On this episode of Keystone Education Radio, podcast host Annette Stevenson is joined by Bill Thomas, chairman of the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition. Annette and Bill discuss the rise in popularity of esports (electronic sports), the connection to STEM curriculum and the potential that the industry holds, as well as how it can be implemented into schools across the commonwealth. It’s big business with potential for career paths, but it’s also a way to engage more students in another type of extracurricular.

Skip to: 01:33 Can you begin by providing an overview of esports – such as what games are popular; how many players participate and how is a competition organized?

Skip to: 04:35 What role does esports play in creating an inclusive school community?

esports, and really video gaming as a whole, has become overwhelmingly social right now.

…esports programs have really allowed for folks who are maybe not as athletic or who have not really shown an interest in some other clubs, to participate in school activities.

Skip to: 07:30 What is the importance of regulatory oversight in the esports industry, specifically among high school players?

The Coalition has been working with an organization called the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association, which is looking to be on a parallel track to the PIAA, to be able to provide that regulatory oversight, that governing body to ensure that the competitions are safe, secure and have integrity with that.

Skip to: 10:02 What educational benefits can students acquire by participating in esports, and how can these benefits carry into their futures?

The one esport, League of Legends, about 67% of League of Legends collegiate players are seeking a STEM degree in college, compared to about 30% of the general population who aren’t League of Legends players.

I think this opportunity to be able to use esports as the anchor for that STEM learning and that STEM opportunity to be able to fill those 21st century jobs, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that could be more impactful, and to actually move that needle in a measurable way as esports.

Skip to: 18:25 What advice would you give to a school that is interested in learning more about esports or forming a team?

Skip to: 20:54 How can listeners learn more about the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition or the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Assocation?

Q: Can you begin by providing an overview of esports, such as what kind of games are popular? How many players participate? How are competitions organized?

A: Esports is simple to understand. It’s competitive video gaming. It’s the very popular activity of playing video games put into a competitive model, similar to what you would find with traditional sports.

There are several games that are out there that could be considered an esport. Most of your more popular video games do have a competitive component to them. Overwatch and League of Legends are two of the most popular competitive esports games that you find. There are other games like CS GO. You could even convert Minecraft into a competitive esport. Fortnite, although not as popular as a team-based game or what you’d see in high schools, colleges or at the pro level, does have some really impressive national and international tournaments. You can even go to some of the more traditional sports like NBA 2K basketball, FIFA MLS and other competitions within the FIFA brand. Madden NFL could also be considered to have an esports component to it.

There are several types of esports. Some of them are team-based. Overwatch is a 6V6 game, and Super Smash Brothers, which is a Nintendo-based cartoon video game, is 1V1 or individuals playing against other individuals. So, from a team perspective, it depends on the game as to how many players you have. For clubs like you would see it high school or college, you probably have 12 to 15 players per team, depending on how many game titles you have. Some high schools in the area, like Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County, have 30 kids as part of their esports club.

It really depends on how much interest there is at your institution and how many game titles you’re competing in.

Q: What role does esports play in an inclusive school community?

A: Esports, and really video gaming as a whole, has become overwhelmingly social right now. I think that’s probably a stereotype that you don’t often get when you talk about a traditional gamer or someone who is really an avid video game player. With some of the advents in technology and some of the games that are available, players are interacting with each other. They’re talking to each other, they’re communicating. There’s a social element right now that makes esports almost inherently social.

I saw a statistic the other day that about 80% of video game players are not active within their high school club or sports scene. It’s definitely become more and more accepted for very good video game players to now enter into the social atmosphere of school. So, esports programs have really allowed folks who are maybe not as athletic or who have not really shown an interest in some other clubs to participate in school activities.

The other side of that is about 75 to 80% of high school kids play video games. So, it’s going to be a natural transition for a lot of students to be able to now play at a club level or in a competition. It allows them to be part of that high school or college setting, where maybe three or four years ago that option wasn’t available. So, with the number of teenagers who play video games, you’re just naturally going to be able to incorporate more individuals into your school setting and to be more involved in school activities.

