Digital gaming as team sport and a whole lot more.
By Jennifer Kuhel
I was finishing up lunch at my desk in the Shaker Heights Schools Administration Building when my inbox chimed.
Fwd: Esports Spring Season Update
Surely, the “E” before “sports” was the result of clumsy typing. I clicked on the email.
“We are working to promote Esports, per note below …”
As it was, the “e” in question appeared to be correctly and intentionally placed.
As a Communications team member at Shaker Heights Schools, one of my duties is to share the interesting goings-on in the District, so I scrolled through the email, scanning for more details.
The thread was an enthusiastic back-and-forth about the Shaker Heights High School Digital Gaming Club, its success after just six months in existence and the decision by the students in the club to join an Esports league. The email told of after-school competitions, regular practices, coaching, bracketed tournaments, a varsity team and, yes, even a junior varsity team.
As someone more than two decades past her 18-24 years, I’m hardly in the sweet spot of the digital gaming world. Frankly, the idea of encouraging and legitimizing, in a school setting, something that most parents (myself included) battle daily to minimize – screen time – was a little uncomfortable.
Still, I recalled reading about gaming scholarships at colleges. I’d seen Twitter videos of digital gaming competitions with intense-looking millennial contestants surrounded by slick branding, screens the size of two-story buildings, and fans just as hopeful as a Cleveland Browns fan on a Sunday in December.
So I reached out to the email’s author, Dr. Keith Szalay, a Shaker Heights High School German teacher. He also moonlights as the Digital Gaming Club’s advisor and coach of the Esports team. Dr. Szalay told me to show up at Room 308 the next day.
When I arrived, Dr. Szalay — a cheery, bearded man whom everyone affectionately calls “Herr” — welcomed me with his customary greeting: “Guten tag, Jennifer!”
There’s a sense of community when you’re here … This club gives me something to look forward to.”
The space buzzed with activity. A large group of students sat in the middle of the room, huddled atop desks, hovering over a large monitor as they watched one student playing the popular Nintendo game Super Smash Bros. In the back of the room, a pair of students swapped tips on better play. In another corner, the only girl in attendance sat at a desk with two other students nearby, all playing games quietly on their phones. Though lacking in gender diversity, the club was split right down the middle by race. Clearly, everyone in the room was united by a fondness for all things gaming.
I took in the scene with equal parts fascination and disbelief, mostly at the social connections among students. I’d always considered gaming to be a passion of introverts, not a tool for relationship building. My skepticism was waning.
“We had a huge turnout our first meeting,” Dr. Szalay told me. “There were 30 to 40 kids and the room was packed. Then, we started holding tournaments here in school for anyone who wanted to play. We hosted one in the small auditorium so that we could project the games on the big screen and it was really successful.”
He said the success of the first tournament led the students to bump up plans to start an Esports team. So, Dr. Szalay and the students joined the EsportsOhio league, an Ohio-only high school gaming league of 44 schools from around the state.
Nearly 50 students tried out for team, hoping to become “e-thletes.” Fewer than half were good enough to make the team: only the top 20 made the cut, forming two varsity teams and two junior varsity teams. The success of the team even left the club’s president Ethan, a lean, curly-haired junior, scratching his head. “I thought the interest would die away after a few weeks, but with the Esports team, we’ve kept a lot of students and gotten a few more,” he said.
One of those students is the team’s captain, Simon, who struggled to find an extracurricular interest before this year.
“We can all work with each other to get better and we can help each other with our playing style. There’s a sense of community when you’re here,” he said. “This club gives me something to look forward to.”
And with that, any remaining doubt I had about the club’s legitimacy as a good thing for students was gone. Because it turns out one person’s worries over screen time could be another person’s community-building exercise.