Cuy Sheffield

@cuysheffield

eA Case for Interscholastic Esports

The International 5 Dota 2 Tournament — Credit to Valve

I’ve been thinking a lot about the growth of esports and its potential impact on high school education and the future of work in an increasingly digital economy. I strongly believe that within the next decade, millions of people across the world will earn a living from jobs related to video games and esports making it one of the fastest growing new industries. This creates a significant opportunity for the institutionalization of esports to accelerate this industry while preparing the next generation and increasing economic access of underprivileged groups for these future jobs. The best way to do this is through the adoption of interscholastic esports in middle school, high school, and college. In this post, I will explore this concept in more detail by comparing it to traditional sports.

Interscholastic Sports

I grew up in a small town in Ohio where I played basketball throughout my childhood, middle school, and high school years. I credit this experience in my formative years as incredibly valuable to my growth and happiness and I’m sure many other student athletes would attest to the same. Interscholastic sports are commonly viewed by educators as an extension of the classroom and for some student athletes even a primary motivation to show up to the classroom.

Playing competitive sports teaches students leadership, discipline, commitment, work ethic, teamwork, performing under pressure, handling criticism, dealing with success and failure, and many other valuable soft skills that translate to the workforce. Sports also provide social inclusiveness allowing students to have a built in friend group and a key aspect of their social identity tied to their success in a productive and celebrated activity.

However, there are still a significant number of students that either don’t have the physical ability or aren’t interested in participating in traditional sports. Other school sponsored or extracurricular activities like music, theater, and arts provide valuable outlets for creative expression in addition to the development of many of these same soft skills. Unfortunately, there are still millions of students who are not interested in these activities either or are not socially incentivized to participate.

It’s commonly cited that when students do not participate in any extracurricular activities, their academic performance suffers and there is a greater likelihood that they struggle to build productive social relationships. I would hypothesize that when students must construct an identity around being “cool” or popular because of the way they act without a foundation of a tangible skill they would be more likely to embrace unhealthy behaviors like bullying or drug and alcohol use. There are also fewer consequences for unhealthy behavior and poor academic performance if a student wouldn’t risk losing the opportunity to be eligible to participate in a sport or activity that they are passionate about.

At every school in the country, there are dozens of students that dream of becoming professional athletes. For many of them, this dream is also seen as their only “way out” and chance to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Dreams provide powerful motivation to practice and improve that should not go underappreciated. However, any good guidance counselor will implore students to have a “plan B” in the likely scenario that they are unable to accomplish this dream.

Sports provide a tangible path to a free college education for thousands of students through athletic scholarships. However, in popular sports like football and at the major powerhouse schools, sports come before class. Rigorous training, film, and practice schedules more akin to a full time job prevent these athletes from having the time to maximize their opportunity to learn in class or through other college extracurriculars or internships.

Career Preparation

When a student athlete’s career ends for the majority after high school and a small few after college, they rely on the soft skills they they have developed over their career in conjunction with their formal education to find a career. Most often, this career will have to be outside of their sport as there are a relatively small number of jobs in the sports industry relative to demand to work there. For the best chance at a career in sports, individuals are limited to the profession of coaching. At the college and professional level these roles will generally be filled by individuals with experience playing at a high level.

During a student athlete’s career, they are also restricted from opportunities to monetize their own success due to eligibility requirements. Powerful organizations like the NCAA effectively own the rights to a student’s name generating billions of dollars for schools at the highest level while athletes are unable to capture any of this value outside of their scholarship. This disproportionately affects black athletes and also prevents them from valuable entrepreneurial and business experience that could be gained were they allowed to monetize their own names through sponsorships, services, or merchandise. As an aside, I’m excited to see more current and former student athletes continue to challenge this structure as well as the emergence of new leagues and organizations with better models like the upcoming HBCU league.

Gender Implications

It’s also important to acknowledge the gendered nature of traditional sports where there are almost always separate boys and girls teams to account for physical differences in size and strength. Federal laws like Title IX have made significant progress in growing the number of girls who participate in sports by requiring schools to provide an equal number of opportunities. However, girls teams still often have to compete with boys teams for access to facilities and resources. This separation of boys and girls for significant amounts of their extracurricular time facilitates reproduction of existing gender stereotypes as well as contributes to normalization of a mysogynistic male sports culture often referred to as harmless “locker room talk”.

