CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — When Kennedy High School teacher Jason Lester introduced himself as a video gamer to his computer-science class last fall, it sparked interest among the class’s students.
Lester was asked by Kennedy High junior Ethan McCord if he’d be the staff sponsor for a new competitive gaming esports program for the high school.
“I couldn’t say no,” said Lester, who is also a Kennedy High football coach. “Competitive esports has the same benefit as being a part of the football team by promoting teamwork, communication and teaching life skills in a way that students are passionate about.”
Kennedy High is one of several area high schools to create a competitive esports — short for electronic sports — program since the 2020-21 school year when the state established an Iowa High School Esports Association.
Now, over 60 schools compete in the fall, winter and spring in six video games: Rainbow Six Siege; Smash Brothers: Ultimate; Overwatch; Rocket League; Mario Kart and SMITE.
Over the last two years, Linn-Mar High School has won seven state championships — in Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League, Overwatch, Mario Kart and Smash Brothers — in the Iowa High School Esports Association. Prairie High School also is planning to launch an esports team beginning in the 2022-23 school year.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that Kennedy’s McCord, 16, spoke May 9 at a Cedar Rapids school board meeting, asking the board to provide funding to expand esports to all district high schools for paid coaching staff and funding for travel expenses. These programs require investment to be successful and reach the maximum potential, McCord said.
“This club has given me motivation and inspiration to continue on with what I enjoy after high school and college,” McCord said in his remarks to the board. “I want to give other students with similar aspirations a guaranteed and ongoing opportunity to participate in these programs, so they can achieve their dreams and reach their full potential.”
McCord said he plans to go to Iowa State University to study business management and administration to work in the esports industry someday, he said.
About 30 students are a part of the team at Kennedy, half of whom play competitively.
Students can even receive college scholarships for esports. This year, North Linn High School student Tyler Stanley received a scholarship to play video games competitively at Davenport University in Michigan.
“Playing against people with the risk of winning or losing I’d say is probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” McCord said.
Students have a lot of career options in the $1 billion video gaming industry, Lester said. While competitive esports teams are “just as hard to get in” as the National Football League, he said, there are other job opportunities including computer programming and game designing.
Lester said he is working to get funding for Kennedy High’s esports team through corporate sponsorship and grants.
Right now, the team uses Lester’s personal gaming laptop, a student’s Sony PlayStation 4 and another student’s desktop personal computer. In a dream world, Lester said, the school would have 12 gaming units, transforming a classroom into an esports arena, which Lester estimates would cost around $40,000.
“I’d like to see areas where my kids are playing together and their parents can come in and see the excitement,” Lester said.
Sullivan Reck, 17, a junior at Linn-Mar High, said the Linn-Mar team has helped him turn something fun into a talent and improved his social life by helping him make friends.
Reck, who is considering studying literature in college, said that’s why he thinks he likes video games — it’s a form of storytelling.
“Our school has a lot of talent, and we practice regularly to maintain that,” Reck said.
Over 100 students participate in the Linn-Mar esports team but not all play competitively. Students can try out for teams, earn varsity letters and get college scholarships. They also learn skills of communication, leadership and critical thinking.
Thanks to the Linn-Mar School Foundation, six gaming computers were purchased for the team, said Brian Johnson, Linn-Mar High School librarian and esports coordinator,
“One of the things that isn’t a problem is student interest,” Johnson said. “One of the harder things is finding the equipment to do it. It’s not something cheap to get into. The end goal is to improve our players, so they’re competitive and we have a state-winning team.”