Esports, planned video game competitions where teams of athletes meet on virtual playing fields across a variety of games, is booming in popularity. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in higher education. More than 200 colleges and universities across the US are now offering millions in scholarships to talented esports athletes. With the rise of collegiate esports, it was only a matter of time before scholastic esports made its way into high schools.
Earlier this year, Barnegat High School started their esports journey by joining Garden State Esports (opens in new tab) (GSE). GSE is a free-to-join nonprofit run by educators that helps schools start esports programs by providing the leagues, learning, and community they need to be successful. Last month, to kick off their Spring registration meeting, GSE President Chris Aviles challenged the more than 80 districts that currently make up GSE to leverage a 2017 law that says any student who participates in an “interscholastic extracurricular activity that includes competitions” is eligible to earn a varsity letter, to make their own esports programs varsity eligible.
“The reality is that not having a varsity esports programs is an equity issue. Students who don’t have the opportunity to earn a varsity letter for esports will be less likely to earn scholarships,” said Aviles, a teacher who also coaches his own school’s esports team.
Barnegat High School became the first to meet the challenge. Beyond preparing students to compete for $16 million in scholarships, a varsity program allows schools to leverage eligibility requirements like attendance and grades to help motivate students - something Barnegat chose to do by adding a GPA requirement to varsity eligibility when the board approved the motion on January 27th.
Barnegat Athletic Director John Germano views it this way, “We want to approach esports like traditional sports: by taking a kid first approach and providing them with a safe, exciting, competitive, and positive atmosphere. If this is something they are really into, then it is my responsibility to provide them with the support they deserve.”
Coach Joe Saar agreed with coach Traci Sellers when she said, for students to really feel that they are a part of their school they have to get involved. Our new esports program is going to open the door for a whole other group of students to capture that feeling and earn an a letter that may help them compete at the collegiate level."
Garden State Esports is also partnering with New Jersey City University’s esports program, just off a championship win. Through this partnership, NJCU will provide "near-peer" coaching by placing their own student-athletes in middle and high school esports programs throughout the state.
"It's a really exciting time for esports in New Jersey," says NJCU co-head coach Joshua Case, who also works to facilitate GSE's near-peer coaching program. "Through this partnership, GSE members get the best coaching available and we get to recruit locally. It also helps our student athletes, as they are eligible for work study money through this." The program so far has had interest from school districts all over the state and several of NJCU's esports athletes.
Aviles, who founded Garden State Esports after seeing his own students blossom, after starting the first middle school esports team (opens in new tab) in the country for the Fair Haven school district said, “the partnership with NJCU is a first of its kind and a win-win for everyone involved. Many of our coaches are teachers still learning about gaming and esports, so to be able to support them by providing talented collegiate athletes is wonderful. Students also get to learn from college life and majors they may be interested in while working with NJCU players.”