While the OCHSEL is focusing on its formal curriculum for schools to adopt wholesale, the EGF plans to help teachers tailor eSports content to individual courses. This approach is more flexible and surgical than requiring a school to create and staff an entirely new class.
"[The programs] can range from using eSports in a traditional classroom setting, to using it as an example for stats and analytics or something like that, up to experiential learning," EGF founder Tyler Schrodt told Engadget.
And eventually, teens in EGF leagues could earn course credit for helping run them, which the organization had previously implemented in its collegiate league. But there's more to preparing students than coursework and interning. The EGF (and the OCHSEL, for that matter) make a point to teach students about jobs in eSports. Not every position in professional gaming means playing competitively. There are countless support jobs in front of (live match commentary) and behind the camera (running tournaments or leagues), plus related fields like game development and journalism.
Assuming all goes to plan, the EGF will start integrating schools outside Connecticut into its league next fall. Schools that wish to join will get evaluated by an EGF staff member, who determines if they're a good contender for the league. Primarily, the employee checks whether there are enough interested students to build a team and if the campus' computer and networking setup are up to snuff.
All this comes at a cost. The EGF is a for-profit business, and schools will be required to pay dues. Schrodt wouldn't give a firm price and said it will vary from school to school based on financial circumstances. "We're very careful to make sure that whatever we do in terms of the direct cost to a school is not prohibitive in terms of their ability to participate," Schrodt said.
Online leagues: Still a viable option
While some local programs have cropped up here and there over the years, it's hard to name one that survived. Even six months ago, the new local leagues outlined in this story were barely holding on. But as they're shoring up their programs and services, it might be some time before they reach other parts of the country. In the meantime, online leagues can still offer competition.
The biggest online league is arguably the High School eSports League, which started hosting tournaments in 2013 and partnered with the National Association of Collegiate eSports. It boasts 490 partner schools with 6,200 players. Unlike other leagues, the HSEL requires a faculty adviser and blessing from the school, along with a $5-per student, per month fee. For that expense, members get assistance setting up, managing and growing their on-campus club, along with access to the HSEL's five 6-8 week seasons per year. Those funds also help fund a prize pool that reached $70,000 in scholarships this year.
Other online associations vary in size and mission. Rhe High School Starleague serves between 3,000 to 4,000 students per season for teams that don't want to spend as much or don't want to involve their school. It requires only a $3 team registration fee to essentially cover server costs and relies on an all-volunteer staff. The Youth ESports of America (YEA) is a relative newcomer, with 50 chapters in schools nationwide that launched in May 2017. Most of its 15-person staff is made up of high schoolers, including its founder Justin Jia.
Even at its young stage, high school eSports is already facing existential questions, and the OCHSEL has a community board of advisers to debate them. One is whether the OCHSEL should provide a pot of reward money at the end of the season. Currently, it doesn't -- students participate for the thrill of competition, like other school sports -- but many eSports tournaments and pro leagues award top players and teams with money or gear. Skilled players may be torn between playing for their school and getting paid in professional competition.
"High school football, high school basketball, high school soccer -- you don't see prize pools for these. The championship and the recognition, that's it. [The OCHSEL] wants eSports to fit in this model," Jia, who sits on the OCHSEL's board, said. "If a team of teenage players is talented enough, they may skip their school's league and join an online one with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake."
There are other issues high school eSports will have to address. One of the bigger ones is creating an inclusive environment for students of all genders, sexualities, religions and creeds -- something professional gaming continues to struggle with. Overwatch's pro league recently hired its first female player, and these amateur associations aren't doing a much better job at attracting women. The OCHSEL has just a handful; Kennedy's squad at New London High School has the only two female players in the CTE, though one of them is the team captain.
Everyone competing in the teen eSports scene will have to face these issues as more organizations join. Just last month, startup PlayVS announced it partnered with the NFHS (the high school equivalent of the NCAA) to found a nationwide league that launches this October. But the local associations are trying to change competitive gaming at a much simpler scale. Establishing eSports at the high school level could normalize video games for both teens and adults. Just like in traditional Little Leagues, introducing young gamers to structured competition teaches them ethical play and teamwork while parents connect and build a community -- one that sticks around to introduce the next generation to its favorite digital pastime.