Who would have ever thought that my students could win $12,000 in scholarship money by playing video games in one year? This is a real thing that happened, but strangely enough, this was not the best thing that video games provided my students that year. The effects of a high school esports program that was selfishly started due to my own passions went far beyond anything I could have hoped for, and I fell in love with the idea of spreading it to as many people as possible because I truly believe it is good.
High School and Esports
In 2016 I was in my third year of teaching high school computer science in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. I had a reputation for liking video games, and they were a topic I could connect with many of my students on. As a result, it was a frequent occasion that I would be debating games, watching new trailers, and regaling ranked debacles from the night before with my students. During that year, one student came to me saying that a new national league for high school esports was starting and that we should start a program at SLP. Being someone who regularly watched professional esports, and someone who seriously competed in some games, I was immediately on board. I knew a lot of my students played video games too, and thus I would have a large amount of interested players.
I luckily had an amazing department head who, upon hearing I wanted to start a new esports program, was immediately supportive. She and I wrote a Perkins grant to fund it for three years, and I got to work on learning how to open the first high school esports program in Minnesota. Fast forward and I am holding my first meetings, with over 50 kids crammed into my computer lab eagerly listening to how they can become involved. In the first year my program had more kids than basketball. That is incredible for a club. Now comes the natural response, “Of course you did, you were giving kids an excuse to stare at a screen more!” Frankly this was a sentiment held by parents who came to my parent informational meeting. By the end of the season the amount of parents who expressed this concern to me dropped to zero. We started getting parents who would defend the program. Why was that?
The answer is far from simple, and to those that don’t view video games as having any value, I hear you. Honestly a lot of gaming can be a waste of productive time, depending on how you view time and the value of it in productivity vs enjoyment. To those without much gaming experience I would compare esports to any traditional sport. Consider a few things: if you were in a sport, think about the friends you made and how you made them. How you overcame hardship, like me crying with a team of seniors knowing the game we just finished was our last game of football in our lives. To the successes you had, like when my friend and I finally made state in track and field our senior year. Also think about how much easier it was to make friends when you were in your element. Was the best kid on the football team ever without friends? No, because you gain a certain confidence when you are in an environment where you feel comfortable and experienced. That is what gaming can be for some kids. The friendships I made on the basketball court are the strongest friendships that lasted past high school. Think of the friends you made in a sport – did that add value to your life? Are you happier with the companionship you got from that, let alone the life lessons of hard work, practice, discipline, responsibility, and teamwork? Here’s the thing though: we were lucky. We were athletes. There was always something for us. For these kids, there just isn’t.
While my group of students is incredibly variable (except a predictable lack of females), there was one group that gravitated to the club more than others. Those that were socially isolated. In my experience, and that of my colleagues, the average esports player in high school isn’t in sports, doesn’t warrant extra support due to failing grades, and aren’t high-flyers to get gifted and talented support programs. There is literally nothing in the school system for a large group of students who want to belong, find friends, and be recognized just like every other kid in the building.
So that is where the beautiful thing happened: students who once had very few friends (or none) are having hangouts and sleepovers with other like-minded kids. Parents who once feared that their kids wouldn’t have friends are now hosting them coming over. I had a student with Autism say that this program had done more to help him socially than the last 6 years of school programs. That student, by the way, is now the captain of the entire club of 40+ students and has been approached by colleges to play. Also, these same students are learning life skills just like any other sport: teamwork, discipline, reaction to setbacks, social skills, and many more. The school newspapers are doing stories about them, and they have a trophy case in the hallway. For many of these kids, this is the first time a group of students who NEVER get celebrated can feel connected to their school, and research says they do! Colleges are finding that the dropout rates for students involved in esports are significantly lower than the average population.
So, at the end of the year, my Overwatch team won the national championship, gaining $12,000 in scholarship money. They were covered in magazines and by news stations in Minneapolis. Weirdly enough, I don’t ever hear them talking about any of that. I hear them laughing with their friends, just like when I would laugh with my best friends from basketball, and the same group my dad used to talk about from his high school basketball days. There are a lot of things esports programs can do to positively affect the lives of their participants, but one thing I keep going back to is this: high school esports programs give kids who are historically ignored a place to belong and a place to make lasting friendships. That is a really good thing, and you don’t have to understand gaming to understand that.