An educator reflects on the journey to bring esports to her high school students--and the unexpected benefits her students gained

How esports changed my school

An educator reflects on the journey to bring esports to her high school students--and the unexpected benefits her students gained

It was nearly a decade ago, sitting in my classroom, when the importance of esports in high school first occurred to me. I held a student back. He’d been troublesome as usual that day. His work hadn’t been done, he was actively not taking notes, and had missed his retest window. I wanted to figure out what the deal was, what I needed to consider in order to help him find the motivation to excel. After all, it wasn’t a one-time occurrence; he was failing nearly all of his classes.

“I’m competitive,” he admitted after a few minutes. “I don’t like those games though,” he added when I did what any high school teacher would do and suggested basketball or football or tennis or soccer, as if he hadn’t thought of those himself already.

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“Then what?” I pressed. “What is your game? What is it that you get fired up about?” His answer was video games.

Video games were a waste of time and gamers are delinquents and social misfits. That’s what the media was telling us all in the early twenty-teens. My youth was spent as a gamer–Dungeons and Dragons and Live-Action Role Playing Games, and yes, the now-retro classics on Nintendo. I was competitive too, but with team activities. I spent a number of years before that playing World of Warcraft. I was, even in that moment, spending my evenings practicing League of Legends in order to compete that very weekend in an online tournament. I had no chance of winning, because a few teams had players from the Collegiate League who were using my forum’s little weekend tournament as a grinding and practice space between matches in their regular league.

But that’s when it hit me. He wasn’t asking for anything more than I had already found. He was just asking for it as an adolescent, where as I struggled to fit in with it and finally just stopped caring what the world thought of it as an adult. He was asking for the same level of respect that gamers like him were getting in college and in the professional leagues, but he was asking for it at a time when so many of us truly need to feel included: high school. It took some time, but I got a video game club approved on campus. Sadly, it wasn’t fast enough for my inspiration student. He left the high school, and to this day I don’t know where he is nor what he is doing. I lost one, but maybe I won’t lose any others.

Two years later, as the club was going through the growing pains of needing equipment and competition fees, a few wonderful things happened. It was like I had planted this seed, and had been watering the soil for weeks on end without seeing anything and just as hope was flickering out, I woke up to a tiny delicate shoot.

One of my students brought in a draft of a scholarship essay she wrote. It was simple and sweet, and likened her life to a video game. All of the challenges and hardships were level bosses, and her teachers and counselors were power-ups and items available to her to help her on her way. She was quiet and shy and introverted and so sure that her scholarship essay wasn’t going to be good enough. I encouraged her to submit it anyway, and while she didn’t get money from it, there was recognition, and with that, a self-esteem that made this journey I was on very real.

This wasn’t just about me giving kids a place to play video games and feel like they could maybe be a part of something bigger than them. It was now a vehicle that could drive as much good for students whom are otherwise marginalized. It was a place where they could try something they never would have before, without the overwhelming fear of failure. This was their video game, where dying to the stage boss didn’t mean you were a bad person, it just meant you had to try the stage again and perhaps take in a different set up of equipment and party members.

This year, I watched a freshman walk onto campus with his head down and his shoulders hunched. I watched him walk into my room and the budding esports program and I saw him bloom. I saw him take on organizing Super Smash Brother practice, find a colleague of mine who not only played but would coach, and I saw him managing other Smash Players as a captain would. I watched him put on his jersey for the first time, and how he held his head with pride, saying “I am a Gamer” and walking the halls of our campus with a poise and a presence that he wouldn’t have found elsewhere. This year, I watched a go-with-the-flow junior, with no plans for college, take an interview with Navarro College. I watched him get offered a place on their team when he graduates, and I watched him struggle with the reality that college is something he can want and he can do and most importantly, it can be on his terms with a group of individuals like himself.

This year, I pressed for more district support, holding up the success of my students, of the change in the self-esteem and the life-focus I saw, but I was falling short of the money needed for better equipment, proper jerseys, and yearly competition fees. HSEL, VEF, and Champions have been the power-ups I needed to help my group. Champions stepped in with affordable apparel, allowing my students the ability to help design the jersey we now use, and placing them at a cost that my low socio-economic status population can manage. VEF appeared when I found the club a few hundred dollars short for competition fees one spring semester. My kids had worked so hard, selling brownies at football games every Friday all season long, that I was staring at the possibility of asking my family to sacrifice, to donate, to allow my teams to go to competition. I didn’t have to, because VEF rescued me, and from that session, students placed well enough that my district begin to take notice. Lastly, HSEL, with its unwavering support, has listened to my voice and the voice of other educator, included me in its Advisory Council, and allowed me to help shape what the organization does for esports in high school and beyond. They listened when I, and I’m sure many other schools, cried out for help with equipment and competition fees, providing a bundle that had so much bang for its buck that my tiny district, located in extreme south Texas, a mere few miles from the border with Mexico, invested in they and in my vision.

I’m a gamer, and I’ve brought esports to a small, conservative high school in the middle of the Rio Grande Valley in Deep South Texas. I’ve brought esports into a place were football reigns and soccer is king. I’m a gamer, and esports has changed me as it has begun to change the lives of my students.

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