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As Esports Take Off, High School Leagues Get In The Game

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Teens who love video games know these days, there is more at stake than just a pot of virtual gold and bragging rights. There are college scholarships, tournament money and high-paying jobs. That's all thanks to esports. Today in All Tech Considered, as competitive video gaming has grown from a niche community to a mainstream industry, high schools want in. NPR's Aubri Juhasz reports.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I got it. I got - nevermind (ph).

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: At Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Va., one team scrimmages while another is in the middle of a playoff game.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Air dribble, pitch.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Ooh.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Back pass.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Ouch.

JUHASZ: They're not on a soccer field but, rather, staring at computer screens.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Run away. Yeah, you're half health now.

JUHASZ: The scrimmaging team is playing League of Legends. The goal - work together to knock down enemy towers. The playoff game, that's for Rocket League. It's basically soccer but with cars instead of people.

JUSTIN SNOWE: In this game, it's three versus three, and every player controls every movement.

JUHASZ: Justin Snowe coaches Washington-Liberty's Rocket League team. Right now they're the best in Virginia. In recent years, esports have taken off. Today more than 170 colleges and universities participate. And there's money on the table - over 16 million in college scholarships and aid. That's caught the attention of high school administrators. Now kids can perfect their skills alongside teammates with the help of a high school coach. Snow says to succeed, the players have to communicate.

SNOWE: If they, you know, don't talk to each other, they're not going to know who's going for the ball or who needs to get back on D.

JUHASZ: After a player masters the basics, the next step is to develop strategy and perfect individual and team coordination. This year, 17 states offer formal esports teams. But most high schools don't house those programs under athletics. In Virginia, the league is considered an academic activity.

SCOOTER NORTON: My name is Scooter Norton. I'm the team captain of the Rocket League team, and my screen name is dolphin (ph).

JUHASZ: Norton is a senior. He and his teammates, including Calvin Fornash, have been friends since kindergarten. They've played Rocket League together for three years.

CALVIN FORNASH: When this opportunity came around, I don't think there was really any hesitation from us about whether we would do it. It was just a matter of whether our parents would let us.

JUHASZ: Fornash says parents often don't get it - or at best view the activity as unproductive. But that's beginning to change.

MILES CAREY: When the state says this is academically valid and we want to support it, I have to do a lot less explaining.

JUHASZ: That's Miles Carey, an assistant principal at Washington-Liberty. He started the school's gaming club three years ago and still oversees it today. Carey says when it comes to playing esports, there's a lot of overlap with traditional sports. Students learn teamwork and communication, how to handle stress and overcome failure. They work to balance time spent playing against other commitments. And Carey says his students are more comfortable with technology. Some of them have even learned how to build their own computers in pursuit of having the best gaming machine.

CAREY: If a kid's playing basketball, you know, 10 hours a week in the park, why not give them a structured environment to play it? And so I think it's great for kids to take something they're already passionate about, make it a way to connect to the school and learn more from it.

JUHASZ: Before the league, Scooter Norton and his mother, Cynthia Perera, used to fight about his time spent gaming. Now she says she has a new perspective.

CYNTHIA PERERA: It makes a difference not just for the parents but also for the kids. There's goals here - you know, for school pride.

JUHASZ: Virginia's esport program is a pilot project this year. If enough students are interested and funds are available, they'll offer it again next year. If not, then it's game over.

Aubri Juhasz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.