The Birth of Esports in Rockford Public Schools 205
Rockford is one of the largest cities in the state of Illinois. With approximately 150,000 residents and 27,000 students, it is a very diverse city that sits about 90 miles west of Chicago. In Chicago lies Robert Morris University. Robert Morris University has an esports team and offers athletic scholarships that can earn the student up to 50% tuition and 50% room and board. Seeing an opportunity for our students to compete for those scholarships, and while facing an $11 million deficit, with an investment of $22,000 (for 11 gaming laptops, headset and customizable mice), Rockford Public Schools 205 (RPS 205) made the bold decision to start an esports team.
But why would Robert Morris feel the need to offer an athletic scholarship for esports? What are esports? esports is competitive video game play. The visual you may have are kids lounging around in front of a TV and not getting any exercise or activity. With esports, teams are actually organized and compete against other teams in events sponsored by companies like Coca-Cola and Red Bull. In 2013, almost 32 million people from around the world watched the finals for the game League of Legends, while a sold out Staples Center in Los Angeles allowed people to watch live. It’s a larger audience than most major sports outside the World Cup or Super Bowl.
In RPS 205, we saw an opportunity to attract students into a unique extracurricular sport, particularly those students who do not already compete in athletics. We feel by attracting these students to participate on this team we can potentially reduce dropouts and increase local test scores as students work to stay eligible to compete. We also hope this will be another unique offering that will attract families to RPS 205. And for our athletic boosters, we saw an opportunity for a new stream of parents to become involved.
There are career and classroom implications with esports as well. There are over 120,000 people employed in the US in the video game industry, an industry that could generate $111 billion worldwide in 2015. I foresee an opportunity in RPS 205 to have elementary and middle school students learning how to code and construct games of their own using programs like Scratch, and creating and collaborating in worlds like Minecraft that can be connected to literacy (through books like City of Ember) and numeracy (each block is 1 meter cubed).
There is student interest in esports. With a relatively low cost of entry into this growing sport, we have an opportunity to be forerunners in the state to take this to a varsity level of competition and bring unique prestige to the city of Rockford. It is a perfect complement to our Robotics Teams. The message is we are competing in high tech areas. That is attractive to parents and students while considering their education options. Follow this link to see some of the positive feedback received!
Probably the most pleasant surprise in our push into esports is how quickly the idea was turned into reality. With support from our Superintendent Ehren Jarrett, Assistant Superintendent Matt Vosberg, Director of Athletic Activities and Program Development Mat Parker, Assistant Superintendent of Accountability Dan Woestman, Director of IT Services Bill Hull, Guilford High School Teacher Jeff Pitner and our school board, esports became a reality in seemingly record time in this very large school district. The Guilford High School esports Team finished in the top third of their High School StarLeague Division in the spring.
With all that said, there is still much work to do. With student and parent interest high, we still need to outfit four other high schools with appropriate equipment. Three of those high schools have collaboration suites in their newly renovated libraries that will allow for teams to practice in an environment that includes easy access to power, wifi connectivity and the ability to screen share on a TV. The high schools already have interested eSport coach volunteers. It is a matter of allocating the appropriate resources. We are actively looking for sponsors and ways we can make the team financially sustainable to provide necessary equipment.
The future is bright for esports in Rockford. The City of Rockford has been named the Amateur Sports Capital of the Midwest. With such a title, esports can become another driver to strengthen that title.