PROVO, Utah — Your kids should be playing video games. You heard that right: video games. It’s no longer just a pastime for people who love Mountain Dew and Doritos, and that’s something that the Provo High Esports team is letting everyone know.
“Video games isn’t what we used to think it was,” Esports advisor Tory Norman said. “I had a, I had a student come to me last year, and he was kind of grumbling and complaining, I was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ And he’s like, ‘My parents got after me because I wasn’t playing enough video games. They said I needed to practice more.’ And I’m like, whoa! Where did that come from? That is so cool!”
Now Provo High has a shiny new RGB-colored esports area those students can call home. This March, they became one of only 25 schools in North America that received a grant and equipment from Generation Esports.
Alex Montano is on the Smash Brothers team and he’s been excited to have a place to call their own.
“This is our esports lab that we’ve been trying so hard to get. Getting this here is so cool, and it’s amazing. Now instead of going to a classroom, we have a personal monitor and it’s so cool. It’s something we’ve been trying so hard to get.”
That’s a sentiment that Matthew Cook, who plays on the Rocket League Team, shares.
“Having this lab here is a lot easier so we don’t have to travel multiple miles to get to our lab now. We are very thankful we can have what we have.”
If you build it they will come
“Back in November, I got a random email about a company that hosts the regional leagues, saying that they wanted to help grow the esports program throughout the country, and asked us to apply for an opportunity to get some computers,” Norman said.
Before this opportunity came though, Norman said that they had been told that an esports club was something they could do, just so long as it wasn’t at the school.
“Well, how do you have a club, a team that competes together but doesn’t at school, and they’re like, ‘Well, everybody else just plays from home.’”
That’s something that Norman and his students didn’t want to do, though; from the beginning, they wanted to be a team and stick together just like any other sport.
“If you’re a basketball, they don’t say, hey, we’d love you to play basketball, but please play from home.”
So after some more conversations and buy in from the district, they applied for the grant, and they won!
One of the stipulations for the grant was that the students themselves would need to build the shiny new specially specced computers themselves.
“When the [computers] arrived, it was a giant wooden crate full of parts,” Norman said. ” The computers were not put together at all. And that was a stipulation, they said, you can have the computers on two conditions. One, they have to be in the school, and two, the students have to build them.”
That was a great experience for the students too. Norman said Generation Esports loaded up some of their employees into an RV and sent them across the country to help the kids get everything situated.
“We had several of our students who are really into video gaming, say, ‘Hey, I’ve always dreamed of building a computer, but it’s so hard to do.’
“And after one day of building them, they went went, this is easy. I want to go build my own now. So just being able to expose them to that and see that the world of technology is not as hard as they think it is and get them excited about exploring it more was a big win for us with this lab.”
Video games are a gateway drug… to academics
While the students are behind the monitors scoring goals in Rocket League or defending the stage in Super Smash Bros, or even racking up Pentakills in League of Legends, there’s more going on behind the scenes.
“The purpose of our club is to use video games as a gateway drug into better academics and futures in computer technology,” Norman explained
He and other advisors have been talking to teachers from other programs across the school to see how they can get involved and share this powerful technology.
Norman said he’d like to see students in marketing and broadcast classes get involved and help stream and broadcast their games. Or have history or language students be able to load into the educational version of Assasins Creed to walk the streets of France, or study ancient Greece or Egypt.
And while it might be good advertising for their club, it’s also a way to help students individually reach their own educational goals.
“I had a student that approached me [and] he had a less than 1.0 GPA, he was sloughing most of his classes, he was not on track nor interested in graduating.
“And he’s like, I wanna play on your team. And I said there’s no way you’re going to qualify to play on our team because we follow the same academic requirements that basketball, football and everyone else does, we treat ourselves as an athletic sport. And so I said, this isn’t gonna happen. I don’t see how you can qualify so that he would go talk to the principal. [Then] the principal talked to me and said, hey this is the first time he’s been motivated to do anything. Can we make it work?
So we created some agreements with him that he had to bring his grades up, and if not, he’d be benched for the competitive season. And in one quarter, one term, he went from less than a 1.0 to a 3.5 GPA. The next year he started taking concurrent enrollment classes. He graduated and went on to college and so and it was all because he wanted to play video games.”
Provo students embrace esports
Norman said this wasn’t an isolated experience either, he’s had a number of students that bolstered their grades so they could play video games.
And those skills they pick up can be used to get athletic scholarships from colleges across the country, and right here in Utah too.
“I come from the business side, I was a public accountant for years before I became a teacher and when we would recruit students out of college, we were looking for kids that knew how to communicate, communicate under pressure, work with teams, troubleshoot, strategize, think outside the box. These are all skills that I can’t teach in a classroom, but I can teach in an esports space.
“The kids don’t want me to run the plays. If I create the plays, they’ll lose. I have no idea what’s going on! These kids know more about the games than I do. They’re in it every day. They binge-watch the professionals, like, they know what to do. We give them a team captain and they design their stuff.
“So this is a cool environment where they get to take leadership and ownership of their sport more than any other sport, I think offered in the high school. And the skills that they’re learning from this are going to benefit not only college but their careers in their life in ways that I can’t teach in a classroom.”
From computers to connection: The Provo Esports team
“On the small scale community has probably been the biggest thing that these kids have benefited from through our program,” Norman said.
After a year of distance learning and isolation, this group of students has been able to stay together and stay connected with a group that they didn’t have before the esports team.
“It’s amazing to me as we were looking through our rosters as we were talking to some of these students in the interviews that were getting us this esports lab, How many give our students, are students with different kinds of learning disabilities, how many of our students are on the autism spectrum, we have so many of these students struggle to feel like they fit in and places struggle to make friends.
“Some of our students in their interviews have mentioned, you know, I really, all my way through high school have struggled to make friends. And here I’m surrounded by friends that love what I love and do what I do.”
Norman said that isn’t necessarily something exclusive to the esports team, but that for many of these kids, it was the first place they’d felt like this.
“They don’t get into all of the other clubs that are available. They’re not into the arts, they’re not athletically inclined, but they love to play video games, and they found a community here … We create a home, we create a family for these kids and that’s what they are and they take care of each other.”
Esports and video games are a multi-billion dollar industry, and embracing that future is something that Norman said is important. And there are other high schools across Utah that Norman said need some help from the community just like theirs does.
“Wherever you are throughout the state, our schools are adding esports programs rapidly. I will guarantee you that there’s probably school within 15 minutes of you has [an esports program],” he said.
“And they are in desperate need of someone who knows the sports, loves the sports and want to help. If you’ve got time in the afternoons to reach out and be a volunteer or a community coach they need it, and they want it.”