Q&A with James O’Hagan: Bringing esports home

The Director of Digital and Virtual Learning for the Racine Unified School District discusses parent involvement, live vs. remote and what K-12 gaming might look like in the fall.

Whether you’ve explored esports in education or are heavily involved in it, chances are you’ve run into James O’Hagan, the Director of Digital and Virtual Learning for the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin.

O’Hagan has been the voice for competitive video gaming at the K-12 level, both in his state and nationally through his Academy of Esports podcasts. He has been a conduit for those who want to learn more about the realm.

When he’s not connecting with others or promoting esports, he’s always working on something – initiatives with the library system, writing a book, working on his dissertation, or lately, whipping up meals during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, he and his dad are preparing to move into a new home, where they will be redesigning their kitchen.

The fun never seems to end for O’Hagan, who is also an advocate for gaming in the Badger State and an active public speaker. One of his future engagements is at the Academic Esports Conference & Expo, where he will be discussing the challenges of operating remotely during his session “Bringing Home Esports: Ways to Support the Parents of Children Involved in Esports.”

District Administration talked with this Renaissance man for a candid conversation on the effects of the shutdown on students, the loss of face-to-face connections, the future of esports in education, and yes, his cooking skills.

How difficult has the switch to distance learning and gaming been for staff there in Racine?

For my students and my workflow, that part has been easy. But it’s been hard to try to re-train some educators’ thinking around virtual learning. For the longest time, people said to me, ‘I don’t get what you do.’ You have to understand what this is and the impacts of equity and what it’s doing to parents and students in the homes. There are a whole bunch of different conversations that are taking place now. It’s been a lot of hand-holding but they’re coming around. You can’t throw it all on them at once. Let them hear an idea and think on it.

A phrase you used in one of your podcasts was to “embrace the discomfort of the situation.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

A lot of us are working in different ways. As much as we want the world to go back to normal, forcing it isn’t necessarily going to be healthy either. If the opportunity now is to be home and be close to each other, and there’s going to be more game play and more screen time, embrace it.

Don’t necessarily try to police certain things. This isn’t the time to worry about screen time because there’s been a lot of trauma and tragedy taking place around us. For some kids, it could be just not being able to see their friends. For senior students, they missed out on ruling the school those last two months. Everybody’s off their game a little bit. Recognize that we all have this discomfort and just embrace it.

Esports is at its best when it can be done in person. How impactful is losing that live connection for K-12 students and faculty?

The interpersonal connections that students make in live spaces are invaluable. I get a Google alert every day with esports news, and one thing that bothers me is when I see that “Esports is Thriving.” It’s a lazy headline. And second of all, it’s not true in all regards. It’s not true for students who are socially isolated because they don’t have internet connections at home, don’t have PCs or don’t have consoles. They’re missing out on the connections they have with friends.

That interpersonal connection is a lot of the secret sauce that we have going on here in Racine and why I think our program has been so successful. All five of our high schools here compete in the same shared space. Having kids all come together around the love of gaming from all over town has been a beautiful thing. We have a student who is 16 years old and the kids all got together to throw a birthday party for him at a gaming lounge. Come to find out, he had never had a birthday before. … To lose that potential ability to have those interpersonal connections I think is one of the hardest things we are going to have to overcome.

There has been a heavy focus on what educators need to do for students during this difficult time. What do you think students are looking for right now?

What I’m seeing from Discord especially is that they’re looking for more casual game play. Some kids are beginning to explore streaming, where they didn’t necessarily have the time to explore it before. It’s not saying that they’re going to go out and get a million dollars. That’s not the goal. They’re looking to experiment and play and use gaming in ways that are meaningful to them. Instead of being at school for seven hours and doing homework for four or five hours a day, they’re getting their schooling done in about four hours and they have a lot of opportunities to play.

They’re building these really cool casual gaming relationships through games like Animal Crossing. They’re even going back to older games like Undertale, which has a story and are playing that in different ways.

There’s a lot of tragedy right now in all of this. School was their one outlet. I’ve lost an entire high school team – It’s almost like Thanos snapped his fingers and they disappeared. But I’ve seen kids finding some really new and interesting ways to embrace casual gaming.

Back in a 2018 podcast, you said simply having an esports program is no longer cutting edge, but we still see some schools and districts haven’t gotten on board with it. Why is that? Why should they?

For some communities, especially rural communities, access is an issue [O’Hagan cites his own experience as tech director of a small district in Illinois where he says gaming was an impossibility because ping times were high.]

