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Esports Popularity Continues to Build Across Country

By Cody Porter on April 06, 2021 hst Print

In the spring of 2018, the NFHS launched a partnership that has since powered up high school esports programs nationwide. That April, the NFHS and NFHS Network joined forces with PlayVS, an online gaming competition platform, to assist high schools with starting esports programs.

The inaugural esports season, Season Zero, started in October 2018 with five NFHS-member state associations and one affiliate group across five states. A little more than two years later, PlayVS is at the epicenter of one of the NFHS’ fastest growing high school activities.

PlayVS has helped esports seasons come to fruition for high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. At this time, associations in 18 of those states have partnered with PlayVS for esports competition that features season-ending championships during the fall and spring semesters. There are 31 other states with schools participating in esports without an official state championship.

Since the inaugural season, students have been able to showcase their skills competing in titles such as League of Legends, SMITE and Rocket League. In January, PlayVS continued its expansion into high schools by offering its first sports titles, FIFA 21 and Madden NFL 21. “Since the beginning of our partnership, PlayVS has been working hard to adopt more games, especially more sports games. The 51 NFHS-member state association have sports in their blood and it’s a part of why they were founded,” said Mark Koski, NFHS Network vice president. “The additions of FIFA 21 and Madden NFL 21 resonate with those state association leaders, their schools, activity and athletic directors, and students. So, through titles such as these, there’s even more opportunities for students to get involved while safe in the afterschool setting under the direction of a teacher- coach.”

For Koski and the NFHS, the focus on participation in a school-based setting by PlayVS played a key role in bringing the organizations together. Students accustomed to challenging friends from home can now compete against school rivals, all while being on teams with fellow classmates.

“It’s a great thing when students have access to something that offers them all of the camaraderie of a team, the opportunity to come together, and learn how to win and lose together,” Koski said. “We knew that esports, with direction from PlayVS, made for an awesome opportunity nationwide, and even worldwide. If schools adopt teams, it’s going to get students out who are most likely not current participants in high school athletics, performing arts or any other activity. It provides them an avenue to be a part of that team and really learn valuable lifelong skills instilled in students by coaches and teachers of other activities.”

The Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) was active early with PlayVS. Intrigued by the organization’s turnkey management of esports, AHSAA Assistant Director Marvin Chou and the AHSAA saw a great opportunity to provide students a reason to get involved with their schools that went beyond just attending class.

“Like every traditional sport, we believe that when kids work together as a team, what they learn – whether it’s on a field or in a classroom – while working together as a team and overcoming adversity is among the most valuable learning opportunities,” Chou said. “That’s really what brought esports to us in Alabama.”

Esports’ resounding success in Alabama has since led to it being home to the first dedicated arena for esports in the southeast, opening in Birmingham in February 2020. The Magic City ePLEX is a 18,000-square-foot venue that serves as host to the AHSAA Esports State Championship.

“Esports is growing. We continue to get more schools… We’ve seen growth in all of our sports but especially esports,” Chou said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve doubled in size since we’ve started but there’s been substantial growth. We have consistently had close to 30 schools looking to participate each year.”

Aubree White has become quite familiar with the Magic City ePLEX since its doors opened. White has helped guide her team to two state championships in three seasons as the teacher-coach for esports at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Alabama. The spring and fall 2021 seasons present a new challenge for White, who adds new teams to the fray for FIFA 21 and Madden NFL 21.

“Those games attract a different crowd of kids, and that’s not a bad thing,” White said.” “By continuing to add new titles to compete in, it’s opening up opportunity for us to reach any and every kid that has an interest.”

White added that a game like Madden NFL 21 has attracted many other student-athletes. And that comfortability with one another has proven beneficial as they have transitioned from courts and fields to the virtual arena.

“At the moment, I don’t have a student who plays Madden NFL 21 that does not also play another sport,” she said. “I’ve got lacrosse players, football players, basketball players and soccer players. They’re those currently on our Madden NFL 21 teams, and they’re so good working together.”

In addition to her two teams competing in Madden NFL 21 this spring, White has a squad devoted to League of Legends with four substitutes and four Rocket League teams. Of those, one participates in the state league against others from Alabama while the other three teams compete in the regional league. As part of the regional league, Bob Jones can compete with any school in the central region of the United States.

To the west, in New Mexico, Sally Marquez has remained committed to increasing esports opportunities as executive director of the New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA).

Admittedly “outspoken” in the beginning on the esports partnership, Marquez has since seen PlayVS listen and act on feedback from executive directors and high school coaches.

“They began molding esports into an education-based high school activity that has a divide between it and the club and recreation world,” she said.

“These students are learning about teamwork. Everyone thinks video games are an individual activity. These are team games being played in esports programs,” Marquez added. “There are captains and teams that must work together for a goal. It takes the students who haven’t been involved in teamwork or worked toward a goal with others and puts them in a school-based setting to learn these skills.”

The NMAA has nearly 50 percent of its schools currently participating in esports. Not only have Marquez and her staff promoted it, but they also continue providing opportunities by conducting rules clinics, scheduling, and working New Mexico’s esports state championship.

As new games are added and more schools recognize the benefits of esports, Marquez foresees even more participation in the activity. She said a junior varsity and freshman team may even be feasible for schools.

“In the past few years – and we have many more to go before we get it to what it could be – administrators, parents and communities are finally understanding what esports can do for students,” Marquez said. “It’s more than just playing some games. They are learning so much more. I believe even the parents are buying into the difference.”

As the coach of Bob Jones High School’s program, White has experienced firsthand the meaning of esports to some students. During a February school board meeting, a former player was among those in attendance to recognize the team’s recent esports state championship. Having landed in Madison from Belgium, the student’s transition away from everything he knew sent him into depression. Eating lunch alone, careless about class and just going through the motions, White said he spoke on his love for video games being an outlet.

“Even though things were bad, he said video games have always been there for him. Once we added esports, it helped save him,” White said. “He was able to make friends quickly, and he felt like he had a place. It completely changed his school experience by the time that he graduated. He felt like he had a purpose to come to school.”

That student continues to follow his outlet, according to White, who said he is currently participating as a member of the University of Alabama esports team.

Just as was the case with White’s student, esports have opened the door for countless others to compete collegiately thanks to ever- increasing scholarship opportunities. As more esports programs are started, hundreds of colleges and universities continue increasing what is already tens of millions of dollars in esports scholarship money.

In the time since the NMAA added esports, Marquez found yet another reason to heighten her belief in the emerging activity.

“I, myself, am a parent of an esports student,” Marquez added. “My son is now playing esports in college at the University of Central Oklahoma. He started that through the high school esports team. So, there is opportunity to go beyond high school and continue to compete at a collegiate setting just as our student-athletes can continue to do.”

Involvement in esports assists students in the classroom, too. These participants can find themselves positioned for a wide variety of career opportunities in the world of gaming, including careers in design, art, logistics, legal, marketing and more.