Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Mat Parker, director of athletics, activities and program development, Rockford (Illinois) Public Schools, and Larry Rego, esports advisor, director of technology and data systems, Hilmar (California) High School, regarding implementation of esports programs in schools.
Question: Why did you decide to add esports to your program? How did this offering fit into your mission or program philosophy?
Parker: Part of our current five-year strategic plan is to increase participation rates to 51 percent of our student population. To meet this goal, we believed that esports would be a great addition to our broad offerings of activities and athletics.
Furthermore, we knew that this offering would attract a group of students who were not typically involved in extracurricular school activities. Connecting students to a positive team culture is unique for gaming and important to our goal of increased participation with certified coaches and mentors as an extension of the academic day.
Rego: The impetus to start an esports program came from a group of students who wanted to have a place where they could gather with others with the same interest and play video games not only for fun but also competitively. Until students approached me with this idea, there had been no discussion regarding the creation of this program.
Question: How do esports teams practice and prepare for competition? How often and where do they compete? Do they have a coach as other teams in the athletic department? And how do you find a qualified individual to serve in this capacity?
Parker: Esports teams practice and prepare much like traditional sports. They have daily drills, communication activities and gameplay scenarios strategically discussed. Teams compete on a weekly basis using a variety of online tournaments. Additionally, there are regional tournaments, events hosted at universities and at area high schools.
We strive to have top-tier coaches district-wide who work on key elements of developing student-athletes. With esports, communication, strategy, camaraderie and teamwork are emphasized. Finding a top-tier qualified coach is a bit more difficult, since gaming knowledge by adults such as teachers and community members may be limited. Esports athletes see coaching requirements related to their skill at the game. If a coach struggles with the concept of game knowledge over game ability, players may not gain what they need in the sport.
However, once it has been established that the coach is at the same level or above the skill or ability of the players, it works like any other coaching position, as long as the coach is engaged, has good rapport and has acumen on the games played.
Rego: Students have opportunities to practice in multiple locations after school and every other Saturday during the school year. They are able to establish teams and compete in online competition.
Currently, they do not have formal coaches but instead pick a “shot caller” on the team who serves this purpose. As advisor, I assist with this procedure and help students maintain a positive team environment.
Question: Do esports participants have to meet eligibility requirements similar to players on the football, basketball, softball and other sports teams? What about an annual physical, is that required and must participants in esports maintain the pre-determined grade-point average established by the school district or state?
Parker: Yes, esports participants have to meet all the same requirements as traditional student-athletes, including participation fees; current physical, weekly and semester eligibility requirements; and mandatory tutoring to name a few. Esports participants must meet district and state standards of passing five classes week-to-week and semester-to-semester.
Rego: Absolutely, students on the esports team are required to maintain their grades and grade-point averages just like any other sport. No physical is required at this time.
Question: While the esports team members are probably thrilled and enthusiastic about being a member of the team, what is the reaction of your constituents – athletes in other sports, coaches, parents, teachers and community members? Has esports been fully accepted as an equal component of your program?
Parker: While some students throughout the school district may like to attend esports events, the facilities and the time of online events may make it anti-climactic since the opponents are not in the room with other competitors. Most of the viewership, therefore, is online. Due to this fact, we haven’t gained must traction with live spectators like a traditional high school basketball game.
There is some reluctance to put esports on the same plane with other traditional sports, since it is more mental and less of a physical competition. We work extremely hard to treat our non-traditional sports with equity and inclusion, but the student body may be more hesitant. As the colleges begin to include esports, we believe our school student body will follow suit as well.
Also, parents love the scholarship angle of esports. If they feel their child, who typically isn’t involved in other clubs or activities at the school, has a legitimate shot at scholarships, they love supporting the teams in any manner they can.
Rego: Esports team members are totally accepted by other athletes and the entire school. They are recognized in the morning announcements when a competition is taking place and also during pep rallies when other sports teams are introduced. Largely, this all happens because it is our philosophy that all sports and activities are vitally important for our students and they should all be treated in the same positive, supportive fashion.
Question: What costs are involved in creating and operating an esports team? Do the team members have uniforms and how do they travel to competitions?
Parker: The initial expense consists of buying the gaming laptops and upgrading hard wiring or Wi-Fi reliability needed for the games, and this is in the $15,000 range per team. After these start-up costs, it’s relatively inexpensive in comparison to football, for example. Yes, they have uniforms. Most of the competitions do not require travel. When travel is necessary, however, we use our busses just like any other team.
Rego: The costs are fairly low at this time due to the fact that our high school has the equipment necessary to run the required software. Uniforms have not been established at this point, since this expense is dependent upon fundraising and there has not been enough raised to pay for much more than the software licenses. No travel is necessary, since gaming happens online.
Question: What advice would you give other athletic administrators who are looking for new opportunities for their students. What did you learn as you put this program together?
Parker: If you believe esports is good for kids and there is an opportunity to responsibly add it, do it. Our program is beginning its fourth year and I’d like to share a perspective from my colleague, James O’Hagen, regarding what we’ve learned to this point. “It is no longer cutting edge to just have an esports team at your school,” O’Hagen said. “What is cutting edge is what you do with it – for example, connecting our high school academies – small learning communities – to teams so it incorporates into a pathway creating learning opportunities during the day and then a continuation after school with the co-curricular offering.”
Rego: From our experience, I would recommend establishing schedules and fundraising initiatives early in order to secure the necessary ongoing funding. Software is not expensive, but the hardware usually is. As the program goes forward, we may face the issue of needing to purchase computers and hardware. This can be very difficult if there is no existing location at the school that can meet the requirements of specific competitive games. Therefore, there are some aspects which require planning and additional funding just as it would be with adding any new sport.
Dr. David Hoch is a former athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Maryland (Baltimore County). He assumed this position in 2003 after nine years as director of athletics at Eastern Technological High School in Baltimore County. He has 24 years experience coaching basketball, including 14 years on the collegiate level. Hoch, who has a doctorate in sports management from Temple (Pennsylvania) University, is past president of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association, and he formerly was president of the Maryland State Coaches Association. He has had more than 630 articles published in professional magazines and journals, as well as two textbook chapters. He is the author of a book entitled Blueprint for Better Coaching. Hoch is a member of the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.