Texas K-12 esports teams explode in popularity ahead of this week’s school tech convention


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The number of Texas school districts with esports programs has exploded this school year, growing from about 20 to more than 300 in the span of a few months, according to the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA).

The group hosts its annual convention this week in Austin, and esports, or competitive gaming, will be a major focus. TCEA will host 19 panels and daily demonstrations of the growing hobby.

“It’s been in colleges for the last few years, and now it’s starting to move down into the high schools and in the middle schools,” said TCEA’s executive director, Lori Gracey. The group just started tracking esports programs this school year.

Esports are big business, with tournament prize money in the millions and professional groups operating like sports teams. More than 200 colleges in the U.S. award scholarships for esports, Gracey said, and K-12 schools want to prepare students for collegiate-level competitions.

Austin ISD started esports clubs at two high schools this year. Hudson Bend Middle School in Lake Travis ISD also has an esports club and will be presenting at the TCEA convention Tuesday. Hays CISD schools participate, too, and Leander ISD principals are monitoring interest.

The University Interscholastic League (UIL), the governing body of Texas public schools’ extracurricular activities, is tracking interest from school districts, as well. The organization doesn’t sanction esports as an official activity, but the legislative council has considered it at each of its last two meetings in June and October 2019.

UIL deputy director Jamey Harrison told KXAN he believes it’s a matter of when, not if, the organization sanctions the activity. The next opportunity will be the legislative council’s next meeting this June.

Growing the collegiate talent pool

“High school is a really, really exciting place for esports to take root,” said Austin Espinoza, president of Longhorn Gaming at the University of Texas at Austin. “Eventually, that’s just going to trickle upwards into the college world.”

The UT senior’s high school didn’t have any formal esports program, just a collection of kids like him using under-powered school laptops to run the games.

Longhorn Gaming is a little more formal, but not much. It’s a student club, not backed by the university in any real way, he explained. While schools like Concordia University and St. Edward’s University are investing in esports arenas, Espinoza worries UT will fall behind the early-adopters. “It’s going to eventually need to be more standardized so that we can keep up.”

Micah Cavender, founder and president of the esports team at Texas State University, wants to be able to attract a bigger talent pool, too. He started the group a year and a half ago, and they now compete in six different games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Super Smash Bros., Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Cavender also coaches scholastic teams through national organizing bodies and wants to see more robust recruiting opportunities to get younger players into the collegiate system. “They have a drive because they love the game they’re playing,” he said.

Benefits of esports

Esports are more than just playing video games. Espinoza compared competitive gaming on a platform like the popular multi-player strategy game League of Legends to a game of basketball; each team of five players has to move and work together in order to win. “There’s a lot of team coordination and team communication practice that needs to go in.”

Those are some of the “soft skills” that young players learn in esports. “Teamwork, cooperation, planning, problem-solving, thinking quickly,” Gracey explained, “all of those are things we want our kids to be able to do. And you can do that through video games.”

Spokespersons for both Lake Travis ISD and Hays CISD said those benefits increase academic success.

More school districts are likely to follow the trend next school year, Gracey said. About two-thirds of all schools TCEA surveyed, including charter and private schools, wanted to start esports programs in 2020.

“It’s just the perfect point for esports to be really coming on,” Gracey said.

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