Written by Jon Richardson for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Please click here to read the original article online and watch an interview with the team.
Photo courtesies: St. Henry and Boyle County competing against each other in “League of Legends.” The KHSAA State Championship was streamed on the PlayVS Twitch channel. (Photo: Photo courteous of the PlayVS Twitch stream)
The St. Henry esports team logo. The project was fundraised and designed completely by students. (Photo: The Enquirer/Jon Richardson)
On Jan. 28, St. Henry High School competed against Boyle County High School for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association state championship.
Five students pitted against five others, the two schools embarked in a battle of strategic supremacy.
Victory would be achieved in the same way athletes have grown accustomed to throughout the history of athletics – the execution of well-timed maneuvers, split-second decision-making, and tactics sharpened through practice, scouting and following a game plan, requiring all teammates being on the same page and playing within specific roles.
But this match did not take place on a field, court or any traditional – or tactile – arena of play.
Instead, it took place in the digital world, ones and zeroes stored in remote servers. The competitors were simply avatars, controlled and manipulated by the keyboards and mice of the student participants.
And though the match took place on computers, for the first time ever the KHSAA awarded the same trophies it has now and for decades prior in sports like football, basketball and baseball.
They are called esports, and after rapidly capturing the attention of millions around the globe, they have found their way to high schools in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.
What are esports?
Esports – or electronic sports – are the organized manner in which players compete against other players through video games.
Esports embody the same head-to-head spirit found in video gaming since the days of “Pong” on Atari, only with rules, regulations, guidelines, teams, schedules, shared venues, tournaments and championships; all the typical fare associated with traditional sports.
Unlike “Pong,” though, the games played have evolved and expanded in their complexity, capable of millions of outcomes and subtleties that vary game to game and are completely dependent on the strategies and patterns of their players.
One of the most popular games in the esports scene is “League of Legends.” According to their website, “’League of Legends’ is a fast-paced, competitive online game that blends the speed and intensity of an RTS (real-time strategy) with RPG (role-playing game) elements. Two teams of powerful champions, each with a unique design and playstyle, battle head-to-head across multiple battlefields and game modes.”
The inaugural season of eSports sanctioned by the KHSAA – “Season Zero” – focused exclusively on “League of Legends.”
Just as state high school athletic associations organize and regulate something like basketball, they have increasing teamed up with organizations already involved with esports to bring the same type of competition.
“We kind of use the analogy of being the NCAA for esports,” said Tyler Schrodt, the CEO and founder of the Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF), one of the organizations that oversee eSports at the high school and collegiate level.
Schrodt notes that EGF keeps its focus on supporting local communities by concentrating on how eSports can be a platform to create the same type of opportunities that traditional sports do: competition, leadership, teamwork, opportunities for scholarships and college.
EGF currently runs esports programs in Alaska and Virginia, as well as 13 cities across the country. Additionally, the organization works with Ohio State University and has been in contact with the Ohio High School Athletic Association about their program.
The KHSAA works with a similar company, PlayVS, who has teamed up with the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“Esports is about more than just playing games,” Dealane Parnell, CEO and founder of PlayVS said via a release on the NFHS website. “It can be used to help students grow their STEM interests and develop valuable life skills; and since there are more high school gamers than athletes, it’s about time we foster this pastime in an educational setting.”
St. Henry successes
St. Henry District High School finished Season Zero as state runner up, but bringing home hardware was only a small piece of the impact esports have already had on their student body.
“The best part of esports so far is the application of concepts,” said Polyana Seguim, a faculty adviser and coach for St. Henry’s esports team. “We as teachers try to get them to apply concepts that we teach in class… and they show up with an Excel sheet, and its color coded and they’re sharing and they’re taking notes. There is strategic planning.”
Jorge Carbwood, also a faculty adviser and coach, has seen a strong sense of unity and collaboration among the players.
“You have a group of kids that are into technology but do not participate in sports,” Carbwood said. “Esports are bringing these kids out of that shell and they are playing together and collaborating, doing something they enjoy.”
The team was formed when Jackson Clark, a St. Henry junior who already had a strong passion for gaming, heard the KHSAA was set to incorporate esports into its program. Clark approached administration with a plan for a team, and after getting the okay quickly went about building it.
I was already playing somewhat competitively,” Clark said. “I was going to tournaments around the area. So, when I found out I could do it through school, that’s how I wanted to do it. I sent out a form to see if there was interest and then we made a team.”
As a result of their success, St. Henry has seen a burst in participation with their esports program heading into Season One. Their numbers have ballooned from five to 14, and parents of eighth-grade students who will attend St. Henry next year have already been reaching out about how to get involved.
The growth is not unique to just St. Henry either. Joe Angolia, communications director of the KHSAA and head of the esports program, has seen the membership numbers soar after just a few months of existence.
“We’ve already seen our participation grow five-fold from Season Zero to Season One,” Angolia said. “We only had 13 schools involved in Season Zero. Right now, for Season One, we already have 65 schools registered.”
There has also been increased interest in the St. Henry program from colleges, and they have been discussing potential scholarships.
“(The colleges) basically wanted to present what scholarship opportunities they are offering for kids that are into technology,” Carbwood said. “Obviously, gaming is a big part of technology these days. It is not going to go away so you might as well embrace it.”
Despite any early successes, though, many still remain skeptical of the place esports have among traditional athletics. Seguim does not buy the dubious sentiments.
“All I can say about the skepticism is we need to start considering more inclusion in the schools,” Seguim said. “Now we are including kids that probably before didn’t have a space, didn’t get the spotlight, didn’t get the chance to be out there and try things out. Now they’re doing it, just out of a video game. To say that they are not doing strategic planning, statistics, and applying concepts that are from the classroom…it’s not true. They are doing all of that.”
The future of esports
While the KHSAA has been quick to adopt esports, the OHSAA is still in the preliminary stages. There are several schools in the Greater Cincinnati area that already have club teams – St. Xavier, Walnut Hills and Loveland, among others – but they lack the same state-sponsored support of a school like St. Henry. Before any talks in Ohio go further, a firm decision must be made on just how much esports classify as sports and how they fit in overall.
“It is something that we have to continue to look at and put our arms around,” said Bob Goldring, senior director of operations for the OHSAA and member of the emerging sports committee. “I think to do our due diligence, we have to have further discussion internally where we think this should go, how this fits in our mission…They call themselves esports, but is it really a sport or activity? Would it fit in to what the OHSAA is doing now? We really are just in our infancy or exploratory stages of looking at esports and how it might fit in with the OHSAA.”
Nationally, as eSports have continued to grow in not just popularity, but organizational complexity and influence, they have also begun to find their place among the revenues of traditional sports as well.
The National Football League still remains king among professional sports, generating an estimated $15 billion last season, according to Bloomberg. Major League Baseball pulled in $10.3 billion and the NBA raked in $7.4 billion, per Forbes.
According to the 2019 Global esports market report published by Noozoo, esports generated $865 million in revenue over the year. The organization estimates that in 2022 that number will jump to almost $1.8 billion.
To many of those involved, this is only the beginning. As the foundation strengthens and fully forms a clearer picture is starting to emerge on esports’ potential ceiling.
“As long as (students) can get the support from the schools and the principals to take on this new activity, I think it will certainly only continue to grow for us,” Angolia said. “It has already gone up five-fold from Season Zero to Season One. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t continue to increase.”