The other interesting part is, it’s an activity and a club and a competition that really doesn’t discriminate. From disabled students to students with financial means, it really is open to everyone and is extremely inclusive. The more that you can build programs at the high school level, the more you’re going to incorporate that inclusivity within your own school settings. So, there are some amazing positive outcomes that can happen when you incorporate an esports program, either before school or after school, and as part of your school curriculum or school activity.

Q: In the high school age group, what is the importance of regulatory oversight in the esports industry?

A: I think this is one of the items that is really missed in the current landscape that we find ourselves in. There are a lot of companies out there that have these platforms that are really geared towards high school players. Each of those individual platforms have their own set of guidelines, rules and structure. For the most part, they are true to what is necessary for integrity and safe and fair competition.

What is missing is an oversight governing body. As we continue to move along, video games are becoming more and more popular. The ability to watch competitive esports is becoming more and more popular. Younger generations are investing time and money as if they were watching professional football or collegiate football or basketball. So, the more that this becomes integrated into our society and becomes more popular, the need for the regulatory structure, something similar to the PIAA for traditional sports or the NCAA, is going to be needed.

Primarily because we want to protect the student athletes and those who are playing the games, but also to build confidence and give credibility to the industry for those who are making those decisions. Whether it’s elected school board officials or administrators, principals, vice principals, advisors, you need to have some accountability so that you can provide that integrity and that safety and security for the players.

So, right now, regulatory oversight is limited. The coalition has been working with an organization called the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association (PIEA), which is looking to be on a parallel track to the PIAA, to be able to provide that regulatory oversight, that governing body, to ensure that the competitions are safe, secure and have integrity with that.

Q: What educational benefits are acquired by participating in esports? Can these benefits carry into a student’s future at all?

A: Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons that the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition started looking into the high school space was a lot of the data that was starting to come out of some of the activities happening in Europe, and some of the activities happening stateside, of the strong correlation between esports competitions and STEM learning. There are really strong connections between those who are inherently or have trained to be successful with video games, especially on the esports competition side, and their ability to seek a STEM degree in college or their ability to have those critical thinking capabilities to have a career in a STEM field.

With League of Legends, about 67% of collegiate players are seeking a STEM degree in college, compared to about 30% of the general population who aren’t League of Legends players. So, there is a very direct one-to-one relationship between STEM learning and esports. That’s why I think you see a lot of schools interested in finding out more about esports and how they can build a program. There is a curriculum opportunity that comes with building a program.

There are college scholarships that are being offered for high school students who excel at esports. There are some college courses and degree courses that are being created – Harrisburg University has an esport degree. This is because as video games are growing in popularity and the competitive nature of these games becomes more and more popular, those who can actually operate the tournament, those who can actually create the games, those who can actually put the networks together to be able to host these events, that talent gap is very wide right now. There are a lot of people who want to do esports and want to put on tournaments, but very few people who have the knowledge base to be able to make it happen.

In Pennsylvania, we’re fortunate that we have a couple of great companies that have excelled at that, but there are few companies that do it and do it well. So, there is a huge talent gap for those, not necessarily those who play, and just like any professional sport or any professional talent, a small percentage of those who play esports are going to play for a professional team. There’s an entire industry that’s built on the back end of those games. From the development of those games; to the creation of those games; to the production of the tournaments; to what is called shoutcasting, which are the announcers who call the games; to the social media; to the marketing; to the public relations; and even to the school policies and to the curriculum that all goes into it.

There’s a whole industry that is built underneath the competitions that is going to only increase in demand. So, you started to see schools that are developing these programs to be able to fill the talent gap between those who want to host esports events and those who can actually do the work it needs to make them happen.

It’s an open, completely untapped marketplace right now for the high school space. You don’t ever want to talk about high school students as a marketplace, but there are only three or four national platforms that are organizing these competitions. It’s not as well run as you would think it would be for the three or four years since esports have entered the mainstream. Esports has grown from a close-knit, underground community of people competing to gaining some national attention here in the United States.

