WWW.SHAKER.LIFE | SUMMER 2019 63
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
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
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!”
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 communitybuilding
By Jennifer Kuhel