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E-sports in schools primed to grow ‘bigger than the NFL’

VARSITY VIDEO GAMES—E-sports teams—such as the squad pictured above at Nobesville High School in Indiana—often appeal to smart and creative students who have not participated previously in school activities, teacher Donald Wettrick says.
VARSITY VIDEO GAMES—E-sports teams—such as the squad pictured above at Nobesville High School in Indiana—often appeal to smart and creative students who have not participated previously in school activities, teacher Donald Wettrick says.

More than 100 students tried out for just 30 spots when the innovation class at Noblesville High School in the Indianapolis suburbs launched an e-sports team in December 2016. And Noblesville is not alone—dozens of high schools across the nation are adding competitive video-gaming as it becomes one of the fastest-growing activities in both K12 and higher ed.

Importantly, e-sports appeals to students who may not have been captivated by existing extracurricular activities, says Donald Wettrick, an innovation and open-source learning teacher who guided the Noblesville students in forming their team.

“It serves an underserved community—the average kid on the e-sports team will probably not be a football, basketball or hockey player,” says Wettrick. “It serves a very creative and smart crowd who doesn’t connect well with school.”

Some of the video games that high school teams commonly compete in involve battles, such as the fantasy-based League of Legends, the sci-fi adventure Overwatch, and Smash Brothers, in which popular Nintendo characters clash.

These titles are decidedly cartoonish compared to another popular e-sports game, the more realistic first-person shooter, Counter-Strike. Sports-inspired games include Rocket League, which is soccer played by cars.

Integrating careers and curriculum

One of the most determined e-sports movements is underway in Southern California, where 25 high schools have entered teams in the Orange County High School Esports League.

The league has also developed a four-year high school English curriculum that focuses on e-sports career pathways, an initiative that also involves the county’s education department, educators in its school districts and the University of California, Irvine.

“The kids are going to game—we might as well capture that and create something healthy around it,” says Anthony Saba, head of school at Samueli Academy, a public charter high school in Santa Ana. At the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, more than 60 students expressed interest in joining an e-sports program that had only 12 slots.

Outside of competition and game design, career pathways include marketing the teams and competitions, organizing and managing events, graphic design, broadcasting, and entrepreneurship around businesses that e-sports will spawn, adds Tom Turner, the Orange County Department of Education’s director of STEM instruction.

“If you want to find something disruptive, this is it,” Turner says. “The magic is in programs that you don’t have to explain to kids, because they get it. You have to convince the adults.”

Building soft skills

Many high schools have also joined the national High School Esports League, which organizes its own competitions and tournaments. The league—which has grown from about 20 teams a few years ago to several thousand today—also connects students with college recruiters who offer e-sports scholarships, says CEO Mason Mullenioux.

The league runs four seasons—two in fall and two in spring—along with open summer competitions.

E-sports competition also helps students develop soft skills. It requires intensive collaboration and communication among team members, says Wettrick, who’s also the innovation coordinator for the Noblesville Schools district.

“There’s a really big future in e-sports, not just as a player, but in development, marketing, support and so on,” he says. “E-sports will be bigger than the NFL in about four years—worldwide, it’s already bigger than the NBA.”