This fall, Virginia will join at least 14 states in the U.S. in making esports an officially sanctioned high school activity. In a time when 16-year olds can win $3 million playing Fortnite, the global esports economy is expected to reach $1 billion by the end of the year and colleges are offering more than $15 million in scholarships to esports players, it is unsurprising that high schools are dipping their toes into the waters. Virginia alone has six colleges and universities with official esports programs through The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).
Over forty high schools across the state have agreed to participate in an official pilot program for competitive esports. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) has partnered with PlayVS to provide high school students with esports as an after-school activity and official competition, on par with theatre, scholastic bowl and debate team. Louisa County High School (LCHS), in Mineral, Virginia, has even built a state-of-the-art esports lab in preparation for the 2019-2020 season.
PLAYVS: AN ESPORTS PLATFORM FOR HIGH SCHOOLS ACROSS THE U.S.
To get a high school esports pilot rolling, a few pieces have to come together. Firstly, someone has to come up with a program structure, to show what competitive esports might look like for students, coaches, schools and the state as a whole. PlayVS assumes that role for Virginia, bringing experience from working on esports programs in other states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Texas Charter.
PlayVS provides the online platform for registering schools, teams, coaches, etc. They also manage the competition schedule, team records, player statistics and more. For many school administrators that are unfamiliar with esports, an organization like PlayVS helps manage the technical aspects of competitive video games, while helping them understand the ways in which esports benefit the students. PlayVS is the bridge between game developers and state high school organizations.
“PlayVS is a software development company whose main priority right now is being an esports league provider to high schools. Middle school leagues may be available in the future, but right now the high school level works best, considering League of Legends and Smite are rated T for Teen.” -Clint Kennedy, PlayVS
Clint Kennedy is the Director of Education at PlayVS and Seth Reinhart joined more recently to help build out the high school programs. These two have been instrumental in introducing esports to Virginia high schools, and will be the points of contact for VHSL and the schools during the pilot. With backgrounds in teaching, school administration, technology and competitive gaming, Clint and Seth are perfect mixtures of all that goes into a high school esports program.
“Students interested in esports is not coming in the future. They are already here. Now we need to direct that energy positively, which is exactly what PlayVS is trying to do.” -Seth Reinhart, PlayVS
VHSL: MANAGING STUDENT ACTIVITIES AND COMPETITION THROUGHOUT VIRGINIA
The next piece of the high school esports league puzzle would be a state-wide organizer that can make decisions on behalf of the schools. They would oversee after-school activities and competitions, place the schools into divisions and regions for competitive integrity, and act as a mediator between the schools themselves, as well as between schools and the platform provider. VHSL assumes that role for Virginia.
VHSL operates athletics within Virginia, from track and field to football to competition cheer. They also oversee non-athletic competition, such as theatre, film festival, and now esports. VHSL essentially gave the greenlight for Virginia high schools to utilize PlayVS as the official platform for their esports programs. They are also responsible for organizing the competition. The basic league structure right now involves a Fall season and a Spring season. Each contains a preseason period, a regular season, playoffs and a state championship.
Darrell Wilson is the Assistant Director for Academic Activities at VHSL, which means he oversees the non-athletic side of after-school activities. He is part of an esports advisory committee and communicates with the VHSL executive committee. Alongside the new esports pilot program, Mr. Wilson helps high schools with robotics, scholastic bowl, creative writing and more. Each of these activities has a thriving competitive scene across Virginia, which is exactly what VHSL is hoping for esports. Roughly 40 schools are ready to join the pilot, according to Mr. Wilson.
“Esports gives an after-school opportunity to students who may not already have one. Because it is so different from the activities we already offer, I don’t see esports taking students away from other activities, and it isn’t designed to do that. If anything, esports might bring more students to more activities.” -Darrell Wilson, VHSL
LOUISA COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL: ALL-IN ON ESPORTS FOR STUDENTS
Finally, an esports pilot program needs schools willing to invest students, faculty and infrastructure. Between academics, athletics and other activities, high schools already have a lot on their plate. Bringing in a new competition, and all of the planning that goes with it, is not the easiest task. Not to mention, the administrators will have to respond to any push-back regarding students playing videogames at school. Educating parents about what esports is and how students could benefit from participating is a top priority.
Louisa County’s high school is one school that is fully taking on esports. They will participate in the pilot beginning this Fall, recruiting players and coaches for League of Legends, Smite, and Rocket League teams. LCHS already built an “esports lab” right next to its library, housing about 20 gaming rigs. The lab includes MSI computers, monitors and headsets, Respawn gaming chairs, a large white board, projector and a TV outside for spectating competitions.
Doug Straley is the Superintendent of Louisa County Public Schools, so he had a say in whether LCHS would participate in the esports pilot program. Previously working as high school Principal and Athletic Director, Mr. Straley understands the importance of after-school activities for students and the greater community. As an active member of the Louisa County community, and head of the schools, Mr. Straley is all-in on esports for the high school. He even took the school board over to the esports lab to compete and experience esports for themselves.
“By 2030, 85 percent of the jobs today will not exist, so how do we prepare the students? Louisa County High School focuses on the “5 C’s“ for building our students for the future: Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Citizenship. Esports practices all of these skills in a fun way that kids love, so offering it at our school is a no-brainer.” – Doug Straley, LCHS
VIRGINIA WELCOMES HIGH SCHOOL ESPORTS
Despite having no personal experience with esports, Darrell Wilson and Doug Straley welcome it to Virginia high schools. With help from others, they recognize the value to the students.
“Our Director of Technology, who is on the esports advisory committee, thought the pilot was a good idea. He helped me get a full understanding and know the opportunities. We decided to build the esports lab at the high school, because if we are going to do this, then we are going to do it right. We want to be competitive and build a lot of interest with the students.” – Doug Straley, LCHS
“The previous Director of Academic Activities had his eyes on esports. Now that colleges are offering scholarships we are at a good point for the pilot program. Clint and Seth over at PlayVS are perfect for helping us bring this to the high school students. They have helped our administrators shift away from equating esports to just sitting and playing video games.” – Darrell Wilson, VHSL
“Darrell is a great guy. We wish we could replicate him into all the other states we work with. It is wonderful to work with someone without personal esports experience who sees the opportunities and who educates himself about it.” – Clint Kennedy, PlayVS
All parties involved – PlayVS, VHSL and the Virginia high schools – are committed to esports. Eligible students, make sure you reach out to your administration to see if you can participate. Faculty that is interested in coaching should contact the principal. Superintendents that want to bring esports to your schools, reach out to Darrell Wilson or contact PlayVS. This is an exciting step for Virginia students and the greater esports community.