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Esports takes Central PA high schools by storm


Harrisburg University’s esports team practices in its facility in the Whitaker Center. Its 22 team members are on full scholarships for esports. Photo by Lisa Maddux.

Competitive multi-player gaming — esports — has an increasingly strong presence in Central Pennsylvania. While you may think your kids are simply having fun playing video games with their friends (and hopefully that is true), they may also be increasing their chance at playing on a college esports team or even getting a college scholarship.

Mason Garza’s mom Robyn is the first to admit that she didn’t really understand the significance of her son’s gaming talent.

“I kind of knew he was pretty good,” she says.

But when Mason, a Middletown Area High School senior, would tell his parents he was ranked or won a gaming contest, Robyn says they would kind of brush it off and didn’t take it too seriously.

“We used to yell at him — stop playing your video games all the time,” she laughs.

Mason didn’t stop, and now he’s played his way into a $2,500 annual scholarship to compete on Lebanon Valley College’s esports team beginning this fall. Mason also has a merit scholarship and plans to study analytical finance.

LVC is one of several area colleges that has embraced the esports trend and is pushing its expansion.

“Esports is absolutely significant right now, here at home in Pennsylvania and around the globe. It is a growing industry which is only starting to hit its stride, with a lot of room for growth and expansion,” says David Shapiro, LVC’s esports director of operations.

 

Academic and social benefits

Shapiro is sensitive to concerns parents may have about esports, but assures them that there is great value in this growing form of competition.

“Esports, like our other varsity sports and activities, is a way for our students to compete at the collegiate level and in order to do so, they have to practice, review film, study the games they play, work with coaches regularly, communicate effectively and perform academically well while they compete,” he says. “This means there is no room for a poor culture or addictive behavior, and no room for students to go down a wrong path if they still want to be competitive in esports.”

Indeed, local high school representatives have found numerous benefits for the students involved in their esports teams. In many cases, they also realize the students’ understanding of the esports world far exceeds the advisors’.

“Every game they are playing, I have never played,” says Dr. Matthew Fox, assistant principal at Conestoga Valley School High School and its esports general manager.

Fox says that although he’s not a gamer, he is an educator whose mission is to see students succeed.

“I’m invested because I see students that are flourishing,” he says.

The CVHS esports team grew out of some student feedback at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. Last September, the school held a student interest meeting and 71 students showed up — a number which was surprising and encouraging to Fox. Lebanon Valley College has donated a variety of gaming-specific technology to the school district and Fox says he’s been able to secure some grants and money from sponsors to get the sport going.

Congestoga Valley senior Alex Vargas is a relative newcomer to the esports team and says it’s surprising to him how much the sport is growing. He says his parents have been very supportive of his interest and he’s really enjoying aspects of the sport that go far beyond gaming.

“There’s so much communication involved, even throughout the week,” Alex says. When team members aren’t gaming, they still have to work to set up practices and other meetings. And then when they do compete, communicating between players is a crucial part of the sport.

“It’s so encouraging to be around so many people (who love gaming),” Alex says.  “I just love meeting new people I would probably never have talked to in the first place.”

That social component of gaming is something everyone involved in the sport highlights as a positive outcome. Fox says he’s been heartened to see how involvement in esports has really helped foster a strong connection to the school within a group of students who might not otherwise have felt it. Like several other high schools with esports teams, Conestoga Valley’s team has jerseys and other team items that help them represent and get the word out.

“They have pride in their school; they’re making friends,” Fox says of the personal benefits. He also notes that the rules of esports participation are in line with those of other school sports — bad grades, tardiness and absences are all things that will negatively affect participation.

Annville-Cleona School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andrea Flocken has seen exactly that phenomenon in her district.

“It’s not just playing video games,” she says. “It really motivates students to come to school. [This is] a group that’s not otherwise connected to a coach or a mentor. Anything we can do to open their eyes and give them an opportunity is beneficial.”

Flocken says the district is very pleased with all the benefits of esports, listing improved visual acuity, scientific reasoning, higher math achievements and development of leadership skills. She says esports are an exciting opportunity for a group of students who may not have felt included before.

Keith Royer, K-12 academic coach and esports general manager for Annvile-Cleonna, says the students really do have to rely on each other as a team to make these games work, and he’s seen that help some blossom in leadership roles.

 

All-inclusive

Even for those students who don’t play games, esports provides a variety of other roles, including shoutcaster (think of play-by-play broadcasting), marketing and other business development.

“There’s lots of varied support roles for students to be involved,” Flocken says.

Royer says the district hopes to expand their program in the fall.

Harrisburg University’s esports team has a brand new practice facility in the Whitaker Center that’s decked out in red, orange and yellow and serves the 22 students who are on full scholarship for esports. The venue also provides a place for spectators to view gaming competitions on a screen 38 feet high and 70 feet wide.

Chad Smoltz, esports program director for the HU Storm, says it’s an exciting time to be involved in esports. Although the dates vary depending on the source and the definitions, it’s generally accepted that varsity esports did not exist as few as 10 or even five years ago and now there are more than 100 teams. That number seems to be growing rapidly; Smoltz adds that a year in esports is like five years in some others.

Harrisburg University recently hosted the PA Cup, in which more than 30 teams from colleges and universities across Pennsylvania participated virtually in a two-day tournament. The university was also selected out of more than 100 applicants as the official site of the 2019 National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) to be held this July.

Smoltz encourages anyone who isn’t familiar with esports to look into it and see if it might be a good fit.

“There’s a lot more to it than mindlessly clicking away,” he says. “It’s the epitome of team sports.”

Smoltz also points out a strength of esports shared by others involved. Because it does not rely solely on physical strength or ability, esports is very inclusive. It is more accessible to people with a variety of physical abilities, as well as being open to team members regardless of gender or even financial status. As technology becomes increasingly affordable, esports may also be one of the most accessible outlets for students.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor,” he says.

Lisa Maddux resides in Boiling Springs with her husband and two daughters. She is looking forward to a summer full of golfing, grilling and spending time with her family.

 

 

 

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