With some school districts, there are still two sides. There’s one where they see it as gaming is bad. The other is, school districts with means, with a whole bunch of kids who play video games, are super successful and they don’t want to mess with their formula. “We have this high level of success. Why would we want to create this other avenue when we have all these other great things?” So, on the one end you have people who are very anti games, and on the other end, there are some districts that say, “why would we even mess with the good things that we’ve got going on.”

I live in Racine, which is the lowest performing school district in the state. My kids are in the highest performing district in the state. The lowest performing district, we’re looking for any way that we can get kids engaged. We want to give multiple avenues for engagement because the data that says when you get kids involved, good things happen. But you go to my kids’ school … I’ve had meetings with the superintendent, tech director, curriculum person and laid it all out. Everything sounds sounds wonderful. And then it just dies on the vine because again, they say, “why put resources into this when we already have resources going to these wonderful things and we’re already No. 1.”

What can be done to better promote the value of esports at the district level?

There is a glut of information that is educator-directed. I think the word’s gotten out to them the last two years about how important this is. But I think parents have really been left to the wayside. I’m starting to shift my own podcast conversations, not just around educational issues, but how this impacts parents. They have so many preconceived notions or have prejudices, for lack of a better phrase, of what esports is. Even just questions about streaming: What is it? How do you do it? What do you need to get started? I think it’s important to do a kind of slow drip … 5, 10 minutes chunks on a subject. It’s going to help segue into conversations on digital citizenship, health and wellness, taking breaks, and even game choice.

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Parents are a huge part of the remote equation. How can they get involved with their children who are into esports, even if they don’t know anything about it?

You don’t even have to have a conversation. You can just sit down next to kids as they play. If you’re at home, sit on the couch, do what you’re doing normally (playing on your phone or typing on your laptop) just be attentive to what they’re playing. Learn about the games. It’s OK to be ignorant and ask questions.

One of the games that my kids are playing right now that I had never even heard of until I sat down with them is Persona 5 Royal. It’s more of a team game. It’s been fun to sit there and let them explain to me what it’s all about and get me interested in it. What’s also been great is that I’ve been able to turn it around and show them Final Fantasy 7, show them the remake and then show them the original and what that looked like. You can just sit down, listen, learn and observe. You don’t have to do a full interview for an hour with them.

You have been involved with legislation through the State of Wisconsin that supports esports in education. Can you talk a little about that?

One of the key components of it is it isn’t just for public school kids, but was written so that private, parochial and home school organizations could get access to some of these starter funds to get a program going. If many kids are going to benefit from this, why restrict this to one subgroup? We can try to make it open for everybody to be able to have a chance to play.

What do you think esports is going to look like as we head toward the fall?

This could have a cascade of effects beyond just how do we play it. Where do we play? How do we connect? How do schools help create that equity of access? When I say equity of access, that doesn’t mean every kid gets a hot spot at home. That’s equality. I’m saying, hey, there’s a kid on our team whose data cap needs to be a little higher.

If we can get back to our gaming lounge, we’ll have the ability to have a certain number of kids down there. I think our schedules are going to be spread out more. I think our seasons may be shorter, but with a longer time frame. I think we might start to embrace mobile gaming because a lot of kids have devices that will allow them the opportunity to still compete.

Games like Overwatch, which are 6 on 6, may have to change. It may come down to a formatting of 3 vs. 3. League of Legends, instead of the traditional map, looking at another map, where you may not have to put so many kids together in the same space. Smash Brothers I think is going to do OK, 1 v 1 or 2 v 2. Looking at games like NBA 2K – where we have been working on a format of the game where it’s 3 vs. 3 using the Blacktop Edition and using a League of Legends style draft – I think it could go to a 1 v 1.

You’re involved in so many things aside from your work. You work at school, including your involvement with the library system. How do you have time for all of it? Why is it so important to have a mix of things going on?

It sounds like a hodgepodge, but I see it all just it interconnecting. For example, I see how much libraries are going to have a space in esports, and that purpose is really going to be around the access issue. Libraries are becoming places where people don’t just go for books … they are re-evaluating and redeveloping constantly. It’s a safe community space where everybody can come together, where the cost is almost nothing, to get to play some of these games for the first time, playing in leagues or intramurals.

How’s the cooking going? What are we cooking today?

I have one of the most wonderful and awful skills. My mother being a pastry chef, I was in the kitchen helping my mom since I was very young, which is great because I can cook and make amazing things. However, all this time that I’ve had has allowed me to bake and cook things that I have only myself to serve. So, I eat some very rich foods. At a moment’s notice, I can whip together a cake from scratch. I have definitely gained some weight during this time.

My father and I are moving into a duplex together and we are working on a new kitchen. We are very excited about it. We’re redesigning it  … so I’ll be able to do some streaming from there.

Chris Burt is the Esports Editor for District Administration and the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference & Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com

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