Required Resources

For schools to offer traditional sports, there is a significant investment in equipment and facilities required to support most sports. Weather impacts the seasons that sports can be offered and it’s a challenge for schools without expensive indoor facilities to compete with those that have this ability to practice year-round. The students, parents, and coaches also incur a cost in the time needed to travel to opposing schools for games and tournaments that may be hosted across the state or even country. While football is the sport that impacts the greatest number of students due to the size of the team, it also is the most likely to lead to serious injuries that can impact the athlete’s physical health for years after their career.

As schools allocate their increasingly stretched budgets, it’s important to recognize the return of their investment in the form of personal development for their students. Now that we have good understanding of the costs and benefits of traditional sports for schools, let’s analyze esports as a comparison.

Interscholastic Esports

I grew up playing video games as a primary hobby outside of traditional sports and continued through my college years and into early adulthood. It was always an unstructured social activity between a small group of friends. I considered it a productive use of time in building relationships as well as an alternative form of meditation where I could release stress by harnessing competitive energy and focus into an NBA 2k rivalry game against a close friend. The adrenaline and joy in a game winning shot or frustration in a close loss was similar to the emotions I felt in physical sports. This was compounded by the fact that a recent string of success or failure would be a frequent topic of conversation. During this time, I never considered the possibility that playing video games could become an avenue to a career in a growing industry.

For much of my time in school, the only legitimate career in video games I had ever heard of was as a game designer or developer. These roles both require a highly specialized skillset that could only be developed over years of training that doesn’t seem accessible to most regular video game players. While I applaud efforts to teach computer science and web development as core classes starting at an early level, I still think there are similar challenges and worry when coding becomes viewed as the only skillset that will allow a student to find a career in the digital economy. If a student doesn’t have a strong background in math and early exposure to coding, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to have the confidence and ability to catch up and learn these important but challenging skills.

I strongly believe that educators should strive to get kids excited about school, promote interest in learning and help develop early skills that prepare them for jobs in the modern workforce. The easiest way to motivate students to learn is to find interests that they are passionate about and willing to put work in to pursue knowledge and skills related to them. There’s no question that there are millions of kids passionate to the point of obsessed about their favorite video games.

At the same time, educators should consider growing industries or careers and their respective barriers to entry as it relates to education and training. Esports is one such industry that is growing at a rapid pace globally and has a relatively low barrier to entry and growth. I’d argue that young people also have a competitive advantage as they are the ones that understand the mechanics, culture, and trends with the latest games and have direct experience as the target consumers for them. While traditional high prestige occupations like doctors and lawyers require many years of formalized training and experience, esports only requires understanding and experience playing games. Few adults can dedicate hours a day to keep up with and build skills at the latest popular games. The top players and leaders in these gaming communities can often be below drinking age while many older adults who grew up without playing video games, fail to even understand the attraction of them.

Bringing Esports into Schools

At this point, students are going to spend countless hours of their youth playing video games as a primary social activity. Schools and parents have the choice to either shun or embrace this passion. By embracing esports and creating a formalized structure as a competitive interscholastic activity, teachers and coaches will be able to harness many of the same positive soft skills that are built through participation in traditional sports. This could also help reach the millions of kids who don’t currently participate in sports, arts, or music to provide them the opportunity to join a team and be celebrated for their skill on popular online games.

Providing a formal structure as an interscholastic team can also teach and reinforce positive habits in online gaming. For example, while informal gaming competition can lead to unhealthy prolonged periods in front of a screen that have directly led to health consequences, coaches could strictly require set periods of practice followed by rest. They could encourage physical activity, sleep, and a healthy diet to achieve peak mental performance for their gaming. As games become more even more immersive with new technologies like VR and AR into the future, these habits will become even more important to maintain physical and mental health.

Gender Implications

This formalization combined with direct adult supervision and guidance from coaches could also help change some of the most negative aspects of gaming culture. As gaming has been a primarily male dominated hobby and industry, it has suffered from sexist ideologies that are reinforced both within games themselves as well as treatment and dialogue between gamers evidenced by events like GamerGate. This has created a hostile culture that is both unwelcoming to female gamers as well as learned sexist behavior that male gamers take with them and expand into their non-gaming lives and relationships as well. It’s in the economic interest of the entire gaming industry and community to grow female participation increasing the total addressable market size.

Educators and coaches could directly address and reprogram this culture through several means.

  1. They could aim to expand access and encourage participation from female gamers starting with middle school teams.
  2. They could provide a safe space where girls could compete against boys at games without being intimidated by sexist comments by establishing no tolerance policies for this behavior with consequences of getting kicked off the team.

