Bringing E-sports to an Interscholastic Athletics Program

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E-sports are making their way into the high school arena.

The word “e-sports” refers to multiplayer video games played competitively. This field has taken off in recent years thanks to the rising popularity and sophistication of video games. Originally casual and open to any and all interested players, e-sports is rapidly evolving into an organized industry with teams, tournaments, world championships, and significant prize money.

Given the appeal of video gaming to the teenage audience, it is not surprising that this activity is making its way into the high school arena. What is surprising to some is that e-sports are finding a home in high school athletic departments. This trend has been emerging for several years and attained fully sanctioned status in late 2018 when the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) launched its inaugural e-sports season. The interscholastic associations of five states — Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — signed on to participate, and other states are expected to follow suit in coming years.

The idea of e-sports in high school generates some pushback. Some people are reluctant to view e-athletes in the same light as, say, football or tennis players. But a growing number of others feel that e-sports has a valid place in the high school athletic department, especially considering some of the other sports available.

“Chess and bass fishing, they’re sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association,” points out Anthony Pape, who oversees an e-sports team at Reavis High School in Chicago. “I don’t see where the line would be drawn. What would be the argument not to have it?”

Evaluating the pros and cons of a potential e-sports program is likely to be the responsibility of a school’s top athletic administrators. This is a high-level task best undertaken by someone with an advanced degree, obtained from a program such as Ohio University’s online Master of Athletic Administration. Featuring targeted instruction in high school sports manager duties, this program provides background information that can help candidates make appropriate choices when guiding a high school athletic program.

Why Add E-sports?

Launched in 2017, the High School E-sports League (HSEL) was created to provide a consistent framework for high school e-sports programs, including standards and competitions. HSEL already boasts about a thousand member high schools across America, and the number is constantly growing. On its website, HSEL lists the key benefits of e-sports in a high school athletic program:

  • Team Building. E-sports take a massive amount of communication, interaction, and coordination among athletes. These skills, honed in-game, prepare students for life.
  • Fast-Growing Industry. E-sports is a booming industry. Many job opportunities outside of being a pro player are being created. E-sports teach skills such as streaming, production, programming, and management that apply to these jobs.
  • STEM Opportunities. Many students who participate in e-sports take a deep interest in STEM fields because of the amount of technology involved in e-sports.
  • Path to College. HSEL offers scholarship prize pools to help students pay for a college of their choice. Additionally, some colleges have e-sports teams and offer scholarships to top high school e-athletes. This is a new and viable path to college for some students who otherwise might not consider higher education.

Reaching a New Population

High school athletic administrators point out another benefit of e-sports: the ability to attract a previously untapped pool of sports participants.

“Part of our current five-year strategic plan is to increase [athletic] participation rates to 51% of our student population. To meet this goal, we believed that e-sports would be a great addition,” explains Mat Parker, director of athletics, activities, and program development for Rockford (IL) Public Schools. “We knew that this offering would attract a group of students who were not typically involved in extracurricular school activities.”

Beyond boosting an athletic department’s participation numbers, e-sports offer practical benefits to participants. Mark Koski, NFHS director of marketing and CEO of the NFHS Network, points out that most students who join e-sports programs are already gaming alone or with friends in the evening. “E-sports are a great way to retain students in a scholastic environment under the direction of a teacher/coach,” Koski says.

How the Program Works

Because the field of e-sports is so new, programs have few established norms, and schools that institute e-sports programs are feeling their way through the process. Some athletic departments require e-athletes to meet all of the requirements for any athlete, such as providing yearly physical and permission forms, paying athletic fees, maintaining minimum grade standards, and other conditions. Other schools choose to waive many of these requirements, particularly the yearly physical.

The structure of each program, too, is highly individual, but they share some consistent elements. A top e-sports team practices daily with drills and communication activities, including strategic discussions about gameplay scenarios. Teams may compete in weekly online tournaments. They usually also take part in regional tournaments and events. Some teams even engage in weight training that focuses on the core, arms, hands, and wrists — the critical muscles for quick, accurate game controller manipulation.

Challenges and Advantages

Schools may face some challenges when starting an e-sports program. According to Mat Parker, issues for his program have included the difficulty of finding coaches who are more knowledgeable than the players; the online nature of competitions, which makes attracting audiences more difficult than for in-person sports; and significant startup expenses, including computer hardware and software.

But an e-sports program has many advantages, too. Once the initial costs are met, the operating budget is low, Parker and other coaches say, and players have little need for travel, uniforms, or other gear. E-athletes can work anywhere, at any time, and a team’s roster is not limited; it can accommodate any number of participants. And then, of course, there is the built-in appeal of gaming, which keeps players motivated and engaged where other sports might lead to burnout. It is a winning formula that fuels the rising popularity of e-sports in high school — and interscholastic athletic programs are seeing the advantages of jumping on board.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Degree

Ohio University’s online MAA program is designed to teach professionals how to successfully approach high school sports manager duties, such as initiating and running new sports teams. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education.

Ohio University’s online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring the university’s dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA). For more information, contact Ohio University’s MAA program representatives now.


Recommended Reading:

Managing an Athletic Department with Diverse, Non-Core Sports

Implementing and Maintaining Inclusive Sports Programs

The Future of Interscholastic Sports


Inaugural e-sports season – NFHS

Validity of e-sports – Coach & A.D.

Why e-sports in high school? – HSEL

Reaching a new population – NFHS

Practical benefits to participants – NFHS

How the program works – NFHS

Challenges and advantages – NFHS