Interview: High school e-sports comes to life in Orange County’s groundbreaking league
University of California Irvine and the Orange County Department of Education have paired up, along with numerous others, to bring e-sports to the high school level. In this groundbreaking new high school League of Legends league, around 400 students from approximately twenty-five different high schools will be competing from January to April in a structured competition.
Participating schools are required to have practice facilities for their teams, and all teams must have a faculty advisor (AKA a general manager) in order to participate. In addition, students participating must maintain academic standards in order to participate.
Because this is the first of its kind, I decided to reach out and talk with the GM of one of the school’s participating, Anthony Saba of Samueli Academy. Not only is he Samueli Academy’s principal and faculty advisor for the schools two 6-man teams, he’ll also be the first one to tell you he loves games just as much as his students do.
In addition, Samantha Anton, the league’s Program Coordinator, offers her thoughts on what it has taken to bring this league to life and where it can go from here.
In full disclosure, the Samueli Foundation is a partner with University of California Irvine. In addition, UCI helped build Samueli Academy, and has the UCI Samueli School of Engineering at the main campus.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity, content, and length.
GameCrate: What’s it been like prepping for the OC High School Esports League? What went into it from the league’s side?
Samantha Anton: I was one of the later additions to the team. I came in around October, and that was when the league was confirmed, but registration hadn’t gone out yet. In terms of prep work, we kind of just jumped in and started everything from scratch. It’s been a long process, but everything we do, we try to put meaning behind it. We really just jumped in and went for it. We got a lot of support from Riot Games. Our ruleset is adopted from their collegiate-level ones, and we got permission to adjust those to the high school standards. And we’re still learning how certain things might apply for collegiate level and but not for the high school level and vice versa.
GC: You mentioned there that you try to put meaning behind your decisions. What do you mean by that?
SA: With the way that we run the tournament, we don’t ask people to do things just because that’s how it’s done with other leagues. We try to make decisions that are intentional with how the students are going to learn and interact with one another.
One thing we do ask, is that all the students play from campus. We believe that team development and team interaction is something that’s very important from their takeaways from participating in the league.
There have been some schools where they can’t play on campus or are still working it out. What we ask of those schools is that they do another club activity on campus like watching a stream and breaking it down. Just so they get something out of the club aspect instead of just five people being on a team because they’re good at League of Legends.
GC: And you Anthony? How about from the participation side?
Anthony Saba: We’ve been practicing for the past few weeks, but this is the first official week of games. It’s been crazy, we’re trying to build the plane as we fly it, so to speak. There really isn’t, to my knowledge, a high school model out there where we can say, look, let’s just take what they do and work on it. We have to build all this stuff from scratch, right? But we have some amazing minds from the people at UCI Esports, UCI, and all around the county helping us get this going. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been fun.
GC: How hard has it been to make sure the schools participating get all the equipment they need?
SA: It depends on the school district and the schools. There have obviously been a lot of obstacles. For security reasons—for safety reasons. You can’t just give schools a list of websites and expect them to unlock them without doing research themselves. A lot of work has been done by the IT people. We definitely appreciate and recognize the work they’ve done.
It’s also been a learning process, too. Something like, where they’re chatting with each other. We need to find the most appropriate place for them to do that campus side. Once you’re on campus there are just so many different restrictions and different rules that we have to follow. Something collegiate and professional teams don’t really have to worry about.
GC: Samantha, you set a 2.0 GPA requirement to participate. How did you decide on that GPA and do you think it’s appropriate, or should there be higher standards?
SA: We had a lot of conversations about the GPA requirement. We were debating about going with the California standard of 2.0 GPA or going up to 2.5 because we want to hold our students to a higher standard, especially because we’re working on the connections between e-sports and STEM.
But we went with 2.0 GPA just because it still holds them to a standard, but we can still engage people who might not otherwise be engaged in school. We’ve heard a lot of stories about students who don’t meet the GPA requirement and are now buckling down so they can meet it in the future.
