Competitive gaming, or esports, is considered by many to be the next big thing. With a global viewership of 292 million people in 2016 and global revenues of over $463 million the sport looks set to dominate the hearts and minds of many. But can the sport do more than entertain the gaming masses? Can it also be leveraged as a platform for youth engagement and mentorship around STEM interests and social emotional learning?
Connected Camps recently partnered with the Samueli Foundation, researchers at UCI, and others to help launch the Orange County Esports League. The goal: allow high school students to pursue an interest in gaming and enhance their skills in leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, and communication. Organizers of the league chose League of Legends, a fast-paced game that pits two teams of powerful champions against one another across multiple battlefields and game modes, for play during the inaugural season.
From Counselor to Coach
Given the highly social nature of esports—players compete in teams, stream their play online for millions, and interact with their fans online and in person—the league was a natural extension of the Connected Camps approach. In our afterschool labs and summer camps kids work with online counselors who do many of the same things as a coach: support kids in leveling up their technical expertise in a topic they are passionate about while helping them navigate the social and emotional challenges of learning online with others. This type of informal mentorship can be transformative for kids, making them more resilient and better able to navigate college, career, and life.
The league launched in January 2018. Schools from all over Orange County fielded teams made up of students of every experience level, from novice to expert. We recruited and hired a group of League of Legend coaches who work with the teams online during the season, in afterschool practices, and during online clinics run in the evenings. Coaches come from universities around the country and hold academic interests in disciplines like mathematics, economics, computer science, and biology. All shared a deep passion for the game, experience working with youth, and credentials as top players of the game.
While their coaching work has much in common with traditional sports, there is one distinct difference. As Nickolas Landry, coaching lead for Connected Camps notes, “League of Legends is somewhat different from traditional sports because in order to become a coach, you have be a high ranking player. You essentially have to be a part of the 1% of the player base that manages to reach the rank of ‘Diamond’ or above, year after year. High Ranks often seem unattainable to players in Lower Ranks, but coaches are the living proof that any rank you want is attainable and that the road of self-improvement is never ending.”
Getting better at anything can be challenging, even when it is something you care about. Practice helps, but without support, encouragement, training, and challenge, practice alone is not enough. Coaches work closely with educators at each participating school to create an environment that values camaraderie, sportsmanship, and learning.
Research on video games indicates that under the right conditions, their play can be incredibly beneficial. Studies have shown video game play can improve visual acuity and attention, foster scientific reasoning, accelerate language learning, and increase problem-solving skills. Playing games with others can also lead to prosocial benefits, including improved communication, conflict resolution, and collaboration skills. An informal conversation with some of our coaches offered similar insights.
When asked about what he’s learned from coaching in the league this season, Ryan Lucich, a mathematics major and member of Texas Tech’s esports team, said “I think the best skill I have taken from this job would be professional communications. This ranges from working with the general managers who are teachers at the school, working with the players, and working with other coaches. It requires a lot of communication, which has always been a weakness for me and I didn’t have much experience with before. Another thing I have learned has been how to handle various situations within a team environment. Dealing with a disagreement between players or toxic situations is much different in a coaching role than a players role. I feel a lot more confident in my ability to handle those situations now more than when I first started coaching.”
Jake Carr, a coach with a background as former professional World of Warcraft player, felt he has grown in his professional abilities as well. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about communication and interpersonal skills, which I’m sure will carry over into whatever I do next. I’ve always been an introverted, quiet type, and I hate making decisions, telling people what to do, and giving presentations, so coaching a group of high school kids who actually look up to me and listen to what I have to say has been new, exciting, and a little nerve-wracking for me. I’m super grateful that the students at Samueli [Academy] are so, so easy to work with—no drama, no fighting, no unsportsmanlike behavior, etc.— because it let me focus on getting to know them and helping them get better at the game, rather than having to deal with any sort of petty interpersonal drama, which I doubt I would have handled particularly well.”
Early research on the league is pointing to value for both players and coaches, aligning with existing research on the potential benefits of participation in team sports. This includes higher GPAs for high school students, an increased satisfaction with school, and personal growth. When asked about his experience within the league as a coach, Calvin Gao, a freshman computer science major at UCI said he found coaching to be “…quite difficult since a lot of the high schoolers don’t seem interested in our conversations. I feel this is a large learning experience since I got to revisit how high schoolers behave and interact with their teachers and coaches through a gaming perspective outside of a classroom environment.”
The Orange County High School Esports league wraps up its inaugural season April 28 and the Samueli Foundation has plans to scale the league in the coming years. The work in unpredictable but as Drew Hansen, a recent biology grad and med school-hopeful said about his experience coaching in the league this season, “Sure, most of the time things do not go as planned. But if you are adaptive you can still make things work out well in the end.”