I’d also argue that the existence of a new popular and celebrated interscholastic activity that is co-ed by default could have a significant impact on the gendered socialization of teenage boys. There is no innate competitive advantage that boys have over girls in any video game. Therefore, with increased access and encouragement for girls to participate with decreased intimidation from boys, a competitive balance will emerge where the most talented gamers with the best work ethics will rise to the top regardless of gender. Co-ed teams will allow teen boys and girls to spend hundreds of hours practicing and competing together as teammates and equals which can contribute to the development of respect and positive relationships. Girls will also have the opportunity to compete at the highest level building valuable confidence in themselves.

It’s needless to say that this effect will not develop on its own in the unstructured environment of competitive gaming today. If esports continues to grow in its current environments, it will further reinforce these negative norms and remain a male dominated industry where control and economic value will accrue to men.

Career Preparation

There are a growing number of full time professional gamers who make their income from winning tournaments, sponsorships, and monetizing twitch audiences. However, the highest earning of these opportunities are currently limited to the best of the best similar to professional sports. I’ve argued in an earlier post that as new technologies like public blockchains and cryptogoods that carry real world value gain traction, the number of people across the world who can make a living by playing games will dramatically increase.

In addition, there is a growing ecosystem of other roles in the industry. As teacher Chris Aviles recently found, 25% of the students that showed interest in his team wanted to perform other related functions. These included “developing the website, running social media accounts, overseeing the Twitch stream, managing team logistics, running the in game camera, acting as team journalists and providing commentary on the broadcast”. Interest in structured competitive gaming can motivate students to learn these key skills.

At the same time, esports could avoid problematic issues in traditional high school and college sports around distribution of earnings. It’s silly to imagine a star Fornite student gamer suspended from the school team for accepting some free gear from a gaming company. Student gamers should be allowed to monetize their talent through their own Twitch streams or earn a share of their teams streaming revenue. This provides the opportunity to teach entrepreneurship as well as marketing, business, and finance skills to allow the students to find sponsorships or other creative ways to monetize.

Experience playing and supporting these teams will also give students insight into opportunities for products and services in the growing industry. They should be encouraged to research and pursue them in conjunction with teachers acting as advisers and mentors. Students could manage team budgets to pay for entries to tournaments as well as earn a percentage of winnings without student gamers having to take the risk of informal gambling on games to earn income from their skills.

As esports has a lower barrier to entry than traditional sports and can be viewed for free across the world on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, it is likely to become a bigger industry than traditional sports in the not so distant future. The variety of popular games and gaming communities will lead to hundreds of professional leagues that interscholastic leagues could ultimately develop talent to feed into. Therefore, over the next decade there will be significantly more directly relevant career opportunities for students with esports experience than those who played traditional sports.

Resources Required

From a resource perspective, the cost of setting up and maintaining space for competitive gaming is significantly lower than maintainence of the fields, gyms, and equipment used by traditional sports. Tech classrooms and computer labs could be easily re-purposed to serve as practice venues after school. Existing theaters or gymnasiums could be configured to broadcast games or competitive matches that could be attended by students and the greater community building school spirit and providing a fun and celebrated environment that would motivate the gaming team to succeed. There is also a reduced time cost as teams could compete with schools across the state, country, or even globe online without having to travel to meet in person.

Conclusion

Ultimately, interscholastic esports can replicate many of the current benefits of organized sports while expanding them to reach a greater audience of students. It can provide new benefits in gender socialization through co-ed teams while better preparing students for growing careers in the digital economy. I’m incredibly excited about the recent funding for startups like PlayVS to build critical infrastructure for schools to support interscholastic esports. They are starting to roll out esports tournaments in school districts through their partnership with NFHS this fall. The Big Ten has already started to televise gaming competitions between clubs at member schools and over 50 colleges have scholarship sponsored esports teams. I hope that these pilots can provide validation and data to support these hypotheses that esports can lead to increased extracurricular engagement from new groups of students and improve their overall performance in school. Students, parents, and educators should push for their schools to realize these benefits by embracing this new industry of competitive gaming.

Thanks to Tiffany Zhong, Mekka Okereke, and Blake Henderson for providing feedback on this post.

I’d love to chat with any investors, entrepreneurs, teachers, or students interested in making interscholastic esports a reality. Feel free to reach out or follow me on Twitter.

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