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Esports league expanding, despite decline in school-sponsored competitions

Ryan Zunner

Some online businesses are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others are grabbing the opportunity to transform into a better version of themselves. Despite a decline in school-sponsored competitions, the pandemic has helped the largest high school esports league in the nation move full throttle on its expansion plan.

The High School Esports League was founded in 2012 and has grown to more than 3,000 schools and 80,000 students across the country through its "Gaming Concepts" curriculum, piloted in 2018. Here in Western New York, the league claims eight high schools as members, playing video game titles like "Minecraft," "NBA 2K20" and "Rocket League."

"They get to compete as equals with people from all different backgrounds. You know, kids with disabilities, different races, different genders. It's really the only sport that enables that level of integration and diversity when compared to, say, football or soccer," said League President and COO Jason Kirby.

Kirby said about 75% of high schoolers play video games. Esports is a way for educators to levy that passion in classroom or extracurricular learning.

"We partnered with Dr. Christy Custer out of Wichita (KS) and Michael Russell, our principal teacher combo, who helped us create the "Gaming Concepts" curriculum," he said. "So this is a full course that over the length of a semester includes gaming as a means of learning and applying what you've learned to social emotional learning skills, and then they have their own kind of Esports competitive team on top of that."

Students are not just clicking on the mouse and having fun. Kirby said they are optimizing their computer hardware or making changes to the software as they play and scrutinize the social-emotional skills experienced when gaming. He said these are STEM-accredited skills for which schools can seek grant funding, as students compete for scholarship money.

"We did see a drop in what we were expecting for spring, a lot of schools that had previously committed have pulled out," he said. "Some schools, they're still operating remotely as a collective and as a club. So they're having like their zoom sessions or their you know, voice you know, video chat. Kind of walking through what they typically would do in the classroom."

Credit High School Esports League
Gameplay from the semi-finals of the HSEL Overwatch Nationals.

What has become popular since COVID-19 came on the scene is a new league brand launched this month called "Generation Esports." It picks up on the success in schools to engage youth groups, like the YMCA and JCC, adult recreational leagues and even the military.

"We do still have thousands of people signed up for our Overwatch and team-based games," Kirby said. "And with our new system that we launched for spring, it's called the queue system. When the queue time triggers, they're given an opponent instantly and they're able to start chatting with that opponent and hop into a game. So our our participation has gone through the roof, in terms of those getting guaranteed competition."

This fall, the league plans to expand into middle-school grades and at the collegiate level. They also have been talking with Special Olympics. Kirby said keeping the experience positive through the pandemic also helps keeps esports "top of mind" - either in person or remotely - when classes are back in normal session.

NOTE: SUNY has announced a system-wide esports tournament to raise money for student emergency funding amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting Monday and continuing for three weeks, the SUNY Chancellor Esports Challenge, co-sponsored by Extreme Networks, will offer a $20,000 prize pool. Each college can enter two teams of students to compete in "Fortnite'' by Epic Games, "Super Smash Bros Ultimate'' by Nintendo or "Rocket League'' by Psyonix. The top prize for each game is $2,000, to go to the winning team's student emergency fund.  A $5,000 grand prize will go to the SUNY campus with the best overall score. Participants should join the SUNY Discord Server for important communications on the tournament.

The Associated Press provided this postnote.

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