On a Wednesday after school, Hathaway Brown senior Claire Hofstra is locked in a heated battle.
Her teammates shout encouragement. Between matches, her coach offers tips. The competition — with its soaring wins and crushing defeats — could be a scene from any high school sporting event. Yet, the game is Super Smash Bros. And rather than just across the field, Hofstra’s opponent is nearly an hour away at the computer lab of Bio-Med Science Academy, a STEM school in Rootstown, Ohio. Sportsmanship is exhibited over Discord, a messaging app.
Hofstra, a Westlake resident who graduated from the all-girls school in May, is a member of Hathaway Brown’s esports team. In 2018, with 10 players, Hathaway Brown became the first all-girls school to field a varsity esports team, playing in a small independent league. Four years later, they’re part of a large organization with hundreds of other Ohio schools offering esports as an organized, vibrant and growing competition.
Across the world, esports has grown in popularity as a participatory and spectator sport. A total of 175 colleges in the United States offer varsity esports. In Ohio, 39 colleges offer some type of esports program, be it a varsity or club sport. It’s estimated that one in every five high school students in Ohio are at a school that offers some type of esports.
It’s more than just playing video games. Just ask Hofstra, who was captain of the tennis team as a senior.
“I wouldn’t consider it that much of a difference,” she says. “I learned to be a leader playing esports.”
For as long as there have been video games, there have been people watching other people play video games. Crowds gathered around arcade games at the mall. Dorm rooms filled as students played GoldenEye 007.
But in the past five years or so, it’s taken on a whole new level.
Games are now more complicated. Graphics have improved to movie quality, and eyeballs have turned to streaming services like Twitch, where young gamers rack up billions of views from their living rooms.
“Our students were watching other people play Fortnite on their Chromebooks during study hall,” says Nick Rider, former director of technology at Carey Exempted Village Schools. “We asked, How can we harness this in a way that hopefully changes their lives for the better?”
Rider convened a meeting with school administrators in Northwest Ohio and launched a pilot program of high school esports in spring 2019 with 16 schools, including Lakewood St. Edward.
Since then, Esports Ohio has grown to include nearly 200 schools and is now the governing body of esports in Ohio high schools. There is even talk of esports partnering with the Ohio High School Athletic Association on a tournament.
“We’re excited about the possibility,” says Bob Goldring, the OHSAA’s director of communications and special projects. “It’s a growing participation space.”
Maybe it's become so popular because it encourages participation among students who might not typically participate in sports.
P.J. Farrell, a technology teacher at Holy Name in Parma Heights, started the school’s esports team with 20 players in its first year. It's grow to around 70 students. Almost 70% of the players don’t participate in any other school activities, and 10% of the student body participates — a number that rivals football and track.
“It breaks down barriers,” he says. “Kids are learning communication skills. They’re learning basic computer troubleshooting. They plan strategy and then adapt if that strategy doesn’t work.”
Ohio remains on the cutting edge of esports on the high school level — and college, too. Farrell will remain active as a teacher and coach at Holy Name, but he’s going to be the esports director at Cleveland State University.
Esports isn’t just an opportunity for advancement for Farrell. It can do the same for high school students, who can earn scholarships for esports to college — some of which are considering building new facilities for them.
“High schools and even some middle schools are talking about facilities, too,” Farrell says. “I don’t think this is going anywhere. I think it’s going to grow.”
Get more great Northeast Ohio stories by signing up for our free weekly “In the CLE” newsletter — your guide to fun throughout The Land. Arriving in your inbox every Wednesday, this weekend to-do list fills you in on everything from concerts to museum exhibits — and more. Click here to subscribe.