Students at Babcock Neighborhood School and Babcock High School are playing in school-sponsored leagues for a new 21st century sport, and two BNS students even placed in the top 15 of a national championship competition last December. The new sport teaches life skills, offers college scholarship opportunities, and presents options for future careers that most sports do not. It also involves training and practice, just like any other sport, and is sanctioned by the same governing bodies that sanction traditional school sports leagues.
So, what is this brand-new sport you’ve never heard of? It’s called esports, with the competition field being inside the online world of video games and the sports equipment being computers and the internet. And for a sport that you’ve never heard of, its professional world championships attract more spectators on live-streaming internet channels than the viewership of Major League Baseball’s World Series. It offers prize purses in the millions of dollars. It’s just not as well-known because it is not broadcast on television. The sport has risen since live-streaming internet has transformed video games from something played on your TV at home into a competition where you can play against people from around the world in real time. BNS offers teams and leagues to its middle and high school students for multiple video games.
“I’m really happy that we can bring esports to Babcock Neighborhood School and High School because it sets us apart,” said CJ McFarlane, IT director for BNS. “It provides kids a whole new way of interacting with school, especially now with COVID where you don’t have things like baseball, and kids are just lost. You don’t have a lot of these sports that would form those communities. The big thing I like about esports for the students is that in esports they’re also experiencing the character development, leadership, teamwork, communication and growth you see in traditional sports. They’re learning to deal with winning and losing because you’re not going to win every single match. How do you bounce back from those losses? How do you really analyze what’s happening?”
Along with being naturally socially distanced, esports are cost effective for the school to offer because there are no transportation costs involved. Kids may play from wherever they are, including home. While participation in esports teaches some of the same life lessons that participation in traditional sports cover, it also offers the opportunity to learn some transferrable skills that other sports do not.
“The biggest hurdle that esports have is the stigma of ‘it’s just a video game and a waste of time’ when, in reality, it’s not much different than any other sport,” Mr. McFarlane said. “ Esport players have many more opportunities for careers than your traditional sports players. Kids who play football or baseball through high school and college years, if they don’t get picked up by a professional league, there isn’t much left for them to do. Yet with esports, even if you don’t go professional, there are still a lot of career avenues. There’s editing, there’s animation, there’s streaming, there’s art, there’s management. There’s a lot of these skills that are just straight transferable from what you’ve done in esports.”
BNS seventh grader and esport team member Peter Campanella is already transferring what he’s learned from playing esports to what might eventually lead to a career. Mr. Campanella, who represented BNS in the middle school national championship for the video game Minecraft and placed 11th nationwide, built his own computer.
“Computers have something called a processor, and I was running two gaming monitors from a laptop,” Mr. Campanella said. “Often that was overheating my laptop’s processor. A laptop isn’t really meant to carry all that, because it’s just meant for an extra keyboard and mouse. The monitors put too much pressure on my laptop. It would go to a whopping 150 degrees, and it just wouldn’t match performance.”
Knowing he needed a better computer, Mr. Campanella collaborated with a tech-savvy Babcock Ranch resident who advised him on what components to order and then helped the student assemble and program his new, souped-up gaming desktop computer. Mr. McFarlane said other members of the esports teams have jumped from playing video games to designing them through their membership in another of the school’s extracurricular activities, the Technology Student Association.
As with sports such as car racing, highgrade equipment matters in esports. Babcock Ranch’s built-in high-speed fiber optic network provides an advantage to the BNS students on the teams since esports must stream in real time over the internet.
“The infrastructure that we have at Babcock Ranch has played a huge role in our ability to play very, very well,” Mr. McFarlane said. “As you can only imagine, your Internet speed is a huge factor when you’re playing games that rely on split second reaction, so the slower the connection, the less you’re able to react in time. With the infrastructure out here, when we play, it’s rare that our connection is not the best, if not always better or in line with our competition. You have those advantages built in when compared to people who just don’t have that infrastructure.”
While equipment and infrastructure make a difference in competition, the fact that esports are played in an online world help to make them accessible and equitable to a wider range of children. Yes, there is a physical skill aspect in terms of hand-eye coordination, but Mr. McFarlane likens esports as being closer to playing chess in terms of comparison to an offline sport.
“It’s much more encompassing than a lot of traditional sports because it’s about talent,” he said. “If you are short, you’re going to have a tough time playing basketball. With esports, especially since there are so many individual games within it, you still have an opportunity to play the sports that you want to play at the collegiate level.”
The children participate in games rated appropriate for their age groups, and their personal identities are protected online by the use of player nicknames. Since esports focus more around mental development, like chess, Mr. McFarlane encourages the students to strive for balance in their lives by also participating in physical activities. For example, in addition to the esports team, Mr. Campanella is a member of the school’s cross-country team.
“I’m a big proponent of balance,” Mr. McFarlane said. “I don’t think you should spend all your time doing just one thing. I would say the same thing about someone who spends all their time playing baseball and football. When are you going to hit the books and sit down and study? Esports fall into the same area. At the end of the day, I want to have a successful program, but I measure success by ‘Are the kids learning? Are they maturing? Is this making them a better individual tomorrow? Are they better individuals at the end of the season?’ For me, that’s what creates success.”