GC: What about here at Samueli Academy, Anthony? Do you keep to that 2.0 GPA requirement?
AS: Ours is higher. We do the same thing with sports. It’s not only that 2.0 GPA, but also no F’s. And if you have a D you have to get teacher permission to play the sport. We do the same thing with e-sports.
What we’ve seen is that now these kids who typically didn’t care as much about their grades have more reason to buy in because they want to play.
When I first announced this at our school we probably had 70 kids show up out of a school of 500. Then when we announced that there were GPA requirements—maybe a dozen or so were discouraged, but of those that were discouraged I’ve already had some come back to me and say, “Look, my grades are up now I can play!” Another ten or twelve are working on their grades because they want to play.
GC: What sort of time requirements are you putting your teams through in order to practice?
AS: Our teams practice Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday after school for an hour and a half. Now that games have started, one of those days becomes a game. We also have open gaming to all of our club players on Wednesdays and Fridays. That’s where they can play any game they want to.
GC: Samantha, what are your goals for the inaugural season of OC High School Esports League?
SA: My personal goals, in terms of the tournament organization and the league operations, is to be designing the league that the students want. That they still have a hand in and that they can still give their opinions on. But still being able to refine it so it can function without them. Because the thing with collegiate and high school is once people graduate, whatever legacy they left behind has no guarantee that it will continue in the future.
What’s great about our league is that we’re able to create this foundation with the students, but still be able to continue it in the future. And we receive a lot of feedback on things like rules and scheduling. We’re not taking every single one of them and changing things mid-season, but we’re still collecting and aggregating them to influence the decisions we make for year 2.
GC: What about seasons 2, 3, and 4?
SA: Definitely refining our ruleset to suit both the teachers and the students is one of my biggest concerns. I also think we can be doing a lot more with influencing their club climate and the school ecosystems. We’ve gotten some feedback that some students don’t feel recognized like other organizations are on campus.
In the future, I think there are a lot more resources we can provide the students to help them with their communities and their clubs. So, it’s not just the people who are really good at LoL, or the ones who are most engaged, but those who enjoy tournament organizing, creating streaming content—they are such an important part of the community, and I think it’s something we should be focusing on in future years.
GC: What about the research that is being done by UCI? What are your thoughts on that?
AS: I believe that the research will prove that we can take this group of kids, who many in society look at as rotting their brain, and really prove that you can do some great stuff with games. They’re giving college scholarships for this stuff now, and there are careers that make more money than teachers. Not that money is the only thing that is important, but if you can find a job that pays the bills and you’re passionate about… it’s a win-win.
We already know the kids have passion for it. We just have to connect the passion with what we know to be true with college and career. We have to find that middle road. It isn’t just, “I’m going to be a professional gamer or work as a burger flipper.” There is a whole middle ground of jobs like marketing, shoutcasting, and statistics, to name only a few.
GC: Do you feel that this league being formed in conjunction with the OC Department of Education is telling of a shifting attitude in how kids can be educated, especially when talking about video games?
SA: Yeah, I think the fact that we have them building a curriculum and being a partner in this provides a greater level of legitimacy, in terms of the education side of all of this. This isn’t just a small community thing, it’s something that people who don’t necessarily game are buying into and supporting it as well.
It provides an avenue for people who wouldn’t normally know about this, and brings them into the world. It’s something that is really great and I’m really happy that OC Department of Education is a part of this.
AS: I think the teaching part is going to come over time, because right now it’s an after-school club. We’re trying to build some curriculum to embed into the everyday, though. Specifically, in English and English Language Arts (ELA). What’s the point of English? To become better at reading or writing—to becomes lovers of literature. You can do that no matter what you read or write about.
Why not frame some writing, essays, and readings around e-sports and gaming? Write a 2-page paper on what it takes to be a shoutcaster. You’re taking what kids are passionate about, and still getting them to improve their literacy and ELA. That’s what we’re working on now. It will also expose kids to aspects of the e-sports industries that are more than being a professional gamer.
