This Ohio Company is Bringing Esports to High School Classrooms

How Esports Ohio is using video games to create college and career opportunities

Two teenagers high-five while playing a video game

Video games are no longer just a casual hobby, they are now a nearly $100 billion industry. The rise of esports — competitive gaming packaged in an environment closer to traditional sports — has been swift. Research indicates that more than 500 million people watch esports worldwide in an industry that saw more than $4 billion in investment last year. Esports now represent a career path, an aspiration, and even a college scholarship opportunity. To connect Ohio kids with that opportunity, a group of educators and gaming enthusiasts came together to form Esports Ohio, a free-to-join educational, nonprofit esports organization and league created by teachers for students.

“A group of us got together and said, ‘Hey, we like doing esports things, and we think it’s a great opportunity for kids,’” Esports Ohio President Jacob Gebers said. “Almost every single one of us on our original board were playing in a national esports league at the time, but with those national organizations, we weren’t getting the feedback and response that we wanted. They were very heavily business focused, and we felt it would be better if we could play at local schools. So, we adapted to a K-12 education model and came together to start this league, which is all centered around creating opportunities for K-12 schools throughout Ohio and Ohio only.”

Seeking to fill the gaps they saw in the path of esports play for Ohio kids, Gebers and the Esports Ohio team initially sought to simply give kids a place to play. They realized along the way that they were creating a pathway, and perhaps more importantly, a community among kids with similar interests, helping some get out of their comfort zone and make new friends.

“We found through surveys and research that there were a ton of kids out there playing video games,” Gebers said. “We wanted to give them that opportunity where all these kids are coming together in one space in a safe environment with others who have the same likes and interests as them. Then, when we host tournaments and in-person events, we see these kids all come together from different schools in Ohio. Giving them the opportunity to meet other kids in different parts of the state that have the same likes and interests as them is pretty cool to see.”

Now, Esports Ohio has established eight-week regular seasons, with an online tournament in the fall and regional in-person tournaments in the spring, and a state championship wrapping up the year. This year, the organization has gotten a special boost from partnering with the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the governing body of Ohio sports, to have an officially sanctioned state championship in May. They have “premier level games” that serve effectively as “varsity” sports, which include games such as Fortnite, Overwatch, Valorant, and League of Legends. Those and other games are on the “JV” list, which even includes chess.

“In the last three years, we’ve just seen a huge uptick in schools,” he said. “We now have 219 independent schools in the state of Ohio, which is huge. When we were founded in 2018, we were at 11. In the spring, we had 647 teams — almost 4,000 kids. It has really exploded in Ohio. We’ve been continuing to get into more and more schools, and it’s actually allowed us to start a middle school program as well.”

But Esports Ohio isn’t just about developing huge tournaments and rosters, it’s about helping shift the esports paradigm. What was once a community of internationally connected gaming enthusiasts is becoming something closer to how we view competitive high school sports. It’s not hard to imagine a time in the future when enthusiastic crowds from rivaling schools will come together to cheer on their esports athletes.

“The big thing for us is really that we are all Ohio-based,” Gebers said. “We’re trying to show that we’re playing Ohio schools, and we can build on regionally based rivalries. We can help them along. For any school that’s thinking about it, we’re more than open to talk with them — a school board, a principal, anybody. I’ve had tons of conversations with different stakeholders. We just really want to help give these opportunities to kids at as many schools as possible.”

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