Video games in school
Esports have emerged as a new local trend, but it's not all fun and games
What are Esports?
“Esports is a massive umbrella,” said Lincoln Sorensen, the Esports Head Coach at Finlandia University.
In short, esports are organized competitive video games. Universities, high schools, and even middle schools around the world have been adding school-linked teams at a rapid pace recently, but the games themselves remain a mystery to many people.
Esports encompasses several different video games with wildly different gameplay, and each game is hosted in multiple leagues, too.
“NACE is the big one,” Roose said. “They’re like the NCAA of esports… And we’re actually the Counter-Strike champions from last year.”
Leagues might offer different games and participating schools, and the teams choose what leagues to participate in based on what games players want to play and who they can play competitively against.
This semester Finlandia is playing Valorant and Rocket League. Next semester they’ll be adding Overwatch and Apex Legends. MTU has players engaged in Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, and Overwatch.
Most video games in collegiate-level esports are team-oriented, with goals that can only be accomplished with teammates fulfilling different roles.
“You can have a really strong player mechanically, but if the team around them either doesn’t work together or are all doing different things or have different priorities, it’s going to be difficult to win,” Roose said.
Dillion Farmer is a senior at Finlandia University. He played lacrosse, hockey, football, and wrestled in high school and college before coming to Hancock, where he joined the esports team. On the Valorant team, he plays the role of a duelist.
“A duelist is someone on the team who is going to seek out engagements against the other team,” Farmer said. “Try to get kills and create space for your team.”
Other roles include the controller, the initiator, and the sentinel, and each role has different characters that are selectable, with special equipment and abilities suited to that role. Players choose their character based on their own play style and what role their team needs to be filled.
How are they different than other sports?
“There really aren’t a ton of differences,” Roose said.
Roose recruits her players similar to a coach would for any other sport.
“The main difference is I don’t need to see them in person to assess their skill,” Roose said.
Both Finlandia and Michigan Tech follow NCAA rules for team activity, despite not being an official part of the NCAA. Teams are allowed no more than twenty hours a week of team activity like practices, workouts, and games. There are also GPA standards for participation.
Another key difference that may not be apparent is the level of team communication involved.
“Communication happens on a very specific, articulate, concise level within esports,” Sorensen said.
In traditional sports, communication between teammates is often short, barked directions that can also be heard by opposing players. But communication in esports is through private headset channels between teammates in the game, so directions and strategies can be plainly spoken and easily heard.
“I can whisper something to you and you’re going to hear it,” Farmer said.
This lets team leaders clearly spell out strategies and key information, which allows for tight execution of plans and complex adjustments mid-game to take advantage of lapses in the other team’s strategy.
Roose said teams will have a “strat book” with their team strategies in it, similar to a football team’s playbook.
“So maybe it’s where to put a smoke [smoke grenade], which LOS—lines of sight—or angles to hold, who specifically is holding those angles, where specifically they are moving (and) at what point…” Roose said.
While some teams do have specialized coaches, Roose doesn’t work directly with her teams, and Sorensen doesn’t drill with his teams, either.
“There’s a big difference between what I do and what a traditional coach does,” Sorensen said.
While Sorensen has played many video games extensively, he isn’t an expert in the newer games offered in his program, and those games can change from semester to semester, too. Unlike traditional games, video games can release updates that teams then have to learn and adapt to as well.
So when Sorensen is coaching his teams, it’s more about interpersonal communication, decision making, and mental fortitude. Mechanics and game skills are left more to the individual player.
Before a match, they’ll watch the previously recorded matches of their opponent to find out how they play and what strategies their team might want to practice to counter them.
There’s also an entirely new competitive season of esports each semester.
“So we will have an entire competitive season this fall, and we will have an entirely new, fresh, clean start next spring as well,” Sorensen said.
Esports is also a little more flexible than traditional sports in scheduling, as the majority of their matches require no travel for any of the participants and weather isn’t much of an issue since everyone plays inside.
“All we need is to be in our space with them in their space at the same time,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen said this was an advantage over other sports during the pandemic lockdowns last year, as their season was able to continue through the 2020-2021 school year mostly uninterrupted. Roose said that not having to travel saves the teams a big expense and keeps the players from being pulled out of class very often.
Teams do still travel from time to time for special LAN (local area network) events. MTU’s team went to Northern Michigan University for a special Halloween LAN this week and Hancock’s high school team may attend one in the Detroit area.
“It’s a networking experience for coaches, for players, and it just gives you that face time,” Roose said.
What good are esports for students?
Perhaps the first question on parents’ lips would be if there are scholarships available for engaging in esports, and the answer is yes.
At Finlandia University, there are two scholarships available, $500 a semester for team members who keep their GPA above a 2.5, and $1,000 per semester if they keep their GPA above a 3.0. However, these scholarships are only available for students who aren’t also participating in NCAA sports.
At MTU, students can get as much as $10,000 in athletic scholarships for participation on the esports team. Roose said combined with other academic and need-based aid, some students have their tuition entirely paid for.
But there is also the development of important skills at work in esports.
Sorensen said that because of the closeness of the communication, being mindful about how directions, information, and strategy is shared is one of the key things he works on teaching his players.
“Communicating a message that you want someone to understand and apply in a positive way is one of the greatest takeaways that we can get from this gaming space,” he said.
Roose, who is also a Ph.D. student in MTU’s Cognitive and Learning Sciences Department, has studied communication and decision making in video games as well as other situations.
“They’re learning how to communicate not only effectively but also with different types of people,” she said.
Roose said that clear communication feeds into conflict management and leadership development.
