Game on: Monticello High will compete in Virginia eSports pilot

Rocket League is one of the three games students will be able to play as part of VHSL’s eSports pilot program. (Photo captured via PlayStation 4) Rocket League is one of the three games students will be able to play as part of VHSL’s eSports pilot program. (Photo captured via PlayStation 4)

Virginia high schools will put a new spin on the word “athlete” when they launch an eSports competitive video gaming league this fall.

The Virginia High School League announced earlier this summer that it’ll be rolling out a one-year pilot program for the 2019-20 school year that includes three different video games: League of Legends, Rocket League, and SMITE. Schools can put together teams to participate in any of the three games, with one match played each week during both the fall and spring semesters. Matches happen, and are watched, online, so student competitors may never meet each other in person (so much for the “good game” handshake).

Billy Haun, executive director of VHSL and a former Monticello High principal, sees an eSports league as an opportunity to engage students who might not be involved in other school activities, and doesn’t see them replacing traditional sports.

The digital era has seen a rapid rise in the popularity of eSports worldwide. A study conducted by Goldman Sachs found that eSports’ monthly viewing audience averaged over 167 million people in 2018 on streaming platforms like Twitch. That’s a bigger audience than those for the last Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and Stanley Cup—combined.

After receiving several calls over the last few years about eSports, VHSL decided to try a pilot program in conjunction with PlayVS—the official eSports league of the National Federation of State High School Associations. According to VHSL Assistant Director Darrell Wilson, over 30 Virginia high schools have expressed interest in participating this year, including Monticello High.

Three teachers have volunteered to lead the team at Monticello this year, and 20 students have already expressed interest. The high school will pay for the program under its athletics budget.

Although there’s a $64 licensing fee per game, Albemarle County Public Schools spokesman Phil Giaramita says the overall cost of the program is relatively low compared to other sports. Monticello will use an existing computer lab for gaming, and all competitions will be played online, so there are no travel fees. As of now, Monticello is the only area high school committed to the league, but Western Albemarle and Charlottesville High have said they’ll both consider joining for the spring season if enough students express interest.

Haun admits he expects some pushback from parents who might oppose public high schools providing opportunities for students to play more video games, but he says “a lot of kids are already playing eSports, they’re just not playing competitively or under guidance of adults.” VHSL hopes to encourage students who wouldn’t be playing organized sports anyway to get involved with an activity that caters more to their interests.

While eSports may appear unproductive, one researcher has found that most studies about the cognitive effects of video games show the games can help with mental focus.

Marc Palaus Gallego is a Ph.D. graduate in cognitive neuroscience with the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, who conducted a study on the neural basis of video gaming in 2017. He found that while results aren’t always consistent, there appears to be an overall positive effect on brain development—as long as kids don’t spend too much time in front of the screen.

“Apparently, those who are experienced in video games are more efficient in optimizing the mental resources to focus on a task, specially tasks with strong visual components,” and that can be observed when the difficulty in a game increases, Gallego says in an email. He believes that as long as kids balance extended video gaming with some other kind of activity, there’s no major risks to their brain development.

And while some studies have found negative effects from video gaming, Gallego doesn’t put too much stock in their results.

“These detrimental effects seemed to affect attention, inhibitory control, the processing of social information, and lower verbal IQ,” Gallego says. “However, there are numerous examples of other studies which found improvements in the same areas, so it’s difficult to generalize.”

The three games VHSL is offering each require varying levels of strategy and collaboration. Rocket League, which is a soccer-esque game using rocket-boosted cars, requires players to be in constant communication with one another to set up shots and play efficient defense. League of Legends and SMITE are arena-style battle games, where players concoct strategies and think quickly to best opponents both individually and as teams.

Giaramita says that “engagement in school activities correlates with academic success” and gamers represent an untapped group of students that schools typically struggle to get involved. An eSports league gives many students who have difficulty finding friends a new avenue for breaking the ice with classmates and securing a more enjoyable high school experience, he says.

They’re not your typical jocks, but the number of students interested in competitive gaming will only continue to grow. With the pilot program, Haun and VHSL are hoping to help young gamers bring their passion with them when they go to school.

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