High schools, colleges building communities with gaming

Former Penn State and NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington watches Penn State fan Aden Yarnick, 7, of Johnstown play ‘Minecraft’ at the grand opening of the American Esports gaming center at The Galleria in Johnstown in June.

By Shawn Curtis

scurtis@tribdem.com

When Karl Hofmann thinks of esports, he thinks of camaraderie.

It’s that very idea that sparked him to establish the esports program at Ferndale Area High School, which began competition this past academic year.

As esports muscles its way into popular culture on a worldwide scale, getting a small community to rally behind the idea was important to the business, computer and information technology teacher at Ferndale.

“We are interested in expanding, because that’s only going to get more kids in the program,” Hofmann said.

“Getting more kids in the program gets more of them interested in computer science, as well as kind of gives that target or carrot to hold out in front of them for school. So you’re going to see better grades, better attendance. All these positives.

“On the flip side, you’ll see that socially awkward kid, who didn’t have many friends, is going to join the team and now all of the sudden, he or she has 11 other friends to relate to.”

The Ferndale Swarm will soon have company in the region as St. Francis University and Mount Aloysius College are looking to launch esports programs this fall.

“We’ve been watching the trend for a little while, just observing from a distance,” said Bobby Anderson, the director of Student Engagement and Leadership Development at St. Francis. “We understand that collegiate esports probably got its start in 2014 in Chicago. Kind of watching it steadily grow and seeing other programs coming online, and just the response from students both at the college level along with high school and middle school. Observing a lot of our current students gaming in the residence halls … seeing how much that was bringing students together. It’s kind of putting 2 and 2 together. Some of our faculty on campus had asked if that was going to be something that we were going to pursue.”

On the Cresson campus of Mount Aloysius, the genesis of the program has taken a similar path.

“We’ve been talking to students for the past couple of years about this effort,” said Sam Wagner, the Mount’s director of communications. “We’ve seen the huge national growth of esports, and we’ve had a lot of our students talking about it. We’ve kind of been collaborating with them and asking ‘What do you want to see here? What would you like?’ “

‘A huge community’

Ferndale competes in the High School Esports League, which boasts member schools in all 50 states along with programs in Canada and Puerto Rico. For now, the Swarm only competes in “League of Legends” – a 5-on-5 battle game where teams work to destroy the opponents’ base while protecting their own.

“For Ferndale, originally when we had sign-ups, we had 40-plus kids signed from grades 7 to 12,” Hofmann said. “Once we started eliminating games, saying that we weren’t going to play these games, that number dwindled quite a bit. There were still kids who played games like ‘Overwatch’ that want to, but where we’re at, we don’t have the capacity with the computer system to play those other games that they want to play.

“We’re working toward that, to build the program and be able to raise the money to replace or make the equipment better, so we can extend into that stuff. Where it is right now, we have put out there, who’s interested in playing ‘League of Legends’ and once we get that pool, we’ll introduce them to the game if they haven’t been introduced and get them built up, to where we can make a good team.”

St. Francis is registered to join the ECAC’s esports division while competing in “Overwatch,” “League of Legends,” “Rocket League” and “Super Smash Bros.,” sees a chance to generate a community within the program.

“We want people who are passionate about their sport,” Anderson said. “Obviously talented, but also enjoys sharing that. Esports is community-driven. It’s a huge community. It’s not the misnomer of hiding away in your parents’ basement and being antisocial. It’s the complete opposite of that – which draws people together.”

Wagner notes that Mount Aloysius is cautiously building its program for competition.

“Starting out as a club for the first year to get a feel for what the students want,” Wagner said. “Once they get here and start playing, we can kind of base it off of that and hopefully put together a competitive team with the help of the coach that comes in.”

Once the program has a coach in place, Mount Aloysius already has its game list in place.

“ ‘League of Legends’ seems to be the standard competitive game that a lot of the colleges do,” Wagner said. “So we’re looking at that as well as ‘Overwatch,’ and ‘Hearthstone.’ “

Putting together those teams at the collegiate level is akin to any athletics venture. Teams need to identify their athletes while gamers are still in high school.

“We’re going to be recruiting high school students through this academic year to join in 2020-21,” Anderson said. “So, we’re going to be looking for talented players who are probably platinum and diamond level in games like ‘Overwatch’ and ‘League of Legends’ and equivalents within the other game titles as well. Just to see that they have experience, that they’re passionate and intend to pursue this while in college.”

‘Very professional’

While online or local gaming can lead to a mixed bag of results for the casual gamer, those competing in esports are held to a much higher standard, on or off the controller.

For example, Ferndale follows the school district’s club and sports eligibility requirements, meaning that students have to be as skilled in the classroom as they are on the sticks.

Wagner observed that some programs require even more than the abilities needed in games.

“One thing I know that a lot of teams do is they’ll have a required amount of hours per week that these students have to at least be in the gym doing physical activity,” Wagner said.

“Obviously, gaming requires a lot of sitting, and I think that’s a great counter to that. Kind of require that there’s time, and it’s important to be active as well.”

While competing, rules are in place to make sure that anarchy or laziness are not the end results of the competitions.

“It’s amazing to see just how controlled it is,” Wagner said. “It’s not just your old school, sitting on the couch and playing Nintendo. It’s very regulated. It’s very professional.”

It’s also up to the institutions to ensure that the featured games are consistent with their values.

“One of the things that we are intentional and deliberate about is our mission, our values, our reputation as an institution that instills a great deal of character and integrity in our students,” Anderson said. “There are some game titles that, while very popular, probably simulate too much realistic violence and things that send the wrong message.”

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