eSports High­school

It’s time for League of Leg­ends class.

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

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.

CHILD­HOOD GAMES

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.”

SCHOOL DAZE

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 FUTURE

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

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