“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Alinn Louv tells me with a laugh, “the kids are going into school to play video games rather than skipping school to play video games.”
Louv is the director of brand and community at PlayVS, an amateur esports program designed to get esports into schools and recognised as a varsity sport. Through a partnership with the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations), PlayVS is now recognised in 23 different states and has programs running in non-partnered states too. Through PlayVS, high school or college students can sign up to compete in esports, but rather than just joining a school based club, they enter into a regional league with full schedules, coaches, team jerseys, and eventually get the chance to compete in the state championships, just like they would in basketball or football. “The community, the stories of the players, their journey from never being on a sports team before to winning a championship; that’s what makes this powerful, and that’s what makes it different from other esports platforms out there,” Louv says.
While students have been eager to take the opportunity to participate in more organised esports matches, some schools have been harder to win over. “There were definitely states and schools who are very innovative, and see themselves as pioneers who are very eager to jump on esports,” Louv explains. “Especially those schools who kind of pride themselves on being at the forefront of technology in the US. But you definitely see some more traditional schools very hesitant to offer it as a sport. They say ‘Oh, this is just video games. How is this a sport? What are they actually learning? What are the benefits for them, for us being able to offer this?’ This is probably our biggest challenge. How do we debunk that myth of what a video gamer is? What’s the difference between video games and esports? So we highlight the similarities between traditional sports and esports teams, whether the soft skills that they’re learning, communication, leadership, team building, and the benefits that they get by joining a school activity like having a coach mentor, or having a safe space where they can go.”
In the end, integrating esports into schools with a clear structure has been beneficial for everyone, Louv explains, “A lot of these students had never participated in a school activity before until their school offered esports. When students are more engaged in school activities, they also perform better in school, their attendance is more consistent, their grades go up. And because this is a school sanctioned sport, there are GPA requirements for the students to participate on their school team. So now, other teachers also have someone they can go to and say, ‘Hey, your student didn’t finish their homework or their project yet, can you make sure that they get that done before they compete in their game?’, very much similar to how traditional coaches hold their teams accountable for their schoolwork before they can actually play a game.”
It’s not just students that have never been on sports teams before that can find an outlet in esports though. With many typical varsity sports like basketball shutting down due to COVID, PlayVS has helped schools keep their esports teams alive, and has managed to transplant the camaraderie and togetherness of team sport off campus and into students’ homes. “I actually just spoke to a mom who said that her son was originally in track and field, but that was cancelled,” Louv tells me. “He then found esports as a school activity that was still available, and he was able to compete with his friends. They actually went and took home the Alabama Rocket League Championship last season. So she said that it was great sitting in the room with him, cheering him on and seeing him still able to have that fun, competitive spirit that they used to see back out on the track. But now they’re in his bedroom, safe during quarantine, and still able to see it.”
As well as students who previously chose to skip or participate in traditional sports, there are other students who were simply not able to, either because of the way their school organised teams or because of physical disability. With esports, that’s no longer a barrier, and Louv explained how diversity has always been a core principle of the program. “Teams can be made of any grade range for any gender,” Louv says. “For traditional sports, you have a frosh team [freshman and sophomore], and then a senior team. For esports, that divide doesn’t need to exist. A freshman could totally school a senior at esports, and same thing for gender or for physical disability. A lot of students who may not be able to go out for a traditional sport can compete in esports on the same level playing field. And then for diversity [specifically], we launched a game changer programme to go directly to all girls schools, and they weren’t looking for an esports program, but we put together this program to highlight all the women in esports, and all the different career opportunities available within esports. We also lowered the barrier for any school who would like to have an all girls esports team. All girls teams are offered a special price of $500 for unlimited seats, so they can grow their programme as large as they’d like, which is typically $64 player for each season.”
Much like the teenagers PlayVS works closely with, esports has had a huge growth spurt in the last few years, and with its greasy skin and squeaky voice, it’s still discovering its identity on the world stage. There are fears it could all be a bubble, but if that’s true, it’s likely only a bubble for the most elite competitions with huge prizes. Esports as an entity is here to stay, and offering it in schools is a great way to make team sports and all the benefits that come with it accessible to everyone.
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- TheGamer Originals
Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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