I think it’s still an untapped potential for the high school space because there are very few high schools, even in Pennsylvania, that have really taken a large leap forward in advocating for high school teams. There are only about 120 to maybe 130 Pennsylvania high schools that have teams that are competing right now. There is a huge opportunity for the state to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are there.

I’ve been in government much my entire career. I spent 17 years working for a state legislature and the last 12 years of my career here in Pennsylvania working for the Pennsylvania House. Every governor, every administration and every legislative leader has said for the last 20 years, “How do we create the talent to be able to fill 21st century jobs?” I think this is an opportunity to be able to use esports as the anchor for STEM learning and to be able to fill those 21st century jobs. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that could be more impactful to move that needle in a measurable than esports.

I think now is the perfect time as we see schools struggling a little bit or trying to figure out what to do for the next six months to a year on how the future of learning in Pennsylvania. There’s a huge opportunity to be able to integrate esports into those models moving forward and to have the conversation about what we need to do from an infrastructure perspective to make sure that we are serving our students in rural and urban and every community in between. A lot of that is access to the internet and access to opportunities like esports.

I think there’s one school district in Pennsylvania that has taken a district-level approach, where all four of their high schools participate and it’s managed by the district. A lot of these programs have advisers within a high school who say, “I think we should have a program and let’s see where it goes.” Or the students themselves have appealed to the school, have found a sympathetic advisor to be able to help them sign the paperwork to be able to have a club.

There are so many more high schools throughout the state. We’re very heavy here in central Pennsylvania and on the eastern side of the state. There are less opportunities and high schools that are participating in the western part of Pennsylvania. Again, it goes back to your question too, that’s another reason for regulatory oversight is to have an equitable distribution of opportunities and programs across the state.

Q: If schools or districts are looking to form a team or would like to know more about esports, is there a place they can go to look for that?

A: As I said, there are a couple of other national platform providers out there who have been doing this for several years. High School Youth Sports League is a good starting point, but I can tell you as the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association begins to grow, the hope is for that entity to be the place for schools to come in and contact us about how to start a program.

You form a team or program just like any other club or any other sport. You need engaged students and you need an advisor willing to help those students achieve that goal. There are some technology requirements or minimum requirements that are needed. A lot of these game titles, depending on how aggressive the district or the school would want to be, could be as simple as purchasing a console like an Xbox or a PlayStation 4. Some of the more active programs do purchase the computers. There are some programs out there to be able to afford some of the more gaming style computers that are out there.

The PIEA is going to look to provide that type of information and resources to guide schools in the right direction. A lot of the conversations will need to be had at the administrative level as to whether the investment into the technology is warranted. I would advocate to any high school out there that it is a win-win for the schools to be able to invest in the necessary technology and to encourage more students to participate in school activities. That’s in addition to the ability to couple it with a STEM-based curriculum that will really shape the future of our success in filling those jobs in the future.

Q: Where can listeners go for more information about Pennsylvania Esports Coalition and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association?

A: For the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition, paesports.org is our website. I’m the chairman of that organization and have been fortunate to help guide the industry as a whole, whether from the professional levels all the way down to the high school and middle school programs.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association’s website is interscholasticesports.org. That is actually a combination of folks who are really interested in boosting Pennsylvania’s presence with esports at the high school level. They can contact info@interscholasticsports.org, that’s the email address. Or you can email me directly, wthomas@midatlanticss.com.

Bill Thomas

Bill is the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition, a nonprofit trade association created to advocate for esports and promote the industry throughout the Commonwealth. The Coalition was created in June of 2018 – and in that time has focused on educating legislators and decision makers on the positive impacts and opportunities that esports has had, and will continue to have across the Commonwealth.

In his “day job,” Bill is the President of Mid-Atlantic Strategic Solutions, a government relations and political consulting firm located in Harrisburg, PA. Prior to joining Mid-Atlantic Strategic Solutions in 2017, Bill worked for the Pennsylvania legislature, with a primary focus on gaming and casino policy. He was the former Executive Director of the House Gaming Oversight Committee from 2010-2014, as well as the former Deputy Communications Director for the House Majority Leader from 2008-2010. He also served as the Leadership Executive Director for the House Democratic Caucus Secretary from 2014-2017.