members of the Central Catholic esports team received college scholarships for esports. At Two Rivers, at least seven of the esports team members have received similar scholarships since the team’s founding.

“Students who weren’t planning to go to college, who joined our club, now they actually want to go to college,” Huckins said.

College esports has helped put smaller colleges on the map. 

In 2016, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, became the first Division I school to form a varsity esports team. Today, there are about 500 varsity college teams.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that this generation coming up, this is their sport. These are their heroes. These are the teams that follow,” Glenn Platt, co-director of Miami University’s esports program, told the Daily Dot. “This is where they spend money, and with eyeballs comes advertising, money, sponsorship.”

About 400 students are involved in the university’s esports club. Miami University also offers an undergraduate certificate and master’s degree in esports management.

Platt said investing in esports programs was not only a way for the school to break into a growing industry but a way to recruit students.

The university offers $150,000 annually in esports scholarships. Though Platt will try to recruit about 20 to 30 esports athletes per year, about five to 10 will accept scholarships. At schools with similarly sized esports programs, scholarships will range from full rides to $1,000 yearly.

When giving scholarships, Platt is also cognizant of the types of students he recruits, earmarking scholarships for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, women, and students of color.

Though high school environments are beginning to reflect a less toxic gaming culture for women and gamers of color, Platt said, progress is not yet reflected in collegiate and professional spaces.

Breaking barriers

Despite the growing landscape of college and professional esports, financial and social barriers have prevented some young gamers from grasping these opportunities.

Though classrooms may create welcoming environments for diverse student-gamers, the online gaming industry has not been as friendly to young women and people of color. In 2014, thousands of members in the video gaming community doxed and harassed outspoken feminists, including video game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu and media critic Anita Sarkeesian, using the hashtag Gamergate. Gamergaters opposed political correctness, hoping to preserve “ethical journalism. They created conspiracy theories that bled into alt-right movements. 

In July 2022, Melanin Gamers, a community promoting diversity and inclusion in the video game industry, created The Watch, an initiative to eliminate racism in video game communities. In an interview with Vice, Melanin Gamers Chief Researcher Alan Ashalley-Anthony said she was called the N-word while playing Overwatch and had limited opportunities to play characters of color in games such as Call of Duty.

“I do believe that once we hold developers and also publishers accountable for the communities that they harbor, that’s when you can go forward and make gaming a more enjoyable experience for everyone,” Ashalley-Anthony told Vice.

While there’s been a cultural shift to making gaming spaces less toxic toward women, the cost of esports has prevented less wealthy gamers and gamers of color from entering the industry.

“Gaming equipment is expensive,” said BerNadette Lawson-Williams. She’s the founder and coordinator of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Johnson C. Smith University’s Esports and Gaming Trifecta, the first at a historically Black college or university. 

“This economic barrier can preclude gamer-scholars grades K-20, who cannot afford gaming PCs, as well as internet access, from gaining exposure to PC game play,” Lawson-Williams said.

Gaming computer rigs can cost from $700 to $4,000. Moreover, many competitive esports platforms prioritize PC games that require these rigs. More affordable console games are less popular on esports platforms. (For comparison, a Nintendo Switch retails for about $300; a PlayStation 5 is about $500.)

According to Lawson-Williams, African Americans make up 2% of professionals employed in esports and gaming industries, though 83% of African Americans ages 18 to 24 play video games daily or weekly.

Lawson-Williams identified esports as one way to bring more Black students into STEM sectors.

In February and March, JCSU hosted an HBCU Esports Week in partnership with Activision Blizzard, bringing in over 200 high school students interested in esports. The university offers an academic program in Esports and Gaming Management, which has attracted 65 students to the program and esports team.

In addition to HBCUs creating programs and initiatives to create a pipeline for Black gamers to enter the esports industry, colleges such as Miami University are forming teams in console games to be more accessible to gamers without access to expensive equipment, acknowledging that financial barriers will continue to exist in the industry without changes. 

“Talent is not at all correlated with any gender or ethnic identity of any sort,” Platt said. “In theory, there should be a lot more diversity in esports than other sports. The reality is, I think, diversity remains a huge challenge.”

What the future holds

Platt refers to the future of esports as the “Wild West” because there is no clear recruitment pipeline for high school students. But one clear thing, he said, is that interest among high schoolers continues to grow.

“I probably get an email a day, from some player from some high school from somewhere in the U.S.,” he said.

At Central Catholic, Juncaj hopes his esports team’s recent viral exhibition match will be part of this momentum.

“We want other high schools to see what we’re doing and we want people to copy us,” Juncaj said.

At the October exhibition match, there was a palpable feeling from both teams that the esports players of today would have an impact on the future of the industry.

“They kind of knew what had just happened,” Juncaj said. “They were like, ‘Wow, we were just part of esports history here.”

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*First Published: Jan 19, 2024, 6:00 am CST