Esports state championship? Here's why you shouldn't snicker

Eric AdelsonColumnist
Esports is coming to a high school near you. (Reuters)
Esports is coming to a high school near you. (Reuters)

By the end of the year, there will be high school state champions in esports.

That will get eye rolls from a decent amount of people who feel the last thing American society needs is pasty kids in basements eating Cheetos and playing video games when they could be outside running around. For many, video games are a part of the reason for cultural decay and even danger.

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But if you look a little closer, it’s not like that at all.

First, some of the details: a company called PlayVS is working with the National Federation of High Schools to create intermural competitions in 18 to 20 states starting in the fall. There will be a short preseason, a regular season,and a postseason that will likely be in a neutral setting of some sort. (More on that later.) Teams will be co-ed. There isn’t a final decision on which games will be played, but there will not be shooting games. “I am sensitive to the fact that there is a lot of school shooting,” says Play VS CEO Delane Parnell, “and we don’t want to promote any sort of violence in a school setting.”

Part of the goal is to give more kids a sense of belonging, a sense of team. “There are around eight million kids who don’t participate in sports,” Parnell says. “Here’s a way to help them interact socially and make new friends. There are opportunities to go to the next level.”

That’s the aspect of this that may be the most exciting. Amid all the justified concern about where the next generation fits in a new economy, here’s an exploding sector that needs many more job candidates. Playing video games is now a window into a future. There are now college scholarships in esports, and graduate programs in related fields.

“At the professional level, you have money being made,” says Ben Noel, the executive director of the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy at UCF in Orlando. “There is a large amount of people who will pay to watch others compete. There’s a market there.”

UCF has a graduate program of 70 students, and Noel says the job placement rate is around 90 percent. He says initial starting salaries are in the neighborhood of $60,000. Jobs include programmers, 3-D artists, producers and designers. (Noel used to work at EA Sports, also based in Orlando.) “Game development used to be a frat house environment,” he says. “Now you’re getting double digit [percentages] of females in game development.”

Parnell grew up in the projects of Detroit, raised by a single mother, and he started work at a cell phone store as a teenager to help pay the bills. By 17, he owned local Metro PCS stores. By 22, he was working for entrepreneur and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Now he’s 25 and he’s building the infrastructure for a new high school sport. That’s a meteoric rise for a guy who started on Donkey Kong. And by the way, he was a multisport high school athlete.

Esports fans cheer on student-gamers during the Collegiate StarLeague Grand Finals on Sunday, April 29, 2018, in Huntington Beach, Calif. (AP)
Esports fans cheer on student-gamers during the Collegiate StarLeague Grand Finals on Sunday, April 29, 2018, in Huntington Beach, Calif. (AP)

“Do you think NASCAR is a sport?” he says. “If people believe NASCAR is a sport, it’s no different. They don’t have to be in shape to drive a car. They understand the benefits. The same can be said for eSports. A practice regimen can include workouts.

“We don’t care if people label it as a sport,” he adds. “It’s our sport.”

Of course, there are pitfalls to eSports, as with any competition. But there’s also a path to bigger and better things. More importantly, there’s a path to a community. High school sports keep teenagers from isolation and sometimes despair. Drugs and violence often come from a lack of excitement after school, or simply a lack of a place to go. That place can be esports practice just as it can be basketball practice.

“I’ve heard some of the wildest things about esports, whether about obesity or damage to a kid’s mental state,” Parnell says. “Those things just aren’t that true. There’s a relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind, and this can be a way to increase ability to cope with emotional stress. Most of the pros are in very good shape.”

And there’s a fan experience, too. Many young people love to watch others compete. In Arlington, Texas, the city has refurbished part of its convention center to make way for a 1,000-seat esports venue to open later this year. That could be a destination for a high school or college tournament, almost like JerryWorld is for football. The University of Texas at Arlington is already competing on the national level, so that’s further proof of a market. And one of the program’s goals is to create and build bonds. “If you ever need assistance with schoolwork, assignments, or just someone to talk to,” goes one passage on the website, “hop on our Discord server!”

“You combine the up-close of seeing that with the data and it becomes abundantly clear this is a big deal,” says the city’s marketing manager, Jay Warren.

Future venues could include anything from auditoriums to repurposed malls. There’s an economic hole that’s being filled. Parnell says the biggest challenge to his startup is “we need to hire more people.” Nice problem to have.

From Detroit to Arlington to Orlando, the boom is here. And even though the wave is cresting for a generation of gamers, there will be real benefits for those who don’t own a console.

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