Stadiums and million dollar prizes are old news: the future of eSports is in high schools
Riot Games will be holding the League of Legends LCS Season 3 finals in Los Angeles early next month. Downtown LA will be overrun with tens of thousands of LoL fans. The Staples Center, the basketball stadium where the legendary LA Lakers play, will be packed to the brim as fans cheer for their favorite eSports teams.
Its future may be in high schools.
The next generation
Despite all of the rampant success of competitive gaming over the past three years, eSports still faces a constant uphill struggle against social acceptance. LoL, Dota, StarCraft, and CoD have made great strides over the past decade, but they're still basically waiting around until society at large accepts their legitimacy.
One organization is taking a far more proactive approach with the goal of building a foundation to strengthen the eSports world.
The High School Starleague is designed as a sort of grassroots organization with the ability to cure many of the ills of professional gaming today. Chief among them are getting kids interested in competitive gaming at a young age, and giving them the infrastructure needed to compete and learn the game while in school.
There don't seem to be any schools with official eSports teams, at least not yet, but there are many with clubs that are allowed to use school facilities and fundraise. These clubs, of which there are dozens across the USA and Canada, can then compete in the High School Starleague as a team in any of the three games that are supported: League of Legends, Dota 2, and StarCraft 2.
For the kids
“Everything starts as a kid,” said Jesse Wang, one of the chief administrators of the High School Starleague. Wang is himself a veteran of the two-time High School Starleague StarCraft 2 champion school, Torrey Pines.
“The reason why those [traditional] sports are so big, it's not just because of the infrastructure,” he continued. “Kids have been watching football, playing basketball, playing baseball since they were young. Kids always say, y'know, 'I got my first baseball mitt from my dad when I was five years old.'”
In Wang's mind, if you give kids a first dose of eSports at a young age, you're creating fans for life. But it's about more than simple indoctrination or building an ever-larger fan base, it's about legitimizing eSports on a wide, cultural level.
“In order for it to be socially acceptable, in order for kids to be able to play this game, you need to have some sort of competition that legitimizes eSports in high school,” Wang told the Report.
Others have voiced similar opinions in the past. In an interview with GameSpot eSports, StarCraft 2 caster and live streamer Sean “Day” Plott described high school athletics as the great cultural educator.
“So American football is stupidly complicated in terms of rules,” Day said to GameSpot. “Just, the concept of downs and kickoffs and onside kicks and what off-sides is… all that is quite complicated. But no one’s looked at a manual ever. I’ve never opened the rule book to football, and yet I know all the rules to football because my friends and my family acted as the manual. It was a cultural manual. And high school I think is a huge part of that—that you go into high school sports, you see it, it’s all around you, and I’d want that for StarCraft.”
There are more aspects to a high school league than simply helping eSports grow bigger though. It's also about helping to solve some of the unpublicized problems that the current scene still has.
“In Korea you have kids like Flash becoming OSL champion at age 15, but people don't realize how hard it is for that to happen,” said Wang. “These kids give up a lot to try and do this. You always hear about the success stories, but you don't hear about the times when pro-gamers try to go up at age 14, 15, 16 and don't make it.”
It's a less common problem in the United States, but as eSports grows larger and larger it's going to be a mounting concern as young prodigies chase a career in professional gaming at the expense of schooling. It's already common to put off college in order to sieze a rare chance to stay at the top of competitive gaming.
“It's important to have a high school league where you can still get your education,” said Wang. “That's why they do it in sports. They didn't want the whole flack of 'if you don't make in the NBA you have no future in life.' And I think it's really important, for eSports to get on the same level as mainstream sports, that you have that high school league.”
This has the dual-pronged benefit of being both good for the public perception of eSports, and for the same reason, being good for the players.
“This kind of thing is good for the community, and it's good for the players in general,” Wang said. “A lot of the things that they're learning in sports - regardless of whether they go pro - leadership, committment, dedication, being able to communicate and organize… all those things are learned by playing in an organized league. Regardless of whether it's sports, eSports, robotics etc.”
Wang said that it hasn't all been smooth sailing though. When the High School Starleague expanded into the Dota 2 community there was some hostility toward the concept.
“People were like 'we hate high school kids, why would we want more high school kids to play,'” said Wang. “But what they don't realize is that this isn't about getting more high school kids to play. I think overall it's better for the community because you have a lot more gamers coming in who are more mature about it. I think it actually makes the state of gamers better.”
Despite the minor problems and pushback, the future is looking bright for the High School Starleague. They've just opened up registration for Season 3, and recently partnered with the Collegiate Starleague to become their sister organization,. effectively creating a competitive ladder to the pro-leagues. They began as a league just for StarCraft, but have grown to include LoL and Dota 2 recently as well.
“We've actually already gotten contacted by middle schools, because they want to try to start a middle school league. Now, that's a lot harder, but I definitely see that coming in a few years. If we see more support for it we definitely need to help out.”
Words can not express how excited I am to sign my future daughter or son up for peewee StarCraft.