a group of teenage young men and young women from the Evergreen Valley High School e sports team holding up signs promoting e sports


A Career Path Winds Through Esports

The video games students play in high school and college can position them for jobs after graduation

For our story about the growing popularity of esports at high schools and on college campuses, The Elective spoke with Mason Mullenioux, cofounder of the High School Esports League, and Michael Brooks, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. They had a lot to say about how their organizations are preparing gamers for life after graduation and the games students play. Here’s more of their insight and perspective.

On games popular among high school esports players

Mullenioux: We launched Minecraft: Hunger Games, and it blew our expectations out of the water. That may have had something to do with what Pewdipie was doing [with] all his Minecraft stuff, and it had a resurgence there for a season. But it’s all community based. Whatever they want to play, we’ll offer it. Rainbow Six: Siege is our biggest game right now—we have it on three different platforms. Overwatch is a very close second this season. Overwatch obviously already has a very established pro scene and collegiate scene, but Rainbow Six does not. We’re starting to see colleges offer scholarships for Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and we hope to see them offer [scholarships] for Rainbow Six. Normally it’s these shooter games that everybody wants to stay away from. But that’s what the kids are playing, so we need to embrace that and show them the proper way to play: don’t be toxic, don’t cyberbully, all that stuff. The best way to do that is in a structured environment with adult oversight. Catch them young and teach them proper sportsmanship.

a group of teenage young men and young women from the Evergreen Valley High School e sports team holding up signs promoting e sports

High School Esports League

The esports team from Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose, California.

On nonshooter games

Brooks: I absolutely think that’s an area of immediate growth for our member institutions. There [have] been some technological problems with including games like Madden or FIFA, which I think have been ironed out at this point. This enables our schools to field these teams, but more than that to develop the game and release content to their fans, their fellow students, alumni, and supporters of the institution. With Madden, for example, there wasn’t previously a good spectator system. There wasn’t a way for someone who just wanted to watch the match to see it, which creates an inherent problem for the game becoming an esport. But for a lot of institutions, they look at the games that are out there that teams are competing in. Each one of those institutions will ask themselves whether the game in question matches their own institutional philosophy. For some schools, any gun violence of any kind is a red line. They won’t support that, won’t encourage that to develop on campus, and certainly won’t put institutional resources to fielding teams in that game. For others, though, it’s “Well, is it fantastical violence or is it more reality based? Is there red blood, in terms of violence that might be depicted, or is it more simulated, cartoonish in nature, kind of like Fortnite?” The answer will vary from school to school. But games like Rocket League, there’s no violence, there’s no issue with misogyny and how they are portraying female characters. Those games by their very nature should have an easier path to be more widely available across the greatest number of institutions than any others. It’s just the technological issues that have kept it at bay so far

On games played by NACE schools

Brooks: Our schools are very much interested in team-based esports, not individual esports. There’s a heavy focus on that, for a few reasons. One is obviously to get as many students as possible included in these programs. There’s also real value in forging efficient communication across small teams that these games, by their very nature, encourage and develop. The top games, in terms of team participation, are definitely League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, and CS:GO. Rainbow Six Siege is another one where we’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth in the last year.

an e sports competitor from columbia college wearing glasses, a backwards hat, and a headset with microphone sits with his hands on a keyboard in front of a computer in a row of other gamers

Columbia College/National Association of Collegiate Esports

On the benefits of high school esports

Mullenioux: The bottom line is a sense of belonging, friendship, socialization. These are generally students that don’t participate in anything else. They’re the stereotypical kid sitting at home playing games alone. They’re online and they’re talking to friends, but they need that experience of being in front of each other and talking to new people, meeting new people at school. That’s what we’re seeing a lot of, and I think that’s the biggest reason for the growth. The teachers see that and go, “Okay, this can be a real game changer. This can be a tool for us to really reach the kids.”

There [are] also, of course, résumé builders. A lot of these kids didn’t participate in anything, so this is now something they can put on their college résumé. “I was involved in the esports club at school. I played mid lane for a varsity team.” Or, “I was a streamer.” Or, “I produced the stream.” That kind of stuff I think is secondary, but also very important. Then scholarships, of course. Getting those scholarships to help pay for college for kids that probably would never have had the chance at an e-scholarship or even thought about doing that before.

males students and male and female teachers from the lehman high school gaming club pose for a photo in a room with hand drawn tech company logos posted on the wall behind them

High School Esports League

On the benefits of collegiate esports

Brooks: There’s a set of rationales around why higher education institutions care about traditional sports. We talk about building effective communication skills, team leadership, servant leadership, character building, amongst many other positive traits we want from our citizens, our future employees, our future employers. Athletics, by nature of competition and the way people need to compete, helps encourage the development of those skill sets. Esports develops almost the exact same number of skill sets, even though the competition’s digital as opposed to in person. You have all those positive benefits. You’re missing some of the physical fitness characteristics, and our schools are working on that, in terms of having weight training for the esport programs. But you’re not risking people’s health in the same regard that you’re risking someone in a contact sport like football. And because esports occurs on the digital plane, you have different skill sets also being developed, like social media communication and marketing. It’s online event planning. It’s team management skills, scheduling skills, and even basic things like networking skills. Streaming skills as well, because all of our schools are streaming their competition and developing the graphics around that. This is all primarily being driven by the students in these esports programs.

Partially because this is such a unique space in its infancy, it’s requiring more and more of a grassroots effort than you would see where you have full-time employees managing everything, like you do in traditional athletics. These are real skill sets that many of our partners in the tech space look for in their employees. I don’t think streaming is going away anytime soon. I think that’s only going to grow and supplant existing means of mass communication. We’re already seeing that with the decline in people watching television and the decline of people going to movie theaters as more [content] goes to streaming. How people digest their news, how they interact with their social group, how they interact in business is mainly through video or emails, and it’s through streaming technology. How you’re marketing and communicating your brand message is primarily now through social media. It’s not nearly as much through television advertisements anymore. But very few schools have built up educational systems to help teach all the skill sets that are needed to develop that. Because esports is a digital competition, online based, and the viewership is almost entirely online, it encourages the development of those skills that employers want.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.