There was a point just after the COVID-19 became very real in March that things got a bit nervy for Jason Kirby and his staff. As schools and activities got shut down, momentum slowed heading into the High School Esports League season.
At a time when the HSEL typically would be putting the finishing touches on registrations for the spring, they instead were dealing with fallout from the pandemic.
A familiar refrain echoed by a number of schools: “Esports is the last thing on our mind right now.” Kirby and his team were understandably empathetic, and yet they couldn’t help thinking: “But we’re your savior!”
Maybe not then, but soon enough.
Few industries have managed to swim directly into the coronavirus current and have thrived. Even esports, the super-successful global phenomenon pitting gamers vs. gamers, has had its ups and downs. But the field is filled with creative thinkers, those who can dream up ways of succeeding even in most dire circumstances. For the esports community it doesn’t hurt that the crisis has kept many competitors in front of their PCs.
And so, half seizing on opportunity and half borne out of necessity, Kirby and his team decided to push up the launch of a big brand they had in the works called “Generation Esports”. They also kickstarted the very first official Middle School Esports League in the country and a number of other initiatives. They worked on summer special events and started planning for the fall.
“The first weeks were the only negative really – the kind of immediate, head-on-fire, pull-out-of-everything moment for a lot of our schools,” says Kirby, acting president and COO at Generation Esports. “Basically, it put us in check. I had an all-hands management meeting to figure out how to best serve the community, best serve ourselves, and make sure we were still going to be able to operate and function as a business. The first couple weeks were scary, but we came out the other side pretty strong.”
There was a lot at stake after the crisis struck, and there still is. The High School Esports League is a massive piece of Generation Esports, boasting more than 3,000 member schools and 80,000 students playing a variety of the best game titles in tournaments throughout the year. The new Middle School Esports League will be the first of its kind in the United States when it launches with a Major in the fall. And there are other very positive facets of the organization, including close ties with the Varsity Esports Foundation, the Gaming Concepts curriculum and its other community and college endeavors.
Things are looking good these days (fingers crossed) for Generation Esports. District Administration was lucky enough to spend some time discussing a number of topics with Kirby, including that new middle school league, games being played, and diversity and inclusion:
Your organization was simply known as High School Esports League for a long time. Now, you’re Generation Esports. How did that process go?
We built and launched the Generation Esports platform website and branding, everything, within about two and a half to three weeks. We were all hands on deck, moving 1,000 miles an hour. To see the results from the first competition, it was absolutely stellar. And it’s opened up so many doors.
People had been coming to us for over a year about running their tournaments and operating things for them. Hundreds of middle schools wanted to offer esports, and colleges wanted to work with us. Middle school was a massive opportunity. They just didn’t have the resources. We’re now running different tournaments for different organizations and helping them promote their own tournaments. So that’s been really rewarding.
Let’s talk about the Middle School Esports League. I know Chris Aviles (who launched the first middle school team in the US) and others in the space have been trying to get this type of thing going for years. What is the vision for the league and how it will be structured?
For high schools, 75% of kids are playing video games. And there’s a massive amount of kids that are not engaging in extracurricular activities or participation in school. So, it’s the same reasons why we’re in high schools. My personal motivation for middle school is more inclusion of girls and minorities. I have grandiose assumptions that if girls are on an equal playing level as boys at a young age, boys will grow up to understand that this is how things are. “She’s just as good as me or she’s better than me” and they don’t see any gender difference. They see each other as equals beyond esports, in school, academic work and so on.
Tell us more about participation and toxicity, how that has affected those who are involved in esports on the scholastic level?
We have a decent spread on minority participation, but it’s still heavily boys. When kids become teenagers, girls start to stray away from STEM-oriented roles and opportunities. If we offer more girl-friendly games, while competitive, and obviously no shooters at that age group, we have an opportunity for them to engage at a younger age and start playing video games competitively and building communities and friendships around it.
Inherently, video games tend to be more toxic because it’s all boys and they say whatever they want. There’s no accountability. Open internet can be very toxic. I would hate to have both minorities and girls not feel like they have the opportunity to pursue these markets as career opportunities because they don’t feel like they belong. Therefore, we strongly enforce our code of ethics and take toxicity and harassment very seriously to make sure there is accountability for user’s actions when they compete in our leagues.
What are some of the games that are going to be featured in the new Middle School League?
Our [Fall Major] tournament is scheduled for Sept. 28, when the first matches will begin. We have Mario Kart (4 v 4, 8 v 8). Minecraft, Rocket League (3 v 3) and Super Smash Bros. (1 v 1, 2 v 2). We have Just Dance (1 v 1). We think that will be very open, accessible and fun. Fornite will be offered for free throughout the Fall for any middle schools to compete in with no commitment.
Those games are great for kids in that age group, especially Smash Bros. The idea of an 8 v 8 with Mario Kart or even 1 v 1 in any title sounds like fun.
We’re trying to be overly accommodating with 1 v 1s. They are good to get those students that are on the fence involved, especially Smash, because it’s such a low barrier to entry in terms of cost. We have tons of schools that only have like five kids, and that’s how they get started. They all play on one Nintendo Switch. … There are teachers that realize the benefits, but don’t get any support and they have to do this all on their own, sometimes with their own money. But they just believe in it so much because they know that if they get this off the ground, they could be successful. So we try to support those teachers as much as possible.
Generation Esports has a lot going on besides the HSEL and MSEL. Talk about some of the other initiatives you are involved with?
The Varsity Esports Foundation, we’re glued to the hip on. Their whole mission is helping get low-income schools and low-income students the opportunity to compete in tournaments when they otherwise wouldn’t really have the means to, to buy the equipment, registration fees, jerseys, all that kind of stuff.
We also signed a deal with the National Guard to do in-person tournaments in the fall, but we’ll push it to the spring if we have to due to prioritizing participant safety during this pandemic. We’re setting up leagues with other military branches, both for the purpose of engaging their own recruits, their military service members, but also for recruitment purposes.
Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for District Administration. He is also the program chair for the Academic Esports Conference and Expo. He can be reached at email@example.com