New York High Schools Add Esports Teams to Boost STEM

With esports now played at the college level and with professional tournaments handing out millions in winnings, two high schools in Buffalo, N.Y., will compete in the High School Esports League starting in January.

by Jay Rey, The Buffalo News / December 19, 2019
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(TNS) — The Tigers of Lewis J. Bennett School of Innovative Technology are set to begin their inaugural season in January.

They’ve been practicing hard after school.

And they’ve compiled a roster with 45 of the high school’s newest star competitors: video gamers.

“It’s way more fun playing with a team than playing by yourself,” said senior Jordan Graves.

Bennett, as well as the International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland, are the latest two high schools to venture into esports.

Esports, if you haven’t been paying attention, is competitive video gaming – and it’s wildly popular.

There’s a professional circuit, where esports teams compete for millions of dollars at tournaments that are broadcast live and fill arenas with adoring fans. In fact, 2019 was a milestone for the global esports market, which for the first time exceeded $1 billion in revenue, according to the marketing research firm Newzoo.

Now, a growing number of colleges are offering esports at the club and varsity levels, some even handing out scholarships to the nation’s top gamers.

It’s even catching on in high school, bringing new meaning to the term "student athlete."

Bennett and I-Prep, thanks to financial help from AT&T, are the first two from the Buffalo Public Schools to offer esports – but they certainly won’t be the last.

The two schools will compete in the High School Esports League starting in January. They will play some of the most popular video games online against other school teams from around the United States, said Bennett coach Jacqueline Albarella, the digital design and animation teacher at the school on Main Street.

It’s just like any other team.

The students have been practicing a couple days a week after school in her room on the second floor. The tournaments are scheduled during the early evenings, but played remotely from the classroom. The Tigers chose to compete in two games: Rocket League and Fortnite.

Albarella had to cap the team at 45 and split the students into varsity and junior varsity squads.

“As an aside, since I started the esports team here at Bennett, I’ve become the most popular teacher in school,” Albarella cracked.

Over at I-Prep, on the city’s West Side, coach Andrew Franz has 16 members on his team, which chose to compete in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

The team practices Monday through Thursday during the after-school program – but only after their academics are completed, of course.

“They’re well beyond me,” said Franz, a special education teacher. “We have some students who are very good.”

A Harvard Cup for video games, anyone?

“Why not?” Franz said. “I love it.”

Albarella and Franz know the argument: Don’t kids play enough video games at home?

But the teachers also recognize the importance of getting students engaged and introducing them to the real potential for careers in that industry.

“Professions in the video gaming world are not only realistic but lucrative and desirable,” Franz said. “Our mindset needs to change with this field and that starts with programs like Jackie’s and mine.”

In fact, Albarella said, video games fit right into the curriculum at Bennett, where students learn to design animated characters, write software code and build the computer hardware and networks.

“Esports connects directly to STEM skills, but most importantly our esports teams gives every single student a chance to be part of a team sport,” she said.

“And when you’re doing it as a team, rather than just playing it all by yourself in your bedroom until 2 in the morning, you’re learning to work as a team to win – just like a basketball team, just like a football team,” Albarella said.

Joseph Ruiz agreed. The sophomore on the I-Prep team said he’s not really good at the traditional sports and doesn’t play them.

“So I do this, instead,” Ruiz said of esports. “I love the idea of being part of a team.”

“I didn’t really grow up playing video games and I’m not very good,” said John Salumu, a junior on the I-Prep team. “I just love the fact that there are so many interesting people to hang out with after school.”

The two esports teams, unveiled Wednesday at Bennett, received funding from AT&T, which was used to help pay for their league fees and purchase the equipment needed to field rosters.

AT&T has given millions of dollars to support STEM initiatives, and has taken an interest in the two esports teams to help educate youth about online safety and cyberbullying, said Kevin Hanna, AT&T’s director of external affairs for the Buffalo region.

“Do they give varsity letters for esports?” Hanna asked.

“We will,” Albarella said. “We will.”

©2019 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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