Esports, or competitive video gaming, may not have the same physical demands as traditional athletics, but students’ focus on the shared qualities of teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership have led schools across the country rushing to adopt the country’s fastest-growing sport.
Esports programs have spread rapidly in high schools across the country over the last few years and are reaching student populations that had previously been untapped by extracurricular programs of any kind, creating larger, more inclusive campus communities and more successful students.
For Chance Mazzia, coach of the Rocky Mountain High School esports team in Colorado, the idea of running a competitive gaming program for his students is a dream come true. “I’ve always loved video games and connecting with people over them. I wish I had this opportunity when I was in high school.”
As Mazzia discovered, video games do more than just unite cliques; they provide an accessible competitive venue for students who are willing – but unable – to participate in traditional sports.
“What I’ve learned along the way is that esports is an opportunity for everyone, and we’ve had a lot of different kinds of students: kids that come from different countries, kids that have disabilities, that can all participate and compete at a high level,” Mazzia said.
The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) has tracked student engagement with esports programs ever since the state signed on with PlayVS – the NFHS Network-partnered platform on which varsity esports in the United States are organized – and Rhonda Blanford-Green, former commissioner of the CHSAA, says the results show a greater integration of campus communities and increased student participation across the board.
“I think numbers and data show what it means for our kids, which is continuous growth and continuous engagement with our member schools,” said Blanford-Green. “So, you’re seeing this collective mix of kids that might not have come together in any other way if this opportunity wasn’t offered.”
“Having CHSAA support esports in Colorado is a huge boost for our legitimacy. It brings it to an understandable level for administration and athletic directors,” Mazzia said.
The low cost of maintaining video games versus traditional sports equipment has also made esports ideal across budgetary considerations. Darrell Wilson, assistant director of activities for the Virginia High School League (VHSL), says that the computers in most schools’ libraries are already able to get the job done.
“If you’re thinking esports is a heavy lift in terms of finance, take a good hard, long look at it. Using your facilities and your equipment, you’ve got the things you need there,” Wilson said. “A large number of faculty, parents and even volunteers have already made an impact in the relatively short time that the VHSL has partnered with PlayVS.”
Wilson expects esports to become a staple within the state’s athletic scene in the near future. “I really feel like we’re on an upward trajectory with the number of schools that are participating. So like football and debate and basketball, esports will be there with League of Legends and Rocket League.”
It’s not just adults leading the charge, either. At the Arkansas-based Don Tyson School of Innovation, it was a student who founded the esports program. “One of my kids made it his community project – three years ago now – to get involved in esports and start the school’s program,” explains Burl Sniff, who runs the esports program at Don Tyson.
Anthony White was only in ninth grade when he decided to bring varsity esports to his school. Today, he’s the captain of Don Tyson’s League of Legends team. “I’ve been playing video games since I was three and always had the passion to compete. When I heard esports was an option at my school, I did everything I could to make it a reality,” says White.
Coach Sniff says that the wider student body has embraced the program. “This year, we got our school administration to have an esports pep rally,” Sniff said. “We played another school, sold concessions, and had a giant HD screen on the wall in the cafeteria. The kids were playing there live, and there were a lot of people in the audience cheering. It was a big success.”
With a low barrier to entry and negligible infrastructure requirements, esports is an easy win for students and administrators alike. As school curriculums across the country become more technologically integrated, the applications for a browser-based extracurricular program will only become more obvious and appealing.
Scholastic esports has made huge strides in bringing in students from all walks of life, including those who otherwise would have been passed over by well-intentioned programs that nonetheless failed to draw them in.
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