It’s time for League of Legends class.
WhenI was in school (1993-2005), computer game sessions were restricted to rainy lunch times playing Sim Town in the lab, and huddled Game Boy Pokémon matches that stopped being ‘cool’ after fifth grade. In high school, friends of mine would travel into the city to play Counter-Strike together at LAN cafes (but I would not come; I was worried about developing a reputation as a nerd). It’s not something any of them dreamed of being able to do at school, and still something many of them would likely think of as pure fantasy. Years later, when I was working as a tutor in a video game focused topic at Adelaide University, I found my students surprisingly resistant to the idea of using games for learning and development in the classroom, and although we got a few games of Call of Duty 4 going, it did not seem as though they saw value in competitive in-class gameplay sessions.
Attitudes towards this are changing in ways that you might not expect, though. Many teachers are seeing the educational benefits of playing Minecraft in class, and for better or worse (mostly worse) the concept of ‘gamification’ is creeping into how learning is incentivised. But school is about more than the classroom – there’s an expectation that students will engage with co-curricular activities at many schools, or that they will represent their school in competitions. Over the last year, the presence of esports as a sanctioned school activity in Australia and New Zealand has ramped up considerably.
LEAGUES OF TEENAGE LEGENDS
The High School League, a New Zealand esports league started by the folks at the Australasian esports company Let’s Play Live, is the country’s biggest esports league for students by far. As of right now there are 80 schools across New Zealand involved, with two separate leagues – a professional A League and a more casual B League – to compete in. Many schools have entered multiple teams – some over ten – and their game of choice is League of Legends, the free-to-play MOBA with an active player count of 81 million. The High School League has expanded quickly, and gotten very competitive; at Auckland’s Armageddon Expo in October, Mt Roskill Grammar School managed to defend their title against Mt Albert Grammar School in front of a huge crowd. “The people at the information desk were telling me that more people asked where our stand was than any other stand,” Matt Ross, the tournament director, tells me. The High School League is pretty new - in 2016 they held a small competition, but the schools that got involved did not do so in an official capacity, and it was largely down to the initiative of their students. Now there are over 80 schools involved, each with teams that are managed by teachers within the school who are willing to oversee practice and enforce good gameplay fundamentals. “Getting teachers involved has actually been a really big part of it,” Ross says – having adults to coach the kids makes the whole thing feel more official.
High School League will be coming to Australia in the near future, but they won’t be the only organisation getting schools involved in esports. School Esports Australia was started by Paul Taylor, a teacher at Ringwood Secondary College, who began a competition within the school that eventually branched outwards. “After scraping the internet, we established that there was no school-focused body to help facilitate inter-school or inter-state competition,” he says. “So, we took the only logical step: we made one. We’ve been up and running for just over a year, and each month we see more and more traffic, and our inboxes are getting more and more interest.” Taylor played the original Unreal Tournament competitively, and has lectured in video game design and development, as well as game-based learning, across Victoria. Because of this, he’s well situated to serve as an ambassador for getting kids into
esports. There are five schools competing in Victoria, with a few in New South Wales, South Australia, and Queensland looking to join in 2018. “There’s no central location, we’re just splattered across the state,” Taylor says. “That’s the greatest thing about the internet, we don’t need centralisation to communicate.” This could be one of the advantages of esports in schools – most schools already possess the equipment needed to compete, and there’s the potential for interstate rivalries without the need to travel to compete.
DOIN’ IT FOR THE KIDS
For some kids, being asked to take part in competitive sports is tough. Some simply don’t enjoy them, or struggle with them, or aren’t able to get out on the weekend to play. Ross is glad that he’s able to give kids an experience that lets them represent their school and feel the pride that comes with teamwork through the High School League. “In high school I wasn’t a big fan of sports – I was never super passionate about it. But there are some kids who would have been even less passionate than me about traditional sports. I think the biggest thing these kids are getting out of this is that they actually get the chance to play as a team and participate in the sport like everyone else does.” The games are played online, meaning that travel isn’t as important, although some matches – like the Armageddon finals – allow the kids a chance to play in front of an audience, which can be a huge boost for their confidence. “Every kid that played in the tournament absolutely loved the fact that they got to play in front of a crowd,” Ross says. “Even the teams that didn’t have a big crowd backing loved it”.
There are benefits to playing esports that go beyond learning how to be in a team, though. “For the individual, just playing the game every day, you’re going to get a huge amount of muscle memory, improve reaction times, that sort of thing,” Ross says. Taylor, similarly, says that students improve “both the speed and accuracy of their typing and mouse skills” through playing. Studies tend to suggest that people who play many games can improve their memories and concentration; by embracing esports, schools can also embrace these benefits, which should, in many cases, carry through to the student’s studies. Games like League of Legends are cerebral and strategic, asking for skills that naturally carry back over into the classroom.
The High School League has also paired with Netsafe, a company dedicated to promoting online safety and preventing cyberbullying, to teach kids about the important of behaving well online. This year, one team was banned from the league for trash talk, but for the most part the kids are behaving. “High school kids can be some of the most brutal and rude people online,” Ross acknowledges. “We show that esports is like any other sport; you wouldn’t get away with doing that sort of thing in rugby or soccer, so it shouldn’t be expected in esports. It’s about keeping these kids happy and helping them see that bullying isn’t okay.” Taylor believes that starting practices like this early with kids is essential for curtailing issues in adult esports. “School Esports Australia teaches kids to compete respectfully, which is something a lot of international level esport events seem to be grappling with at the moment,” he says.
