It’s a balmy Saturday morning in mid-June, and at Spring Creek Education Campus in East New York a group of high schoolers are gathering for a first-of-its kind sporting match in the neighborhood. The home-team players, from the Academy for Young Writers High School, mill around and talk strategy, while their coach hovers nearby. The visiting team, from Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, has just arrived, and they seem jittery; one worries aloud that they might “get their asses kicked.” Soon it’s time to begin play, and the two teams take to their field: a long row of black laptops equipped with headphones and mice and hooked up to a massive projection screen, where, for the next hour, the AFYW Lunar Ravens and the Roosevelt Sharks will battle it out in a friendly match of League of Legends, a multi-player battle-arena video game in which players fight their way across treacherous terrain with the goal of destroying their opponents’ “nexus” (LoL speak for “fort”).
As the game begins, the Lunar Ravens — five rising seniors at AFYW, all boys — study their screens intently, their faces highlighted by an eerie mechanical-blue glow. When they speak to each other, it’s in a different language: There are dragons and midlaners, super minions and support bots, buffs, ults, and, of course, the precious nexus. A notebook between them has a page full of game plays they’ve been developing and practicing. The small crowd of spectators cranes their necks up to watch the match on the projection screen as the Sharks have an early stumble — not enough communication, one spectator notes — and then rally with an impressive dragon slaying. All the while, two official commentators, experienced gamers from New York University’s engineering school, offer a running play-by-play of the action, all of which is also being live-streamed on the internet.
Welcome to high-school sports in the 21st century.
E-sports, the competitive playing of video games, has exploded in popularity in recent years: Riot Games, the maker of LoL, reports 27 million daily players from across the globe; in January, ESPN launched an online e-sports vertical, complete with a dedicated gaming reporter; and last summer, a North American LoL tournament hosted by Riot Games sold out Madison Square Garden. There are numerous international professional leagues and teams, contracts and hefty salaries for elite players. Collegiate e-sports teams have cropped up at dozens of colleges and universities across the country, at least five of which offer scholarship money to the most talented recruits, including the University of California, Irvine, which in March became the first public university to offer e-sports scholarships. And in the high school arena, two major e-sports leagues have emerged, hosting regional and national tournaments for their thousands of members across the country.
But for kids in East New York, the arrival of competitive gaming is still fresh — today’s event is the first high school e-sports competition in this mostly black and Latino neighborhood, according to Tony Patrick, a mentor with the nonprofit Pathways to Leadership, who runs AFYW’s Gaming Collective (the name of the school’s e-sports club) alongside the club’s coach, Jon Casale. And this game, played by these kids, and in this neighborhood in particular, takes on special meaning: While online gamers are racially diverse, the tech industry is still predominately white and male, and that includes the game design industry — in a survey conducted last year by the International Game Developers Association, 76 percent of respondents identified as white.
Given the homogeneity of video game designers, the AFYW Gaming Collective, which has 24 members (16 of whom are girls), could very well be poised to make a tiny dent in tech’s diversity problem. To that end, Patrick is encouraging his students not just to play the games, but to learn about how they’re built. This summer, the kids will attend a weekend game design workshop at Parsons School of Design. And last summer, they traveled to Los Angeles, where they met with officials at Riot Games and visited the University of Southern California, where they met with Sam Roberts, the program manager at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, which is ranked by the Princeton Review as the nation’s number two game design school.
“The moment those kids were walking on USC’s campus and Sam Roberts said, ‘We need you to make games. We want your stories,’ we froze,” says Patrick. “They don’t see a lot of ‘me’s in these spaces. Just by being in the room, they’re changing the conversation.”
Patrick is also seeking to partner with the Institute of Play, a games-based learning nonprofit that helps operate a public school in Chelsea, where all subjects are taught through digital and analog games, to bring a new curriculum to AFYW. The goal, Patrick says, is to nurture the students’ interest in playing and making games while introducing them to technology that has appeal in other industries, like science and health. And it seems to be working: Inspired in part by the AFYW team, Christian Colzier, a junior, downloaded Unity, a free development platform, and used YouTube videos to help him code a sophisticated digital terrain that he hopes to further develop into a “horror hide-and-seek” video game. And it’s not just for fun: “This could help me get into college,” he says.
It’s too early to tell how high school e-sports teams will tangibly impact admissions to college programs or tech jobs. But parents say there are more immediate academic benefits.”It has kept him coming back to the [school] building,” said Sharon Antoine, whose son Keron, a junior, plays on AFYW’s gaming team. When Casale told Keron he might be able to get a college scholarship for playing video games, Antoine was initially skeptical — “Don’t put false ideas in my son’s head,” she recalls thinking. But she’s come around to the possibility, and on Saturday afternoon, Sharon’s in the audience cheering Keron on.
After nearly an hour of play, despite the rally from Roosevelt, AFYW ultimately pulls through and destroys the Sharks’ fort. The home crowd erupts in cheers. Keron pumps his fist into the air. “As a kid who lives in this neighborhood, you’re expected to do what everyone does,” says Keron, who’s considering applying to NYU’s game design program. “This has been [my] motivation. I feel comfortable at school now.”