Do you have a child who plays video games? Then read the next sentence carefully:
That’s a good thing!
Not only are more colleges introducing degree programs for eSports – the general term for video game development and related play – but the movement is spreading across Ohio high schools. This year, Ottawa Hills joined the march, with about 40 high school students participating in its first-year eSports Club program.
For many of those students, eSports is a second or third activity, said Brooks Spiess, the team’s founder and coach who also serves as the district’s technology coordinator. But for a handful, it is their only after-school activity.
“It’s pretty cool to see an athlete, an actor or actress in the theatre production, and kids who aren’t typically involved in a whole lot battling on a level playing field they all enjoy,” Mr. Spiess said. “I have overheard numerous times that ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing video games.’”
If you’ve never played League of Legends, Super Smash Bros., Rocket League or raced a drone, the idea behind the sport no doubt is hard to grasp. But keep this in mind: The 2018 “League of Legends” championship sold out an Olympic-size stadium (over 100,000 people) and had more viewers than every major sporting event in the world other than the Super Bowl, including games 7 of the World Series and NBA Championship. In addition, companies are paying “gamers” thousands of dollars an hour to play their video games and wear their gear because so many are tuning in.
The OH eSports Club started with an informational meeting in January; by the end of February, they were scrimmaging other teams. Students compete online in one of three video games: League of Legends (five students vs. five students), Rocket League (three students vs. three students), or Super Smash Bros (one student vs. one student across five games, just like in tennis). Or in person when it comes to drone racing.
There are other online competitive leagues around games such as FIFA 19 and NBA 2K. But participating eSports schools in the Ohio eSports League, including Ottawa Hills, polled each other and selected the current games to focus on this year. “There are other popular games, but they aren’t played in college. We tried to focus on only games that kids could potentially get scholarships in,” Mr. Spiess said. “For the other games that are fun to play but don’t have a presence in our league, I hold invitational tournaments on a Saturday. That way, students can still have fun playing and it brings recognition to our club, but we aren’t spending a lot of time practicing it on a daily basis.”
Before two schools are matched up, the coaches talk about which online game they will compete in. For that reason, teams run games on different days. “Once we confirm that both schools are ready to go, then the kids ‘friend’ each other through the game and we compete online. That’s the coolest part about this league. We could play a team in Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati, Athens – you name it,” Mr. Spiess said. “There’s no travel cost. You don’t have to arrange for a bus driver or overnight stay. You can compete against teams from all over the state and still make it home in time for dinner."
Students need a variety of skills to compete: good reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and if-this then-that recognition. And just like any team sport, it’s important to be cooperative, calm under pressure and able to communicate well with others. In terms of equipment, any school that has a STEM program could have an eSports team, Mr. Spiess said. If a district has the capability to run 3D modeling and simulation applications, then it can handle eSports competition. In fact, Ottawa Hills eSports’ activities are run on computers based in the district’s STEM room.
The OH team received its start-up funding from the Ottawa Hills Schools Foundation. “This really jump started our efforts and allowed us to buy 75 percent of the equipment we needed to compete in the newly founded league,” Mr. Spiess said. With help from Laura Baird and Junior/Senior High School Principal Ben McMurray, he also reached out to other sponsors, whose support is acknowledged graphically on student jerseys. Those additional sponsors are Effler and Schmitt Co., Craig’s Affordable Tools, The Nutrition Spot, and Let’s Train: Canine Behavior Consultants. Their contributions allowed the team to keep jersey costs low and to buy remaining equipment.
As the district’s technology coordinator, you would expect Mr. Spiess to enjoy all things technical. For example, he helped to found a competitive drone racing league about two years ago. And he has been a key player among colleagues statewide in organizing discussions about how to structure eSports league play. His efforts and those of others helps to explain how the eSports Ohio League has grown quickly from seven to 50 participants. The advisers gained tips and support along the way from colleagues at northwest Ohio colleges, including Tiffin and Ohio Northern universities.
As the season winds down, Mr. Spiess already is looking forward to next year. Like any coach, one of the first tasks is filling the void left by graduating seniors . “I believe we have a great shot at winning the league championship in all of our games and I would like to see the junior high members excited for the opportunities ahead of them.”
At some point, the district needs to decide whether eSports falls under the athletic director – just like “traditional” sports – or continues under the leadership of an “advisor” as an extracurricular activity along the lines of Quiz Bowl, Science Olympiad, and Model United Nations. Until then, the “sport” is functioning under “club” status, which gives it a lot of latitude to exist and flourish within the district.
The district’s decision will be affected to some degree by decisions made by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which is studying the issue.
“I don’t think eSports will have the same conference affiliation as other sports because your matches can be online,” Mr. Spiess said. “The really good eSports schools likely will seek out each other to be in a joint conference, making their league the most competitive.”
That said, some Ohio school districts are jumping in and putting eSports teams under the athletic director. In doing so, they are holding students to the same academic standards, requiring strict attendance and practice schedules, and handing out varsity letters for deserving participants. “We are taking a hybrid approach,” Mr. Spiess said. “Expecting good grades and requesting support and participation while respecting the fact that this might be their second or third activity.”
For more information, contact Mr. Spiess at email@example.com
League of Legends: League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena video game developed and published by Riot Games for Microsoft Windows and macOS
Super Smash Bros: Super Smash Bros. is a series of crossover fighting video games published by Nintendo, and primarily features characters from various franchises of theirs.
Drone Racing: A radio controlled drone with a mounted First Person Viewing camera. Pilots wear VR goggles that puts them in the drone’s pilot seat. They race against other teams 1v1 or by time trial.
Rocket League: Rocket League is a vehicular soccer video game developed and published by Psyonix.