Interview: Riot Games on the potential and pitfalls of high school e-sports

E-sports continue to grow at an extraordinary rate.

Investors are spending tens of millions of dollars to participate. Tournaments draw in hundreds of thousands of viewers, even breaking the 1 million concurrent viewers for the largest events.

But when you take your eyes off the professional level scene, you enter a world of e-sports that is struggling to properly develop. If professional e-sports are still considered young, then collegiate and high school e-sports are in their infancy.

What has traditionally been a grassroots movement is now becoming more and more structured. Companies like Blizzard’s Tespa and Riot Games are partnering with the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) and moving into the collegiate and high school scene to create a more sustainable e-sports environment that promotes healthier athletes.

On November 15, 2018, representatives from Riot, Blizzard, the U.S. Navy, and the NASEF gathered at the Esports Arena Santa Ana to discuss the power of e-sports in an educational system. There, I talked about the pros and cons of bringing e-sports to the high school level with Michael Sherman (Esports Manager) and Matt Birris (College League of Legends) of Riot Games.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GameCrate: Let’s start off with how Riot was involved with getting the Orange County High School Esports League started.

Riot Sherman: It started with a coworker who really wanted to help spearhead the high school scene and support it. We’ve known the UCI team for a couple of years now, ever since they launched their varsity program, and Mark Deppe (Editor's note: you can read our interview with Mark here) comes to us and says he wants to spin up this new high school initiative with Samueli Foundation.

It grew and took on its own legs from there. We really wanted to make sure it was supported in the best way possible for the players.

Riot Birris: We’ve often talked about how the scene could evolve from college to high school, and that always seemed like something that was further out in the future, and it was amazing to see UCI and Samueli run with that and make it real. To continue that momentum and growth that really exceeded our own expectations.

RS: The day Matt got back from the season one finals, he was telling me how many parents and classmates were there to cheer on their kids or classmates. That the energy in the room was just awesome. Hearing him and another coworker describe that really opened my eyes to the way that it could exist in high school.

GC: What are some of the other benefits you see by creating a structured high school league?

RB: I would start with the players. We know that there are so many high school students playing League of Legends—playing it very seriously and at a very high level. The most exciting thing for me is being able to recognize that talent and achievement and celebrate it. To be able to pull it into a school community in a way that traditionally, talent in video games wasn’t recognized or celebrated.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, where you’re potentially creating an opportunity for a student who maybe isn’t involved in anything yet and sees a game program and says, “That’s a community I want to be a part of, is there a way I can be a part of that?”

One of many coaching sessions available to students

RS: Riot has always, sort of in one sense, lagged behind in e-sports. We never sought out to create an e-sport. That wasn’t Riot’s goal. When we hosted our first pro championship in 2011, you could tell we weren’t really expecting much when we had 80 seats in the audience at DreamHack, yet hundreds of thousands of players tuned in online.

The same thing has existed in almost every layer we’ve looked to support. Players have been there before us and have been thinking about it before us. College, which is what I mostly work on, is another example where students were organizing tournaments and creating clubs long before Riot was trying to be involved in that space. As we’ve looked into high school, Samueli and other organizations have helped amplify the grassroots efforts that have been started by players.

This has started to shape the way we make League of Legends. We want to make it a global sport that lasts for generations. In North America, college and high school definitely play a big role in that.

For us, it’s like Matt said, giving an outlet to celebrate players, achievements, and give them outlets for growth and opportunity. I think it’s great because as players ourselves, these are also things we want to see and be a part of.

High school students playing at the Esports Arena Santa Ana

GC: The one potential drawback I see is that we have players like Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett who dropped out of high school to play professionally and he couldn’t cut it socially. He lacked the skills to properly mesh with a team and became sort of a pariah within the NA LCS for a period of time. Do you think this more formalized approach to high school e-sports will help prevent future problems like that?

RB: I would say, both in college and high school, high-level players are getting the opportunity to play in a more organized environment with coaching, teammates, and more structure, in a way that, over time, is only going to help prepare players who have the potential to go pro to integrate more seamlessly in a team environment.

I think it’s one thing to go from being an 18-year-old SoloQ phenom in League of Legends—to go from that to a team with adult coaches and adult teammates it might be pretty jarring. But if you come through a trajectory of earning your way onto the varsity team in high school, getting a scholarship for college, and living in that team environment already, you’ll be much better prepared for it at a professional level.

RS: I think League of Legends used to wear a badge of honor around the way that players came into the scene. Stories like, “I was grinding thousands of hours on my own and got recognized by a team and moved into their team house where I played 80 hours a day and hated my teammates and eventually got kicked for drama.”

