Some Fairfax County student athletes won’t be headed to courts or fields this winter, but instead, to computer labs, as the 10th largest school district in the country prepares to launch an esports program.
The Fairfax County Public Schools athletic director detailed the new initiative to Tysons Reporter, saying the new program will connect students in high schools through a popular, soccer-like game — in which players drive futuristic cars — called Rocket League.
“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for our students,” said Bill Curran, director of the FCPS Office of Student Activities and Athletics, noting how students will have another way to fit in. “I think we’re going to have 25 highly competitive schools in the esports realm.”
While concerns about students’ screen time have persisted, even as the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to adopt virtual learning, competitive online gaming has become increasingly popular, with both high schools and colleges getting in on the esports action.
The market research firm Newzoo reported in March that esports viewership increased from nearly 398 million people globally in 2019 to nearly 436 million in 2020 and could potentially reach 474 million this year.
The NCAA governing board voted in April 2019 against bringing esports under its purview, even as the association noted the rapid growth of esports on NCAA campuses.
“You’re going to see this ball roll faster and faster,” Curran said.
ESPN launched a new initiative to cover esports in 2016, though it shut the division down last year. In 2018, it became the first TV network to air a professional gaming contest in prime time for the cartoon-style multiplayer online battle game League of Legends.
YouTube and Twitch have also streamed content that’s worth billions of dollars and expected to grow annually, though that’s just a small slice of the video game industry.
The Virginia High School League, which governs sports, activities, and competitions in public schools throughout the Commonwealth, introduced esports as a pilot program in 2019 before approving it as an “emerging activity” for the 2020-2021 school year that could become sanctioned as an official VHSL activity.
Fairfax County Public Schools is currently looking for coaches to participate in its esports program, which has been in the works for more than two years and will operate under its Activities and Athletics office. Some teachers have already shown interest in helping, according to Curran.
Students will have to pay a $64 fee each season through a startup company PlayVS, which provides computer games and requires students to maintain eligibility through grades and attendance. FCPS is looking at ways to prevent the fee from becoming a barrier to participation.
With schools expected to open for in-person learning five days a week this fall, FCPS plans to have students participate in existing computer labs, rather than remotely. Like a traditional sports team, Curran says Fairfax County’s esports teams will likely have jerseys.
“Our kids, you know, they’re already playing the games,” Curran said. “They’re ready to go, and they’re eager for us to start this.”
Photo via Alex Haney/Unsplash
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