A few weeks before homecoming, a cloudless sky hung over Washington-Liberty High School in Northern Virginia’s Arlington County, and sounds of a promising new school year filled the air. Whistles blew to start football drills, the band practiced nearby and in one technology classroom, a group of eager students asked Assistant Principal Miles Carey questions.
“Do we have a competitive Pokémon team?”
“Will I need to create a Discord account?”
Carey was running a meeting for the school’s esports club, a program he started two years ago to engage students who were not otherwise participating in school activities. He said the club has achieved its goal so far; roughly a third of last year’s 70-plus members did not participate in any sports or activities outside of esports, according to Carey.
“[The club] gave kids a way to find people with similar interests," Carey said. “But then it took off. We ended up winning a tournament, and a few kids got to split a $12,500 scholarship last year.”
Like many programs across the country, Washington-Liberty’s esports club is transforming into something increasingly competitive, especially since Virginia added esports as an official academic activity this year. In addition to greater structure and funding, players will be able to compete for a state championship in the video games League of Legends, Rocket League and SMITE for the first time.
“I’ve been super motivated to get better,” said Washington-Liberty senior Scooter Norton, captain of the school’s Rocket League team, in response to the state’s decision. Norton said esports was the first club he joined when he signed up as a 10th-grader.
The Virginia High School League joins leagues in 16 other states affiliated with the National Federation of State High School Associations participating in esports this year. Although the state tournament provides greater legitimacy to an activity for which many young gamers are clamoring, Norton said not everyone is so enthusiastic about competitive esports.
“[Coordinating] practices have been kind of difficult,” Norton said. “Because it’s easy to get parents to prioritize traditional sports and clubs — things that look good on college applications. But it’s hard to get players online at the same time to practice esports.”
Nate Estevão, now a college freshman, captained Washington-Liberty’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) team last year. Estevão said he quit the crew team to devote more time to practicing CS:GO and launching the esports program as a junior.
“It was definitely difficult at first,” Estevão said. “My friends thought it was stupid. My parents thought it was stupid. My siblings thought it was stupid. Not in an aggressively mean way. Just like, ‘Dude, you already have something good going. Why are you gonna go into something that’s completely unknown?’ Unknown for them, at least.”
Estevão was part of the team that won the $12,500 scholarship and national championship tournament last year. He now attends the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and competes for the university’s CS: GO team. He said his family and peers became more accepting of his choice after seeing the benefits it offered.
“At a more organized level, it allows for a wide range of people to get a competitive experience whereas they otherwise might not have had that," Estevão said.
Carey said some teams will continue to compete in a nationwide tournament hosted by the High School Esports League, a for-profit company that offers scholarship prizes. The VHSL tournament will only offer a championship title and glory, but players still like the fact that their “sport” is now considered “varsity.”
“On our Counter-Strike team, we had a guy on the varsity basketball team. We had a guy from varsity track. We also had a guy who never really competed in sports before, and he ended up being one of our star players,” Estevão added. “It was really cool to see that he had an outlet because he was a very competitive person, but he wasn’t into athletics.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is partnering with PlayVS to build the infrastructure for its high school gaming competitions. The partnership was announced in 2018, but Mark Koski, the CEO of the NFHS Network, said the governing body “hesitated at first” to expand into esports because NFHS is “generally on the athletic side.”
“We want students to be physically active, but with esports, we didn’t want to get into the game of ‘is this a sport or activity?’” Koski said. “At the end of the day, it’s students involved within their high school setting, under the direction of a teacher or coach, learning teamwork and leadership skills."
According to Koski and PlayVS, 68 percent of the country’s 19,000 NFHS member schools (public and private) have either created esports teams or are on a wait list to do so. With lower costs associated with starting an esports teams compared with traditional athletics, Koski said many schools and state associations are eager to add programs. He said he expects the number of states hosting championships will nearly double from 17 to 30 by the end of the year.
Washington-Liberty is on the forefront of the trend, but administrators said the greatest benefit of support from the state and national governing bodies is not necessarily tangible.
“It’s validating the activity," said Carol Callaway, the director of student activities at Washington-Liberty. “It’s a Virginia High School League sponsored activity now, so it’s validating that they find that it’s a beneficial activity for our students to participate in.”
For students, there is another group they are trying to get on board.
“Parental support is huge for a club like this to actually prosper,” Norton said. “Without that, it’s hard for kids to keep playing and want to improve.”