This week sees the launch of a nationwide eSports league featuring more than 50 teams from high schools around the country. But is this whole thing legit? Like, are they actually going to let kids play computer games as a sport? We sent Eugenia Woo to the High School League open night to find out.
Parents seem to have this intrinsic fear of video games because they think it’s going to turn their little angels into sociopaths. It’s a trope that we hear the older generation bandy about all the time. “Call of Duty is making my baby too violent,” is basically the rallying cry of every pearl-clutching Herne Bay housewife, and this preconception is the first wall that most kids run up against when they’re begging Mum for an extra half hour or game time after homework. Nevermind that most video games aren’t hyper-realistic shooters, or that puzzle and critical reasoning games hold tons of potential as education tools – games are still often perceived as a waste of time.
This general disdain for games as a medium is brandished by well-meaning parents worldwide, which is why I was a bit sceptical when I received the press invite to Let’s Play Live’s media event to promote their newest initiative – a League of Legends tournament for high school students. The invite was heavy on buzzwords that seemed geared to incite interest in teachers, so it was with restrained enthusiasm that I showed up, bracing myself for either an empty room or a disgruntled response from the educators present. Thankfully, none of my worst case scenarios came true, and I came away from it all feeling a whole lot more optimistic about the local eSports scene here in New Zealand and, more broadly, in Oceania.
The room was packed with students and teachers. There was an incredible turnout – one teacher from Manurewa spoke of putting together 10 different teams because the interest among the kids was so great. Howick was also well-represented by students, alongside a variety of other Auckland schools, and as the press milled around waiting for the livestream to get set up (yes, it was streamed on Twitch), the boys got right into some friendly League matches against each other. There weren’t any of the organisational hiccups that normally manifest with small, grassroots events like this, and the teachers who did show up seemed open-minded at the very least.
The official portion of the night kicked off with a panel comprising of the head of the New Zealand eSports Foundation, a representative from Let’s Play Live, and the top dog at ComputerPower Plus. They all had a go at pitching the high school tournament to the room, and the theme of the night was how tournaments for team games like League of Legends would improve the participation ethic, school pride, and academic performance of the students playing them. While I’m all for encouraging people to do what they want, especially if it involves eSports, some of the claims about students being more interested in school achievement after playing games seemed pretty outlandish.
Even though no teacher disputed the evidence being presented about games having a positive academic influence on kids, it was clear that a lot of the schools present (and ones that asked questions on the Twitch stream) were worried about flying blind if they sent their teams to this tournament. Let’s Play Live was quick to put those concerns to bed, noting that they had set up a very strong support base for players by appointing an administrator to each time who was familiar with the game and who would make sure that everything ran smoothly on game night. It was also heartening to note that Riot’s Oceanic branch had been involved in writing the ruleset for this tournament, and that the New Zealand eSports Foundation would be involved throughout the 10 weeks of play through regulating and sanctioning the high school league.
It was clear that the organisers had gone to great lengths to deck out this amateur event with the trappings that accompany professional play and competition, and this tied in neatly with the overall message that the gaming scene was a valid stepping stone towards many career pathways. Talk about jobs was also another major part of the panel’s discussion, probably as an effort to assuage the fears of teachers who hear horror stories about Warcraft addicts dying undignified deaths as no-life shut-ins after dropping out of school.
A two-pronged approach was taken, with Ben Lenihan from the eSports Federation focusing on promoting professional gaming as a legitimate career choice (did you know that the E-Blacks are a real thing?), and ComputerPowerPlus drawing a link between the IT industry desperately needing graduates and engaging with schools via treating eSports like an employment gateway. While that second plug wasn’t too heavy on logistics, the delivery was passionate, and there were a couple of nodding heads at the mention of job security (which might be a sign of the times).
At the end of the night, casting my eye around the room, I felt that the event was a real amalgamation of the various groups that make up our eSports community. Almost every major group was represented, ranging from the players to amateur shoutcasters and even the professional bodies fighting for industry legitimisation. The atmosphere was positive, with no lack of mingling and networking, and the response from those watching on Twitch and Facebook Live showed that Let’s Play Live had perhaps reached a larger and more engaged group of interested parties than they originally thought. Everyone who showed up had been vocal and eager to learn more about the initiative, and I left in prettyhigh spirits. Sure, it might be another decade or two before eSports receives the recognition and the funding it needs to stand up there alongside traditional sports in prestige, but the general consensus in the room was that it’d only be a matter of time before we put these obstacles well behind us.
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