There's no doubt that the kids currently in high school are the next generation of esports professionals in addition to being the target demographic for brands in the industry. We're not just talking about the players you see on stage as careers as the youth of today will also be the ones taking on jobs member of a team's support staff and server an equally important role to the success of a competitive organization.
While the future for esports may be bright, the industry is still going through it's growing pains as there's not much of a career path in place compared to traditional sports to get not only players, but analysts, casters, and everyone else who wants to be employed into the esports scene.
Enter the Orange County High School Esports League and its unique approach to youth and esports. It isn't your average esports league focusing on attracting top-tier talents to compete for fame and glory. Instead, this league is about connecting education with gaming and esports, which is often referred to as interest-driven learning. It's about changing the conversation around science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at the high school level. And what better way to do it than through esports where everything is used daily?
I spoke with Executive Director of the Philanthropic Samueli Foundation, Gerald Solomon, the man who helped make this high school league possible, to explore why opportunities and industry development efforts it shouldn't be just limited to those playing the games.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jeff Yabumoto: Let’s dive right into it. Esports is still relatively new these days with lots of experiments going on in making esports leagues, even at the professional level. But what exactly does it take to make a High School Esports League work?Gerald Solomon: There’s a bit of nuance in answering your question. This is not an esports league with education and learning opportunities. This is an education platform that uses esports as a vehicle to learn. That’s a huge distinction between what everyone else is doing and what our foundation’s philanthropy is doing.
JY: That’s a great distinction to make. Do you think that this is a critical thing to consider when making a league at this level?GS: I don’t think it’s critical to making the league if the goal is to create a competitive sports league, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to find points of interest in the way kids learn and play together, also known as interest-driven learning.
For lack of a better term, esports is almost like a Trojan horse. In that, what we’ve done is we’ve found a place where kids enjoy playing, and we’ve figured out how we can tie into that a set of curriculum, learning standards, and behavioral standards that will enhance the individual. So that when they stop playing they will have gotten from that experience the skills and the confidence they need to grow and thrive, and learn in the workforce.
JY: What kind of skills are you talking about there? Analytical skills, critical thinking skills?GS: Exactly right. If the ideas of what we call the social-emotional skills of the 21st century. It’s about communication, collaboration, critical thinking, analysis, and the design thinking skills that the workforce needs today.
How do you use esports to impart those competencies beyond just the play itself? Because, you know, you can sit in your room, plug in your headphones, and play with people all around the world. We’re talking about how do you put them together and consciously—strategically—think about what are the interactions, other than the fact that they interact. How do you create/design structures and patterns that they can learn and grow from to go far beyond the play itself?
We’re looking at it very differently from everyone else. I’ve talked to dozens of individuals like yourself and even a number of producers of the game itself; I tell them the game is great. And if you look at sports as a whole, they were sports for many years, and after a period of time, they said that you could learn from this. There’s physics in this; there’s social learning in this, etc. etc.
We’re taking the approach of, how can we go to where the learner is? The problem with our education is, and forgive me for pontificating a little; there’s a complete disconnect between learning and the real world. And we’re not going to where the kids are!
We have to figure out where they are, and they figure out how to talk to them, hence the interest-driven learning concept. Where are they today? A significant portion is online and gaming, along with other social media platforms. How do you reach them, allow them to feel safe and comfortable doing what they enjoy, and at the same time impart to them other competencies that will serve them far beyond the play itself?
JY: And right now, esports happens to be that platform.GS: Yeah, and part of what we’ve done is we’ve created an entire 4-year curriculum based upon UC and Cal State Standards in an English platform that can be adopted for high schoolers.
If I’m in high school and I need 4 years of English to graduate, and I’m not into reading Chaucer or Kafka, I can now use the learnings around esports to satisfy my English requirements to graduate with honors and still obtain the same skillsets around literacy and education, but now combining it with technology, entrepreneurship, innovation—so that English now becomes something different. It soon becomes how do I obtain the competencies I need in a way that is more relevant to me based on what I like and enjoy.
JY: Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you have at least one school adopting that new curriculum in the fall?GS: We have one school district. Our goal is to get five school districts around California to adopt that curriculum. Then we will continue to evaluate and test it, just like good engineering design thinking is all about. And at the same time, for those who want only to dip their toes in the water, there will be weekly learning sessions that will be both online and in-person, which is something we’re already doing.
These learning sessions will have a broad range of subjects; sometimes it will be as mundane as, what’s the technology behind this? Or, let’s go ahead and analyze this game, breaking it down into frames. We can look at each of these frames and learn how to optimize our choices in-game for success. There are all different learning components in how we can arrange to learn and play together.
JY: That sounds like something that someone at any level could use, not just high schoolers.GS: Absolutely, and that’s why we’re involved in it. People have asked us why we’re putting philanthropic into gaming and esports. It’s because it’s where people are today, and part of what philanthropy can do, is philanthropy can engage in risk capitalization where businesses can’t. Companies have a bottom line, the government won’t touch it, and education doesn’t have the money.
So you have to go to the people willing to risk the capital. The people willing to innovate, to iterate, to creative, in a way where there is no such thing as failure. They may not be successful, but you always learn something. It’s a very different approach than how other leagues are created/funded.
JY: And we’ve seen the business side of it with things like the Overwatch League and NA LCS franchising.GS: And I commend them. They’re looking at how to capitalize on it and make money. It’s a business. I think it’s wonderful, but what we’re saying is that there is also a learning component to that, and a future job component to that.
