Five students worked computers in a Mission Viejo High lab, rapidly clicking and typing, forming a strategy to push their champions forward on the playing field unfolding before them.
But before long, they were overpowered by a five-member Woodbridge High team, falling in a best-of-three format and posting their first loss in the new Orange County High School eSports League, which debuted Jan. 31.
“That was a really bad fight,” conceded senior Trenton Wallington.
As friends, his team had spent the past seven months playing League of Legends – a role-play fantasy video game – taking on any, and all, challengers in their free time.
But on this day, as they waited for their next match to begin, there was a sense of anticipation. They were nervous.
Something new was on the line: School pride.
eSports already has professional gaming leagues signing players to six-figure contracts and has become prominent on college campuses.
Now, the sport is expanding to high schools, and officials in Orange County, who recognize the increasing popularity of gaming and computer science, hope the move will engage a student population that – unlike, say, football players or teenage thespians – hasn’t had a place on campus to explore its passion.
The county’s first official league boasts 38 teams from 25 O.C. campuses – further fueling the rapid rise of this relatively new genre of competition.
“We knew with eSports, the tide was coming,” said Sam Kelso, an English language development teacher who is acting as the general manager at La Habra High School. “The only question was how could we fit this onto a school campus.”
Gaming in school
To create the league, officials said they knew they had to bring legitimacy to an otherwise strictly recreational field. And it had to be educational.
The Samueli Foundation, which supports financially educational, medical and charitable institutions, is underwriting the cost for the league’s first year.
The foundation saw the “international interest” in eSports, said Executive Director Gerald Solomon. “There is this whole potential around tech and engineering and STEM education we’re involved with as a philanthropy. We thought, how could we use these forks as a tool for learning?”
The league is structured so teams practice twice a week and play opponents once a week for eight weeks. The top 16 teams will head to the quarterfinals with the championship match on April 28 played at Santa Ana’s 15,000-square-foot eSports Arena that opened in 2015.
Riot Games’ top-grossing League of Legends was the game of choice for the pilot season because of its popularity.
Each player chooses a character, or “champion,” to use in the match. The champions each have a skill set, strengths and weaknesses, so players must employ critical thinking and strategy to give their team the best chance of winning, organizers said. During game play, teams try to destroy their opponents’ towers and overtake their base, while defending their own.
“A lot of people are saying you’re just playing a game, but in reality, I have to be at the peak of my performance the entire time because one mistake could screw everything up,” La Habra senior CJ Alexander said.
He said he feels in a lot of ways, the “only reason” people are trying to find fault with video games “is because I’m not running down a field to play this. I’m sitting down,” Alexander said. “When you get into the core aspects, there’s not a huge difference between the two.”
To make sure students also get educational value out of the league, officials added once-a-week workshops at UC Irvine’s eSports Arena, with topics ranging from building your own computer to physical fitness and nutrition. Professional players are also mentoring students.
“We want to break the mold of what people think, that it’s kids frying or rotting their brain in front of a screen,” said Anthony Saba, principal of the Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, which has two teams in the league. “It’s so much more than that. We’re giving our kids access to this stuff and connecting what they love, and are passionate about, to college and career opportunities.”
Good performances could lead to college scholarship opportunities.
In 2016, UC Irvine debuted its 3,500-square-foot indoor eSports arena, the first of its kind in a public university, and awarded five students scholarships. The school also offers a computer game science major.
“This industry is blowing the roof off everything,” Saba said. “It’s unstoppable. It really is the norm now.”
A SOCIAL SETTING FOR GAMERS
Along with providing more focused career education, the league aims to boost student interaction on campuses.
While most gaming takes place in isolation at home, educators hope the league’s structure will get students socializing with classmates.
During practices and games, the players will sit next to their teammates in computer labs on campus, rather than communicating on headsets. It’s in these computer labs students are recognizing the importance of teamwork, collaboration and communication.
“It’s an interesting experience,” said Eduardo Martinez Flores, a senior at La Habra High. “We’re used to mostly talking online, so this is different. There’s a lot more noise.”
Because the league requires students have at least a 2.0 grade point average and satisfactory marks in citizenship, officials say the league will get this group of students more engaged in school.
“The beauty of the whole eSports realm is creating a platform for kids to learn without thinking that they’re in a learning situation,” Solomon said. “And that’s important because so many kids get turned off to school.”
Now that the league has been introduced and embraced, the next step is expansion.
Tiffany Bui, Mission Viejo High biology teacher and team manager, has plans of putting games up on a projector screen in hopes of getting spectators. La Habra’s Kelso said he has students creating banners and social media platforms to promote the team.
Bui also hopes more girls get involved in the program.
A gamer herself, Bui is just excited that this program is now open to students.
“It gives them a place to be,” she said. “Video games, game apps, computer games, it’s all part of a huge industry that’s going to be huge forever. It’s always going to appeal to young people, and kids would love to have a place to belong like this.”
Participating high schools
Capistrano Valley (2 Teams)
Corona del Mar
El Toro (2)
Fountain Valley (2)
La Quinta (2)
Mater Dei (2)
Samueli Academy (2)
Sunny Hills (2)
Yorba Linda (2)