League of Legends, the go-to game for the High School League, has a lot going for it – it’s completely free (and the purchasable content is entirely cosmetic, meaning that one team can’t prosper over another by investing money into the game), and it has low enough system requirements that many students will be able to run it, either on school computers or at home. It’s also not hugely violent, with no gore to speak of, and no age rating to restrict anyone from playing it. Its enormous popularity means that plenty of kids were already well-versed in it before the league started, and because it demands teamwork, it’s a good game for forcing kids to bond. Playing with friends also means they can avoid the notoriously toxic MOBA players who often berate the less skilled or experienced.
The game favoured by School Esports Australia is more obscure. It’s called Warsow, and it’s an open-source FPS game first released in 2012. Paul Taylor feels that FPS games are well-suited to high school esports, but most games do not fit the bill because they’re too violent. “We chose Warsow as it is low on violence, yet retains the competitive elements of games like Quake III, Unreal and Counter-Strike,” he says. “Round length is adjustable, so it can fit into almost any school lunchtime.” He’s working to introduce leagues for Counter-Strike: GO and League of Legends too, and he says that Riot is “doing a lot to support Australian Schools in the uptake of esports.” In general, though, figuring out which games to get kids playing, and the logistics of getting them involved, is difficult. Counter-Strike has an age rating, and is not free to play; some of the games that would theoretically be perfect require more effort and spending to get going. “FIFA would be really big one, actually,” Ross says. But to get a FIFA league running will likely require a different set-up and infrastructure. “High School League is very successful, but that’s partly due to League of Legends being very successful,” Ross says. “We don’t want to pick another game just because High School League has been successful; we want to pick the right game first.”
Another challenge, at some schools, is getting teachers on-board. While the coaches at each school typically see the value in esports, or will advocate for it, both Ross and Taylor have faced or heard about some resistance. “Some schools have not seen the value just yet, and even the schools that have been supporting it have teachers within them that are not so supportive of it”, Ross says. “At one school, the teacher who looks after everything is fine, and a big supporter of esports, but when he brings it up at lunch time with all the other teachers, the other teachers might laugh and say ‘it’s not really a sport’. Even in some of our most successful schools, there are still teachers who are kind of resisting it, or just not coming on board. And I think that’s going to be a big part of our campaign f or next year when we get teams to sign up, that we need to educate people that esports is a legitimate thing.” Taylor has, similarly, faced some regressive views, but has seen the issue disappear once schools see the kids playing. “In my experience, once people have seen student competitions they start to realise that competitive gaming can be a sport or recreation,” he says, although some people still carry the attitude that games are not useful in the same way sports are.
Working at a school, Taylor is also aware of infrastructure and legal issues that need to be dealt with when organising these competitions. “Schools are mandated by law to protect students from inappropriate content,” he says, “which means we have some extremely aggressive filtering and blocking at school and state levels. Making online and inter-school competition a reality requires a lot of policy and technical people to be on-side. Once you’ve dealt with the number of ports, protocols, domains, and IP addresses that a modern online game requires you begin to appreciate the complex set of network rules and restrictions that need altering to get a game working within these networks. One missing port and you’ve stuck with a broken game, a network dump to sort-through, and a lot of Google-searching.” This is intimidating – particularly for teachers without an IT background – so for this to really work, Australian schools will need to actively involve their IT departments. “We are working with everyone we can, documenting network configurations that work, and helping teachers and IT staff with all of the knowledge we have put together on the games we support.”
The fast growth of high school esports organisations, in Australia, New Zealand, and abroad (see The US Scene), means that the concept of esports in schools might, eventually, become mainstream. Already there’s the potential for kids who succeed at high school esports to be recruited into professional teams, with scouts watching public matches to try and catch the next big player. In fact, this has happened at least once out of High School League, for a player known as ‘Shock’, who now plays for the team TM Gaming. “He’s not even 18 yet, and he’s already playing professionally in Australia,” Ross says. “The same thing’s been happening this season, where professional teams are looking at these players, because this is where that talent really develops.”
The games that these students are playing aren’t going anywhere – League of Legends, first released in 2009, is more popular than ever. For many kids, playing games at a competitive level will be a part of their future, and having it normalised and encouraged in the classroom will lead to better online practices and more widespread acceptance of the esports as a valid form of competition and entertainment. “I’m really passionate to get esports into high school and have it treated as a real sport, because it deserves to be,” Ross says. Taylor believes that making sure that “schools, teachers, and parents understand that gaming and esports are an important part of the world” will help this along – it’s now part of the curriculum at his school, and he wants to see other schools follow. “I hope my efforts, and those of everyone involved in school esports can show educational bodies just how important esports are, and will continue to be.”
figuring out which games to get kids playing, and the logistics of getting them involved, is difficult
Competing in front of a live audience can be a huge confidence boost for students
New Zealand is leading the way in terms of organised competitions
The open source FPS Warsow is the favoured game of School Esports Australia