Because, let’s be honest. It’s just like the NFL. 0.01% are going to become professional gamers. But they still love it. If you could have put me in a football English class when I was in school I would have loved it. I would have begged to go to school.
GC: Do you think e-sports programs like this might replace traditional sports in the future?
SA: I think it will vary from school to school. You’ll have schools whose e-sports teams will be thru the roof and high achieving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their sports are high achieving as well. It will depend on the talent they have at the school and how the school chooses to support it.
I don’t think it will replace it; it will supplement it. It will provide a competitive space for everyone, which I think is really great.
GC: And you Anthony?
AS: I’m a big proponent of athletics, and I think athletics will always be around. But what percentage of kids play sports? Maybe half? What about the other half? That’s what this is. When I opened up e-sports it didn’t hurt our athletic teams at all. In fact, I don’t think any of my club members play a sport, except maybe one or two. It’s not replacing or hurting, it’s just supplementing what we already do.
GC: If the league is successful, and I’d wager on it being so, do you think other school districts will look into creating programs like this?
AS: This league will be successful. I think that there are some districts on the sidelines just waiting to see how it goes. Each year the number who are going to hop on is going to increase. I see it expanding more in Orange County, and then the middle of California and Northern California.
Kids play games all over the world. That’s what’s great about e-sports. For football, you can only play teams in your area. With e-sports you can have a team from our area (Orange County) playing a team from Australia. The only tricky thing is the time zones. But it breaks language barriers. You can have this worldwide league—maybe I’m getting a bit too crazy now—but the opportunities are endless.
GC: What problems might those districts run into, in your opinion?
AS: It’s really just getting the administration and those above the administration to allow it to happen. Then you get to watch the magic work. You really only need five computers. The kids just need the time and the space. These kids know what they’re doing. It’s not like football where you have to teach them how to do certain things. They’re growing up with video games. Just give them the time and space, structure it, and make sure it stays healthy. You could do this anywhere.
SA: I think inclusivity is probably one of the bigger concerns. Are we getting a diverse group of people participating in this? I think that’s why it’s also important to think beyond just the teams competing every week—looking at their club ecosystems. We might not be getting as many women or people of color as we want, not because we want it to be a numbers thing, but more so we want to be able to engage everyone that’s interested in it. I think, looking at the people playing each week, is this an accurate picture of what the real ecosystem looks like when it’s everyone in the world.
The biggest issue is going to be having the school’s support. Having site administrators and IT staff who are willing to put in the work for this, because it’s something new and they might not have the infrastructure for it in place already.
The students already love it, the students already want to be a part of it. It’s just, do their teachers, principals, and parents support them? I think we’re in a really good place for next year to provide the tools to show them why they should support it.
GC: Samantha, you said you mostly interact with the GMs of the teams; has there been any piece of feedback or moment that has stood out to you?
SA: There’s a division among the GMs where some of them love gaming and know gaming. They know and understand what their students are saying. And then there’s the GMs who have no idea what their students are saying. The students have a concern and I’ll get an email from the GM saying, “I don’t understand what their concern is, but this is what it is. Can you help?”
This has been a learning process for these GMs, but they’re learning, which is so important. For a GM to email me on behalf of their students, but not actually know what their student is asking, is something really humbling for me to read. They really support their students, and they want to get them the help they need, even if they themselves don’t understand.
What matters most is not, do they know what they’re getting into, or do they know League of Legends. What’s important is that they’re willing to support their students and what they need. Those are the GMs that I think are getting the most out of it.
If you want to learn more about the OC High School Esports League, you can check out their website at http://www.ochighschoolesports.org/. The league is currently in its inaugural season that concludes on April 28th. You can check out the competition on their Twitch page at https://www.twitch.tv/ochighschoolesportsleague.
Images courtesy of UCI Esports & OC High School Esports League.