IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Hoquiam School District Becoming a Pioneer in Esports

The first school district in Washington state with its own virtual reality headsets is using them to boost student engagement, offer new outlets for activity and complement lessons in game and software design.

(TNS) — His socks padding a three-by-three yoga mat in the Hoquiam High School library, torso spinning and arms punching the air, 11-year-old Makai Strum dunked on his Dutch challenger.

Strum shouted to his teammates, three middle-school-aged boys standing on their own mats a few yards away, "Did you see that?"

They did, they say. Each of the boys is wearing a pair of goggles encased in white plastic just a few inches from their eyes, blocking their view of the outside world.

The goggles, perceptually, at least, are transporting the boys into a zero-gravity hockey arena, where they work to score a discus into the opponent's goal, each controlling the body of a digital robot as if it were their own.

The boys are competing in a Virtual Reality Esports game against a team from the Netherlands, made up of players from Remio, Inc., a company that supplies VR software. The boys won the first round 13-0.

Having just witnessed the game, their coach, Chris Nitti, wearing an electric bowtie blinking red, green, yellow and blue, as well as a gold-patterned suit, walks into the library and delivers high-fives and enthusiasm.

The game was special not only because of the score, but also because at no other school in the state could the boys have accomplished the feat.

Hoquiam is the first school district in the state with its own virtual reality headsets, a tool the district has used to become pioneers in the world of Esports, as well as in the world of VR education. And the district's push into the digital age, said Nitti, the district's digital age coordinator, could come with a host of social, educational and physical benefits — and, for some, even provide a career.


Jumping, ducking, punching, blocking, throwing and catching — activities typically prohibited in a library — were all part of the Esports game earlier this month.

While some Esports leagues involve seated players fiddling with remote controls or keyboards, Virtual Reality Esports players use handheld sensors to control the game with dynamic, full-body movement. With the physically demanding attributes of the game, plus the teamwork and competition involved, Nitti made the case for Esports becoming a varsity sport on par with football or baseball.

"It's such a physical game that our students come out from every session covered in sweat," Nitti said.

The district started an Esports team last year, which made it to the state championship, Nitti said, but added the VR component this year. According to Nitti, the Hoquiam School District started the world's first Virtual Reality middle school Esports league this year.

But that global leadership also presented a problem for the team. When Nitti reached out to other middle schools looking for opponents, he found none. Since no other district had the proper VR equipment, the team has found opponents in different software companies. However, Hoquiam will play Mt. Baker School District in Auburn, which assembled a team with private VR headsets.

As with traditional sports, part of Esports is about teaching communication, teamwork and social skills, many of which students lost or need help developing due to the pandemic, Nitti said.

"Hoquiam Esports students play only multiplayer games together, in person, and form lasting friendships, skills and memories that only a true sport can provide," Nitti said.

"We're saying 'Let's get together in a group and socialize about this. A huge part of our mission is to help our students become better, happier people."


While Hoquiam is a leader in Esports, the district's technological push has extended outside the sports arena and into the classroom.

There, VR — which Nitti predicts will become increasingly relevant in everyday education — can boost student engagement.

"For me engagement is everything," said Nitti, a teacher of 18 years. "We ask students to pay attention. As teachers, we have to earn their attention. All this technology is a method for earning their attention."

Using the VR headsets, students get a visceral, firsthand education, going places textbooks can't — the inside of a human cell, a historic battlefield or the surface of Mars. Nitti said VR can often produce an "intense, memorable and meaningful" experience. Nitti said the headsets have been used across the district.

"With VR you use your body, you feel what it was like," Nitti said. "It's a totally different education."

A 2021 study from the American Psychological Association found that learning through Virtual Reality boosted students' enjoyment during learning high school science lessons, but that learning through VR wasn't necessarily more effective for obtaining facts or information, nor was it more effective for learning procedural tasks.

Nonetheless, Nitti said VR can provide a valuable supplement to instruction "by giving students hands-on and real experiences of other places, other activities and other worlds," Nitti said. "This is what's possible in 2023, and that's what education should look like."


Like other sports, Esports for some students could be a pathway to a college education, and even a career.

The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) has more than 240 member schools, from large, public universities to small, private colleges.

Schools in the nonprofit organization award more than $16 million in scholarships annually to Esports athletes.

Grays Harbor College, although not in the NACE, also has a budding Esports program.

According to Nitti, the rate at which Esports athletes receive scholarships — 15-25 percent — is greater than the 2-3 percent who receive Division I NCAA football scholarships.

Esports can bring in big money, partially due to its viral reach on streaming platforms.

The Hoquiam team streamed its first match earlier this month, a video Nitti said could eventually garner 10,000 views.

But none of the production would happen, Nitti said, without Madilyn Gray, a Hoquiam student who, switching back and forth between two monitors and adjusting audio levels, ensured the video was delivered to the massive audience.

Gray's technical skills stem from lessons learned in Nitti's zero-period class, where students are testing game and software design techniques to test in the real world. Nitti said the class developed a Virtual Reality app, which was purchased by a VR headset distribution company.

Nitti said students "interact with real corporations, real adults and the real world of business frequently," giving them connections to potential employers.

Students have secured internships with software companies, and last year, two seniors from Nitti's class got tech jobs straight out of high school.

The district is also implementing a virtual flight simulator, where students can get hands-on training to become a pilot.

"They put on the VR headset, and they take off in a Cessna from Bowerman airport, take a right, fly over the high school and middle school and go look for their house," Nitti said.

©2023 The Daily World, Aberdeen, Wash. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.