Not Just Playing Around: Esports Offer a Path

Patrons of The Grid Esports use its custom-built computer setups to play games online.
Patrons of The Grid Esports use its custom-built computer setups to play games online.
Online gamers at The Grid Esports in Fayetteville, which opened this month. The sport, growing in popularity, offers scholarship opportunities can build skills prized by employers.
Online gamers at The Grid Esports in Fayetteville, which opened this month. The sport, growing in popularity, offers scholarship opportunities can build skills prized by employers.

Online gaming, or esports, debuted as an extracurricular activity at some Arkansas high schools three years ago, bringing scholarship opportunities with it. And now industry experts say employers should pay attention to the tech-savvy talent evident in this new sport.

More than a dozen leagues serve the state’s student gamers, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association has not yet adopted esports. The only league based in Arkansas is the AAA High School Esports League, operated by the Arkansas Activities Association and Play Versus Inc. of Santa Monica, California.

The AAA is a member of the National Federation of State High School Associations; the NFHS is akin to the NCAA, but for high school sports.

Leagues allow teams of players to compete for cash prizes in tournaments. The AAA endorses two popular games: League of Legends and Rocket League.

Some tournament competitors are chasing a lucrative but elusive career as a professional gamer with sponsors. “There wouldn’t be any [commercial] appeal to gaming if there wasn’t a career in it. So, when you can win millions of dollars from playing a video game, that’s when you start seeing the sponsorships and scholarships come to the students of today,” said Karl Brown, a 29-year-old gamer and “ambassador” for The Grid Esports, a new online gaming center that opened in Fayetteville this month.

“Then you see it globally. It’s just exploded in the last 10 years,” Brown said. “Gaming companies themselves have noticed that they’re sort of taking the place of professional sports and being a more accessible and more adaptable entertainment industry.”

High schoolers in the AAA league pay $68 per semester to play, which goes to Play Versus, according to AAA Assistant Executive Director Derek Walter.

The AAA league’s esports season culminates in a state championship game in the spring and fall, though this past spring’s championship game was canceled over pandemic concerns.

Still, the sport has continued to grow this year, perhaps because COVID has taken a greater toll on traditional, physical sports, Walter said. More than 100 teams had joined the AAA’s league as of Oct. 16, up from 76 last fall, he said. Enrollment, at approximately 1,200 students, is up 37% from a year ago.

Walter said that among the 23 associations that work with Play Versus to host tournaments, the AAA has a high percentage of its schools involved in esports programs. “So it’s growing really fast in Arkansas, and it really took off,” he said.

The state has college esports teams, but there’s no centralized league or college league based in Arkansas, according to Logan Horton, head esports coach at Hendrix College in Conway, which competes in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Other schools with teams include Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Some of those schools offer gaming scholarships, Walter said.

About $600,000 in gaming scholarships is available in the multistate region that includes Arkansas, he said.

Hendrix doesn’t offer gaming scholarships because it’s a smaller school with a Division III team, but Horton said having an esports team and offering gaming scholarships can aid in recruitment. He said esports can also motivate students to do well in school, since they are required to maintain a certain GPA to play, as is the case in more traditional sports.

“It’s encouraging students to develop the fullest of their abilities. It’s the same as offering a scholarship for football,” he said.

“The only difference in, let’s say football and esports, is in a lot of these leagues that you can compete in you can actually win significant portions of money.

“What happens in the education realm is a lot of that turns into scholarship money.”

Horton said the college-level esports leagues are not as well developed as their high school counterparts, but they are getting better as esports’ popularity grows.

Tech-Smart Employees

Walter noted that gamers are tech savvy and that’s a trait all employers are looking for in the workforce, because every industry makes use of technology nowadays.

“A lot of these guys, at home, have built their own computer. It’s not good enough to just buy one. They want the RAM; they want the graphics card. They want what they want and so they go build it themselves,” he said.

Sabra Eaton, esports adviser at the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale, said gamers are strategic thinkers and very dedicated, which suggests they’ll be dependable workers.

“They have great muscle memory as well as great coordination,” she said. “If you look at people who play specific roles in specific games, they’re going to be your strategizers. They’re going to be the ones that think 15 steps ahead, and they’re going to be great in a business office.”

Eaton also suspects that the Army is tapping into esports for recruitment purposes, by having its players play against hers. “They’re clearly not going to say that upfront, right? But when you’re looking at corporations or when you’re looking at the Army and their team being able to set aside time every single week to support coaches and play against students, that’s definitely them looking for some skill sets,” she said.

Horton said employers should know that gamers have leadership and communication skills. They know how to be part of a team and how to effectively complete a task, he said. In addition, he said, they dedicate a lot of time to gaming and develop skills that help his students get jobs in and outside the growing $1 billion esports industry.

Brown, the gamer, is just one example of how the sport can aid careers and help companies find talent. He’s an AutoCAD drafter at Blew & Associates PA of Fayetteville. AutoCAD drafters specialize in creating computer-aided design models using Autodesk’s AutoCAD software. They work with architects and engineers to design and create 2D and 3D computer models of buildings and machine parts.

Brown said he had no formal experience when he applied for his job, but he did have computer literacy and tech skills from gaming. Now gamers his age are encouraging the younger generation to play for opportunities, such as the scholarships, that weren’t available when he was in high school or college.

J.T. Richards, who plays for Hendrix’s esports team, said he expects the skills he learned from gaming — how to cooperate within a team, lead a team and keep the members’ morale up — will be useful when he applies for counseling or therapy jobs. Also, he’s seen questions about team-building experience and experience working with others on job applications he’s helped friends fill out.

Walter credits esports’ transformation from a leisure time activity and its growing popularity as an extracurricular activity, in Arkansas especially, in part to its low cost. The fee to play is nominal and schools already have the computer labs that teams need to play esports.

The AAA got into online gaming because it believes students who participate in an extracurricular activity are more likely to earn good grades, display good behavior and, ultimately, graduate, he said.

Richards, the Hendrix player, said he’s motivated to do well in school because he wants to continue helping support his team.

“Esports reaches all ages, races and education levels,” Horton said. “It’s a fantastic and effective tool to engage students in and outside the classroom to encourage learning life skills and teamwork … [and] STEM skills.”

“The most exciting part for us was, typically, these kids are students that aren’t in the band and aren’t playing football or basketball,” Walter said. “And so they’re not really currently in an activity, and so we feel like esports really brings the student that maybe has never participated in an activity, and now they’re able to take advantage of the things that we believe activities give students.

“We’re just getting a new student that we’ve never been able to really attract before.”