Esports go mainstream, but are high schools ready to buy in?

Photo: Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News

Esports go mainstream, but are high schools ready to buy in?

High School Sports

Esports go mainstream, but are high schools ready to buy in?

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The esports movement initially swept across the World Wide Web driven by a level of fervor historically reserved for mainstream sports. The online uprising now enjoys a virtual world of momentum fueled by a projected revenue stream of $1.1 billion.

It’s officially a thing.

The popularity of professional esports is motivating a new generation of push-button athletes who are hoping to compete in school colors, but experts warn that administrators need to explore the detrimental effects linked to online gaming before logging on.

A number of high school esports startups are already in place, chasing the blossoming revenue source. And the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) began a partnership in the fall with online gaming provider PlayVS, hoping to engage a key demographic.

“We want there to be a collision of all these different worlds and social classes within the high school environment because kids like the same game,” said PlayVS founder and CEO Delane Parnell, who described a real-life scenario where a disabled student was able to compete alongside a baseball standout.

Connecticut was among five states — along with Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — that participated in the debut season, with 13 varsity teams competing for a state title.

Member schools of the New York Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) are currently looking into the possibility of adding esports and filling out surveys to determine the interest level.

A serious debate is likely to follow.

“The way I’m characterizing it is, we’re in the earliest stages of exploratory discussion,” NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said. “We’re still trying to learn about esports and their appeal and how this could positively impact the kids.”

Most of the decision-makers admit they do not understand the appeal.

“I would have to learn a lot more about esports,” Arlington High School athletic director Michael Cring said. “At first blush, it’s hard for me to say yes, but that might be because I’m 53 years old and have never been into video games. I want to see kids up and moving. You’d probably have to sell me on it being a sport, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a good activity in the schools.”

There are parallels to the impact rock and roll once had on society.

Fans watch the competition between Philadelphia Fusion and London Spitfire during the Overwatch League Grand Finals competition at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York on July 28, 2018. (Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP file photo)

Instead of Elvis Presley, the esports generation has Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a 28-year-old internet gaming celebrity and “Fortnite” ace. He has more than 13 million followers on Twitch, a subsidiary of Amazon that streams esports.

According to a survey of teens in the U.S. ages 13-17 by the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of them have access to a console and 90 percent of them indicated they play video games on a computer, console or cellphone.

It’s a diverse audience, too.

“A lot of kids play video games,” said Joey Carino, a standout quarterback and lacrosse midfielder at Archbishop Stepinac High School. “Right now, ‘Fortnite,’ all the guys play that. We get on there and talk with friends. It’s a good time. We get so competitive. It would be cool to have a competitive team at school. Everyone would be looking to play. Video games bring everyone together.”

Pushing buttons after school

The high school esports scene is likely to become even more active now that colleges are offering scholarships to land competitive gamers.

Parnell recently secured $46 million in funding and the list of investors reads like a who’s who, from Samsung to Sean “Diddy” Combs to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and is hustling to expand what he calls a plug-and-play operation.

“High school sports has been around for a hundred years and are run by the NFHS and state associations, but we had to come at this with a different approach,” he said. “It had to be a third-party, a company with the ability to write all of the software necessary and be the connective tissue between the game publishers and the state associations.”

There are currently 15 states using PlayVS for club or varsity teams.

With a five-year contract with the NFHS in hand, Parnell has positioned PlayVS as “The Official High School Esports League.”

An informal survey of school officials across the Lower Hudson Valley indicated there has only been minimal discussion of adding esports teams.

There are hurdles to clear before esports becomes part of the landscape.

“We know there’s a movement and that kids are very interested,” said Ossining superintendent of schools Ray Sanchez. “We’ve had discussions about starting a club, but we’re still weighing the pros and cons. We’ll talk with our staff and with our board and then make a decision because we know it’s coming. We have to look at the value added. There is a budgetary process we need to look at, too, so we’re just a few feet from the starting line on this.”

A mid-level gaming desktop computer runs about $2,000 without a monitor. A season pass for PlayVS is $64 per season per gamer.

There is also likely to be a lengthy conversation over who administers state competitions.

“That is the big question,” said Zayas, who attended the Connecticut state championships with numerous officials from NYSPHSAA members.

“There are state activities organizations throughout the country who have adopted esports. The difference with us is we’re an athletic association. Some of these states that are implementing esports are activity associations and they’ve put it in the realm of activities rather than with sports. Kids are playing ‘League of Legends,’ they’re representing their schools, but should it fall into the realm of a state athletic association?”

The lack of physical activity makes esports a tough sell.

“I didn’t grow up playing games,” Zayas added. “I was outside most of the time as a young kid and then I played sports in high school.”

With so many opportunities for gamers to win prizes in local competitions, administering esports becomes a heavy lift if it is deemed a sport. Playing in non-sanctioned events or accepting prizes in excess of $250 is a violation of the NYSPHSAA eligibility rules.

New York State would likely need to have a regional and state championship tournament in place before esports would flourish. And there are numerous other sports actively looking for recognition.

“My board of education looks at what opportunities do we not offer that the state acknowledges, meaning regional and state championships,” Mamaroneck High School athletic director Bari Suman said. “Before we look at esports, I would be more interested in adding some of these grassroots sports we know kids are wanting like ultimate frisbee, rugby and crew.”

‘It’s not all positive’

Home video game consoles have been around since “Pong” began showing up in living rooms nearly 50 years ago. The popularity of these systems grew and competitive esports really took off in the last decade as high-speed processors and high-speed internet became readily available.

“League of Legends” is currently the most popular game title, according to Newzoo, the gaming industry analytics firm that projected the $1.1 billion in revenue for 2019.

It’s a version of capture the flag, with five players per side assuming unique roles. There are more than 100 million active monthly players. The game demands strategy and execution just like football. The appeal is worldwide just like soccer. Some professionals gamers make eye-popping sums of money just like baseball.

So are they athletes?

“Yeah,” said Yonkers resident Sidney Reeves, a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, who’s part of the school’s esports team. “This gets competitive and it’s like any other sport. You have to put the time in. You have to have the teamwork, and if you don’t have it you don’t succeed.”

While organizations like the NFHS and PlayVS focus on the upside of esports, which includes exposing non-athletes to the value of teamwork and promotion of STEM programs, experts believe there are pitfalls that must be evaluated before signing on.

“Brain structure and function actually change as a result of long-term, increased video game and online internet usage,” said Vanessa LaBode-Richman, a neuropsychology specialist and clinician at Inspire Wellness in Glen Rock, N.J. “When you’re talking pros and cons, it’s not all negative, but it’s not all positive, either, because there is something about screen time generally where once you start to fall outside the normal range of use there are changes that do happen and resemble what happens in addiction.”

Violence in video games is another nationwide talking point.

Jay Hull, a Dartmouth Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, was the lead author of a compilation study that looked at whether violent video games increased the physical aggression of adolescents over time. It published last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While the group concluded there’s a link between playing a title like “Grand Theft Auto” and increased aggression, they stopped well short of labeling the issue a crisis.

“It’s not just aggression,” Hull said. “There seems to be a lack of empathy for other people and a general hostility, as well. There seems to be an association. In my mind, that association is caused by playing these games.”

Popularity soars

According to “League of Legends” creator Riot Games, 99.6 million viewers logged in last November to watch Invictus Gaming beat Fnatic in the 2018 World Championships. Spectators filled a stadium in South Korea to watch the event live and there was a prize pool of $6.7 million.

By comparison, 98.2 million people watched Super Bowl LII on CBS.

Read the full story at the Rockland/Westchester Journal News

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