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Scholastic Esports Leveling Up to Mainstream in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association that began five years ago now counts more than 150 middle schools and high schools as members, and it recruits students for esports-related scholarships.

An esports team of four celebrating a success.
(TNS) — Auden Beaudette is not a typical high school athlete.

Yes, he competes in matches, is a team captain, and has even won a state championship. But Beaudette, 17, a junior, doesn't play on a field or court. He's sitting in a computer lab at Carlisle Area High School, intently focused on Super Smash Bros., a game based on the Mario franchise.

Room L127 is where the Thundering Herd esports team practices, and it's where Beaudette and his teammates are turning virtual victories into offline opportunities.

"This is the perfect time for me to enjoy video games as a high schooler," he said.

Esports — competitive video gaming — has leveled up from the fringe to the mainstream. The stigma is crumbling. It's now popular enough to be sanctioned in Pennsylvania as an interscholastic high school activity. Hundreds of U.S. colleges offer scholarships to play esports and even study them.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association began five years ago and has more than 150 member middle schools and high schools, including two high schools in Cumberland County: Carlisle and Cumberland Valley.

The PIEA sanctions four video games: Overwatch and Valorant, first-person shooter games; Rocket League, a vehicle soccer game; and Super Smash Bros., a fighting game. There are two seasons every school year: fall and spring.

Carlisle fields squads in all four games. DJ Rodkey, a computer systems networking teacher and track and field coach, oversees the program. Christian Mercado, a building substitute teacher, coaches the Super Smash Bros. players.

"I think it's still such a new venture for most schools in this area that just the fact that we're able to do this is kind of big," Mercado said.

Under the PIEA, students get more freedom and organizational leadership opportunity than in traditional sports. For example, as captain, Beaudette coordinates with each week's opposing captain to set match times for their teams.

"It's improved my time management and awareness about communicating with people," he said.

This is only Carlisle's second year in the PIEA, but it captured a junior varsity Super Smash Bros. championship in its debut last year. With the title, Carlisle moved up to a stronger division and more challenging opponents.

Matches mostly happen with every player at home, but the team occasionally uses the computer lab to practice. PIEA finals, which happen after playoffs, are in person. Beaudette's favorite memory is competing on stage in last year's final in Pittsburgh as a crowd cheered behind him and play-by-play commentators followed every move.

Mercado, 36, wishes she had esports opportunities when she was at Carlisle High in the early 2000s. Halo, a futuristic military game, was the craze back then, and she and her peers gathered for in-person tournaments.

"If this had existed when I was in school," Mercado said of interscholastic esports, "I absolutely would have been like 'Sign me up!'"


Organized esports in high school and college are harnessing gamers' passion and talent to further their education.

The National Association of Collegiate Esports is the largest conference, with more than 200 colleges that include small local schools like Harrisburg University, Messiah University and Central Penn College and large, nationally recognized ones like Penn State, Kansas and Ole Miss.

Messiah's program, launched in 2019, mostly has students whose primary draw to college was academics, with esports being a bonus. Joshua Grimm, hired in January as the university invests more in the program, is its first full-time esports coordinator and coach.

"Just like somebody might watch tape on a basketball game," Grimm said, "I'm reviewing video game competitions to see how I can improve my players."

Collegiate esports are an outlet for players to express themselves and show off natural skills, but the scholarships available to Messiah's more than 30 esports athletes make it more than a club.

Video games aren't just for "the person that stays in the basement all the time," Grimm said. Instead, they can teach communication and teamwork.

Esports also have a global reach, fueled by the increase of streaming. International competitions sell out arenas, and last year's championship for League of Legends — a multiplayer battle game — drew 6.4 million viewers.

"Back when I was younger it was not even fathomable to imagine yourself in a career that had to do with video games other than maybe making video games," Grimm said.

If Messiah is a rising contender, consider Harrisburg University — one of the first colleges to offer esports scholarships in 2017 — a blueblood.

Most of Harrisburg's players are on scholarship, and some came from other countries. Their talent is "borderline professional," said HU esports director Michael Navarro, as the team regularly ranks top-10 in its three games: League of Legends, Rocket League and Valorant.

Just like traditional college athletes, Harrisburg's players have GPA and class attendance expectations. They have their own dorm and state-of-the-art facilities. Staff members check in with players every week to make sure they're balancing academics and athletics, Navarro said.

"We want players that come here to finish here," he said.

Major competitions are in-person invitationals, like in gymnastics. Harrisburg each fall hosts the HUE Invitational, which last year welcomed 17 of the country's best college programs.

Organizing the tournament were Harrisburg students studying esports management, another marker of the industry's growth. After college, there are jobs available in team analytics, coaching, marketing, finance partnerships, social media, broadcast production and play-by-play.

These sustainable career opportunities work for gamers because esports' amateur-to-professional life cycle is almost the reverse of traditional sports, Navarro said.

In football or basketball, for example, a player's career arc goes like this: develop skills in high school, hone them in college, peak in the pros. In esports, youth is more vital. Gamers' mechanical ability tends to peak at 15-18 years old, Navarro said, which means pros in their 20s and 30s are scarce.

Harrisburg tells its recruits — most of whom have already been pro — that rather than continue a slim-chanced slog to stardom, take "the smarter route" and turn your skills into a college scholarship to prepare for life after athletics, whether that's in esports or a different industry, Navarro said.

"As long as people want to get onto video games and compete against one another, there's going to be room for esports," he said.


Beaudette hasn't been thinking much about esports scholarships, but many colleges he's considering for video game development — his desired major right now — have them available.

"I think in my senior year I'm going to be paying more attention to that," he said.

In the PIEA's online chat for teams — on a platform called Discord — colleges can post about their programs and recruiting events. When The Sentinel visited a Carlisle practice last week, Mercado pulled up one from Waynesburg University encouraging students to reach out.

The PIEA also has a recruiting combine where high school players can show off their skills to colleges ready to entice with scholarship money.

"Especially for students who are like, 'What do I want to do at the end of my high school career?'" Mercado said, "I think this just presents a different opportunity for them that they might not have originally thought about."

With a steady stream of high schoolers interested in esports, Mercado hopes the team grows as she and Rodkey spread the word and players tell their friends, who tell their friends and so on. She relishes hearing morning announcements that recognize the team's successes.

"It's still very much so in the building stages of trying to create something here," Mercado said, "and making it known to students that that thing you do after school to unwind, you can actually do that at a competitive level."

That thing, it turns out, can also get students into college, which helps smash the stigma around video games that esports has been cracking in recent years.

"Then you can tell your parents," she said with a smile, "'Those dumb games I'm playing, they're going to pay for school.'"

©2024 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.