There was just a lot of unsustainable habits that existed in the early days of League of Legends. Systems like the franchising of LCS, which helped bring a desire for stability—teams started looking for players who can come into an environment and take feedback. Players who can mesh with a team. There’s a lot more cultural interest in what bringing a player onto your roster actually means.

Team Fnatic between matches at Worlds 2018

When we talk to pro teams now, they don’t need high level challenger player. There’s 200 of those. Which ones do they actually want? It’s all the soft skills that come from a team environment that are now coming into play. The things that if you start developing in high school and college, you get to hone in on those. I can’t imagine what pro players are going to be like in five years if there’s a 14-year-old playing right now on a high school team.

GC: Now, a lot of what NASEF is interest-driven learning. Why is it easier to teach kids about these skills like leadership and strategy through video games?

RS: I grew up playing World of Warcraft in high school, and I learned all of my leadership skills through that experience. I had to log on every night and interact with 24 other people all to complete the same objective.

Looking at gaming, it really is an opportunity to connect people through difficult challenges, whether it’s an individual game or how do you socially, as a team, move through a difficult situation? I think that’s the really exciting part: it’s an outlet that is using something kids love and are already doing. It’s not about teaching them how to be a leader through it, it’s about further enabling what’s already happening.

Fnatic and Invictus Gaming at Worlds

RB: More on the hard skills, just playing a game like League of Legends is incredibly strategic. You’re constantly processing information and making tradeoffs. Any action you choose to take means you’re not doing something else.

One of the things that sets high level players apart is the ability to constantly weigh more variables and more quickly prioritize and make those decisions. You see that even at the highest levels of play in places like Worlds where the better teams are the ones that are decisively making decisions, even if it’s not the completely optimal decision. As long as they do it together and commit to it, it will work out well for them.

RS: We talk all the time about the desire that one day a player is actually mentioning their League of Legends rank on their resume the same way they would an extracurricular because it does have skills and value. Being able to bridge that understanding and knowledge gap to the rest of the world is super valuable with these programs.

GC: Are there any other skills that people may not associate with gaming that kids in high school may learn through an e-sports curriculum?

RB: I think the thing we haven’t mentioned is the thing that sets apart elite players from good players is composure and the ability to overcome adversity. Almost every game of League of Legends has something that will go wrong, and the best players are the players that can maintain their focus and composure and not get caught up in their mistakes and second-guess themselves.

I was a high school athlete, and it’s the same thing: you learn about pushing through the adversity. Ultimately, any kind of success requires an ability to remain focused on the goal. I think that’s something e-sports has the ability to teach to a whole different audience of young people who aren’t necessarily getting that traditional competitive sports opportunities.

GC: With e-sports, especially in California, players often come from affluent families which enables many of them to take the opportunity to go pro. How is Riot going to reach out to the less affluent communities who also want to participate in a high school league but may not have the funding for it?

RB: One of the exciting things about schools playing a more formal role in e-sports is in some ways you’re removing the technology barrier of, do you have to own a computer to play a game?

What we’re seeing a lot now is schools can be that gateway to technology for a lot of students. Just the fact that you can go to school and practice in that environment, whereas before schools were formally embracing this that was not an opportunity. I think that is a good first step to creating a more level playing field.

RS: Additionally, there’s a pretty big philosophy at Riot that League of Legends needs to be able to run on a toaster. Not only is that important for the low-income world in the United States, but it also represents the desire for us to push League of Legends globally, where technology isn’t the same.

Even when updating the game to look more modern, there’s still a rooted philosophy that this game needs to run on everything.

GC: Finally, what are you guys doing to help foster inclusivity at the high school level?

RS: We think about this a lot in college as well, we think college and high school are huge opportunities to get help in doing that from organizations and bodies that have been focused on doing that for so long.

I think that when it’s been left to being self-managed, it has had difficulties. Ultimately, it created a pretty exclusive environment rather than inclusive. We look at the roles of faculty advisors or teachers as sponsors for high school programs to help create that environment that is open and inclusive for people of all different backgrounds.

That’s again one of the things we think about as a company when we ask ourselves where we want to be in 10 years; it’s a no-brainer on why we want to embrace the infrastructure that exists in these systems.

RB: We routinely talk about this with colleges and high schools, and what we hear is that they recognize this as a problem and they want to be a part of the solution because they’ve been trying to tackle these problems for decades.

Like Sherman said, what better partners for the game industry than our educational systems to help us tackle these challenges together.

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For more information about the NASEF, visit their website at https://www.esportsfed.org.

Article photos via Riot Games and NASEF.