Last weekend, my son and I traveled to Boston for a videogame tournament. The game was Guilty Gear Strive: think Street Fighter, but more fast-paced with more heavy-metal influences. While I was eliminated from the tournament early, he took down opponent after opponent until he found himself in grand finals at the ripe old age of 14. Alas, he was finally defeated by a 12 year old.
The tournament is part of the fast-growing world of eSports. While this was a small tournament hosted by enthusiasts, eSports is highly organized across multiple genres of games and levels of competition. It’s also a young person’s game. Even people who are unfamiliar with eSports heard about the Fortnite World Cup held in 2019, where Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf won $3 million and proved himself to be the best Fortnite player in the world. He was 16 at the time.
The youthful bent of eSports makes it the competition of the future. Before you scoff, take a step back and think about how ridiculous throwing an oblong ball or putting a ball through a peach basket must have seemed a hundred years ago. Fortunately there are forward-looking programs that are positioning themselves to give young people a chance to participate and grow with eSports.
That includes teams and programs in Connecticut. There are at least 25 high schools in Connecticut with dedicated eSports teams, playing games as varied as League of Legends to Super Smash Bros. Conard and Hall high schools in West Hartford have eSports teams which started during the pandemic as a way to replace other traditional sports canceled by the pandemic.
The only Hartford Public School students who get to participate in eSports at the varsity level are the students of University High School. The district should make expanding these offerings a priority both as a matter of opportunity for Hartford students and to expand the enjoyment that students experience during their time in school.
While eSports differ from other varsity sports, the high school level is still where the fundamental skills that players need are taught. There’s a difference between playing alone in your house and practicing with the benefit of coaching, teammates, and facilities designed to maximize the player’s effectiveness. Hartford students are missing these benefits which puts them at a disadvantage when trying to enter eSports competitions.
The reality is that there are real opportunities in eSports. In addition to the eye-popping amounts earned during the Fortnite World Cup, there are other eSports leagues that high school level competition can help prepare students for. There’s the Capcom Pro Tour for Street Fighter enthusiasts; the Madden Bowl for fans of virtual football; there’s even the Overwatch League where players are signed to teams, receive a salary and benefits, and compete in a style similar to traditional sports leagues with a regular season and playoffs.
ESports can also lead to success in other ways. Colleges are beginning to invest heavily into eSports teams.The National Association of Collegiate Esports represents 175 colleges which offer partial or full-ride scholarships to students. Participation in high school varsity level eSports would give Hartford students the same chance to compete for those scholarships as their suburban counterparts.
But just like with other sports, the majority of people who participate in eSports will not go on to become pros who make millions of dollars. They probably won’t even earn scholarships or play at the collegiate level on an organized team. They’ll simply have fun and make friends during their high school experience and that’s as important as the potential for the games to lead to something later in life. Hartford students deserve the same chances to grow socially and competitively as their neighbors in nearby towns.
Watching my son play another kid in the grand finals of a tournament cemented for me that eSports is only going to grow as time passes. We’re only at the ground floor of this phenomenon. The NFL and NBA didn’t start off as the professional sports behemoths they are now and someday we’ll look back on this era as the moment when eSports began its ascendancy to similar heights of popularity. Hartford’s students need to be a part of building the future of the next great competitive sport.
Jamil Ragland is a writer from the Hartford area. His work deals with politics, race and culture. Jamil lives in Hartford with his son.