Sorensen said he trains his students with an eye on their future careers.
“I really think that the best gamer they can be is one with the best head on their shoulders,” Sorensen said. “So that’s what I’m trying to provide them—it’s not individual skill at a video game but the aptitude to communicate and interact no matter what video game or pursuit they have in life.”
Players like Farmer, who has participated in more traditional athletics, know there is a lot of crossover in lessons from one sport to another, and esports.
“There’s a lot of lessons that you learn that aren’t necessarily just for that sport,” Farmer said.
Lessons of competition like how to stay in a losing game or accept defeat with grace can be learned in esports just as much as they are in football, basketball, or hockey.
“I’m a nursing major,” Farmer said. “So eventually I’m pursuing a career in nursing and then possibly beyond that.”
He did say he might be interested in coaching esports as a part-time job somewhere, though.
“The same way someone with a day job may coach football because they played at a higher level,” he said.
There’s also a beneficial social atmosphere that can be hard to attain for people who enjoy indoor activities.
John Holladay, who plays Valorant for Finlandia University, said he’s appreciated having a community to interact with. He said it is often a struggle for him to find people to play video games with.
“There are a lot of people that I never would have met if I didn’t join esports,” he said.
Esports can be much more inclusive of people with physical disabilities, too. Controls can be adapted so people with poor motor skills or even absent limbs can participate competitively.
Other students who aren’t playing competitively also help with streaming the matches, maintaining the computers, graphic design, and other work in the “esports ecosystem” where they can gain valuable experience in broadly applicable skills.
MTU’s esports department has a dedicated media team with positions for social media management, on-screen esports casters, and audio engineering, as well as an IT manager who handles network and computer maintenance.
“It’s really important that it’s student-run,” Roose said. “The students need the hands-on experience, especially with tech.”
Roose also does her best to make sure her coaches and student workers are fairly paid.
Where’s the science?
Roose’s master’s thesis focused on the development and use of the Tracer Method, which combined eye-tracking technology with player interviews after a game session to analyze decision-making under stressful situations and what factors go into the decision-making process.
The method creates quantitative data to an otherwise subjective process.
Roose’s advisor at MTU is Elizabeth Veinott, a cognitive psychologist who directs MTU’s Center for Human-Centered Computing. Her work focuses on how people make decisions in different environments.
“I study real people doing real work,” Veinott said. “Esports is one of the domains I study.”
Within esports, the two try to determine what the difference between decisions made by novice players and expert players is, and how to teach people to make better decisions using that information.
The Tracer Method tracks a player’s eyes while they play a match. After the match, a researcher will interview the player about the moments in the game where they were considering a critical decision.
“Typically, there are only a couple,” Veinott said.
The researchers can then sync up the video of when the decision was being made to the eye-tracking data to find out what information the player was drawing from when making their critical choices.
Normally, in games like Overwatch, the player spends most of their time looking at or near the aiming reticle in the center of the screen.
“When they’re doing sensemaking decisions they’re spending a lot of time looking at their charge and their ammo and their health,” Veinott said.
Taking a high-paced game like Overwatch and analyzing the critical decisions of many players in many games starts to reveal what sensemaking decisions entail in a quantitative way. They’ve found that experts tend to have similar eye movements when making critical decisions.
“This tells us that there is something to train,” Veinott said.
The Tracer Method is still in development, but Veinott is hopeful it will have applications in other environments, like debugging computer code.
“But we’re developing in the context of video games,” she said.
In other studies, Veinott has found that playing problem-solving-focused video games can help people with problem-solving exercises against a control situation of someone watching a video for an equal amount of time.
People who regularly played video games didn’t show an improvement, but not because they were worse.
“The gamers kind of brought it to the table, they didn’t need a 30-minute game to have them sort of think differently,” Veinott said. “But non-gamers actually did a lot better if they just had played one of these problem-solving games.”
Games encourage trying again after an initial failure, and trying multiple ways of approaching a problem. Regular players adopt these things into their regular cognitive processes.
How do I watch my local team play?
Teams can’t hear when spectators are cheering them on, but Farmer said they still like knowing that people are watching. The players will look back at the video after the fact and can see what people have written in the live chat that runs with the stream.
“Even looking at it after the fact it is very entertaining to see when people get excited,” Farmer said.
At the same time, coaches and players understand that some of the games can be difficult to understand for a non-player. Roose said a lot of the responsibility to explain the game falls to the casters who host the streaming matches.
“So for us, we’re going to try to make sure that we’re able to articulate the purpose of the game or what somebody is doing, and explain it in a way that people are able to understand it,” Roose said.
She also said that some games are easier to understand than others. Those that are comparable to sports or described with traditional militaristic terms are more easily understandable to the non-player.
Sorensen said there’s one popular game that is very accessible to viewers.
“I hold Rocket League up as being what I consider to be a very good esport,” Sorensen said.
This is because the basics of the game are very easily explained, making the knowledge necessary for enjoyable viewing easy to attain.
“It’s soccer with flying Hot Wheels cars,” he said.
League of Legends and Overwatch have complex game mechanics and fast-paced gameplay that make non-player viewing and adequate explanation difficult to manage. Roose said they’re developing FAQs and terminology lists to help first-time viewers and parents understand what is happening in matches.
You can watch esports matches on Twitch.tv, both teams and leagues host channels.
Holladay also streams the Hancock High School MIHSCF matches on his channel.
The Hancock team is currently 4-0 in their season of Valorant. Baraga and Calumet also have high school esports teams.
“I’ve never said no to in-person viewers,” Sorensen said.