Think about it, ten years ago there was barely a thing called a smartphone. Nowadays, look at all the jobs around that didn’t exist then. Look at all the other things that have popped up in the last ten years: Airbnb, Twitter, Snapchat… all of that is just in the last decade. All of that we had no idea about ten years ago. And with esports, we know there is going to be an entire array of job opportunities that we need to prepare them for.
Part of what we want to do is embed that early on so that it’s not only a play opportunity but a learning one for the individual. Look at the NBA, you have twelve people on a team, but you have hundreds and hundreds of jobs that support those twelve people.
We want the kids to understand that part of esports at an early age. If we can embed that concept into the play, then we can create a new space and way kids learn and intersect play that’s different than what we’ve ever seen. That’s what intrigues and excites us.
JY: What about some of the feedback you’ve gotten from the first season?GS: When we did the quarterfinals; a mother came with her son and said, "I want to watch my son compete, but I don’t know anything about esports. But I’ve got to tell you, it’s been transformational. My son has not wanted to go to school over the last few years. His grades suffered, and he was flunking out of school. Then he heard about esports. He heard about what he had to do to compete: GPA requirement, perfect attendance, and he had to take STEM classes.
I now have a completely different child. You have figure out how to touch him in a way to learn that I am so much comfortable in where his future is going to be, then where it was four months ago."
That’s one example of the feedback I’ve gotten.
Another is, a father brought his son to participate in the quarterfinals and he says, "I need to understand this better because my son loves it. And I did not handle it well when my son first told me he wanted to drop varsity track and wrestling because he wanted to go ahead and use esports as a vehicle for engagement around sports and socialization. He now saw, for the first time, the connection between his learning and his play and the opportunities it provides."
Those are two, vastly different, anecdotal examples of the impact we’re having on the community. And there are so many of those stories happening all the time.
Our research division is figuring out ways to flush out those opportunities and tell those stories so we give those opportunities to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have them, or enhance the ones they do have.
JY: Changes you’re looking to make for season 2?GS: Yeah, part of what we’re going to do is a debrief. We’ll bring in the administrators, educators, coaches, and the players to do a data dump and evaluate what we learned. What worked, what didn’t, and where can we improve?
We’ve been fortunate to work with UCI Esports and the research divisions of UCI to help us improve. But when we start crafting what the summer training sessions look like, and the proverbial 3-ring binder of “this is how you do it” that’s where we’ll get to. As with any sport, we learn over time and adapt. We’re no different than anyone else.
JY: I know it’s still early in the process, but any insights from the research you’re doing?GS: Aside from the anecdotes I shared with you earlier, we’re seeing kids show more interest in school; the way they’re communicating better with their peers; they are teaching in the classroom, outside of the game.
The concepts of respect, communication, listening—it’s transcending the game which is what we hoped would happen. This becomes a foundation for how to improve themselves as human beings. Those are the things that are promising, and we like to see happening.
JY: And you’re seeing it from the sound of it. So, do you have any advice for high school kids looking to get into esports, but they don’t have a program like this around them?GS: Funny enough—we’re currently in around 30 schools and with about 40 teams—some of these teams were developed by these kids going to their school principal and saying, “We want to participate in this esports league,” and the principal responded, "What are you talking about?"
Then the kids are educating the principal or a teacher so that they become an advocate for them.
Part of what we’ve done, is we’ve drawn the connection, really required the connection, between student, teacher, and principal. Which is often strained or non-existent in our learning environments today. Giving students voice, which they tend not to have, by empowering them changes the dynamic around how they learn and how they’re taught.
That’s part of what needs to happen in our education system; we need to reform it—reframe it—in how it’s being taught.
JY: It would be better for the students to take the first step and go to the teacher, go to the principal about getting a club going and expanding from there.GS: Absolutely, and I don’t know how all the teams were structured outside of what we’re doing—there are others that deal with that—but we’re purposely building this club concept within the schools. Both for curriculum, so that everyone can participate, and so they can see the other opportunities there are besides being a player.
Some people may want to join the club because they’re into technology and they want to understand marketing, web design, shout casting, and the like. Some want to play. And maybe some of them have never played and want to learn about it. They want to have that experience. It’s not just limited to that varsity athlete; it’s really about creating a much more holistic ecosystem around learning and play in a way that is open to everyone. And again, those are characteristics that are important in what we’re trying to establish and develop.
JY: Sounds great. You have any final thoughts you’d like to impart?GS: I’m thrilled. Really. Every once in a while, you come across something that hits that proverbial home run. I think we’ve found a sweet spot, where anyone, with any skill, with any interest, who wants to be involved, can learn, play, evolve, and grow through the program we’re creating, which is STEM and esports. It’s a different approach to gaming and online sports, and we would hope that what we’re building can produce the kind evidence that as esports reaches a critical mass, and becomes a norm and finds its equilibrium, that this becomes part of that, rather than ancillary to it.
JY: I hope that happens as well. From everything I’ve seen, this is a great program, and I hope that it will expand not only across California but across the states.GS: We are going to expand our league state-wide in September, and we’re also going to invite other communities from around the country. And if you don’t know, our work in STEM education is done all around the country, and we support 56 communities around the country. We’re looking to those communities and talking to them about how they can incorporate it into their own STEM learning in their communities.
We have the platform that’s out there—an education-based platform, a learning- and workforce-based platform—and this could be integrated into all that. We’ll have to wait and see where it goes.
This concludes the interview. If you want to learn more about the Orange County High School Esports League you can follow them @OCHSEsports.
Season two of the league begins on August 19th, and you can get up-to-date information about it on their website.