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High Schools Are Changing the Playing Field with Esports

With national support and the possibility of college scholarships, a growing number of high schools are organizing their video gaming students into competitive esports teams. But the activity has raised a few concerns.

Esports tournament CC BY-SA 2.0
Parents concerned about the amount of time their teenagers spend playing video games may be heartened to learn that more than 200 colleges are now offering esports scholarships for gamers. And these aren’t diploma-mill schools desperate for students. The colleges on this list include respected institutions such as UC-Irvine, Marquette and Ohio State.

“Really?” you might ask, ”College scholarships for playing video games? How did that happen?” Well, if there wasn’t money to be made from esports teams, colleges would likely be content to let students continue as they have: playing video games late into the night in their dorms and then showing up bleary-eyed for class. But colleges apparently noticed that nearly 100 million people tuned in to watch the League of Legends video game world championship in 2018, that's more viewers than for the Super Bowl.

Colleges are also recognizing that esports can bring in new sponsorship deals, esport arenas, promotional opportunities and maybe even some TV money. And though the NCAA has decided not to take a governing role over college esports for now — leaving that responsibility to third-party groups — one should look for these esports programs to continue expanding.

At the high school level, with hopes of providing students with more extracurricular opportunities while also opening new college scholarship avenues, schools across the country are forming esports teams. A partnership forged in 2018 between the National Federation of State High School Associations and the online gaming network is making it all possible. State athletic and activity associations are also getting involved and organizing state-sanctioned tournaments. Here in New Mexico, our first high school esports state tournament was held this past spring.

I’m no gamer, so I did some research on high school esports programs to better understand this growing phenomenon. Here are some of my takeaways.

Esport Positives: Like other extracurricular activities, most schools require students playing on esports teams to maintain passing grades and good attendance. And since playing video games is often a solitary experience, schools see big pluses in getting students who would probably otherwise not be playing a school sport involved in a socially positive team activity. The same benefits students gain by participating on other school teams — be they sports or debate — can also be associated with esports. Meaning, there are lots of things to like about schools organizing esports teams.

Esport Concerns:

  • It's a guy's world. Though ostensibly co-ed, schools’ esports teams are still composed of mostly men. Some schools are making an effort to recruit girls to their teams, but given that the video game genres played in both high school and college tournaments have a much larger male audience, getting girls involved will continue to be a tough sell.
  • Too much screen time. The potential adverse effects on brain development due to excessive screen time is the subject of much research and debate.
  • Game violence. Though schools can decide which games to use in their esport programs, many of the most popular first-person shooter games used in competitions are pretty violent.
  • Physical issues. Repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel can develop in avid gamers. So caution must be taken to avoid these issues.
  • But c’mon, are esports really sports? Esports solidly check most boxes in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of sport, “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” And since studies show that esport players’ heart rates are elevated when they’re competing, one can perhaps argue that “physical exertion” is involved. Though some high school teams make a point to require forms of more strenuous physical exercise before or after their gaming sessions.
There are indeed some potential downsides to school-sponsored esports teams. But as we’re learning, there are also some serious risks involved in other high schools sports, such as boys’ football and girls’ soccer. So, as the high school esports world grows, as it undoubtedly will, schools should develop some safeguarding practices to protect their esport players from the adverse effects of the games.

Want to know more about esports from a parenting perspective? A 2018 Common Sense Media article offers a good esports overview.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.