Thursday was a big day for the AHSAA as they announced multiple changes in multiple sports, most notably instant replay being added to football this coming season. The AHSAA also announced rule changes for basketball concerning the amount of regular season games teams can play and moved a basketball regional from Dothan to Montgomery (so yes, there are two now in Montgomery).

However, another interesting announcement took place as esports was announced as an official program within the AHSAA. For those that don’t know, I dabbled in esports while I was in college. I didn’t do much, at least not considered to what professional gamers are doing these days, but I did spend a decent amount of time in the industry.

I competed in Major League Gaming for a couple of years, and worked with them for a season as well. I competed in the World Cyber Games (kind of like the Olympics for video games) from 2008-2010, and represented Team USA in 2008 competing in Cologne, Germany and in 2009 competing in Chengdu, China. I also worked with Samsung for a small time (who basically ran WCG) and competed an extra year there. I worked with other online leagues such as the Cyberathlete Amateur League, competed in many other major events and have tried to actively stay involved with esports ever since moving into sports media.

With the focus I put into high school sports, I am so excited that esports could now potentially be a part of high schools across the state.

Here are some numbers from the world of esports to show how massive it has gotten:

$392 million – Estimated esports revenue in North America for 2017
$1.2 billion – Estimated esports revenue worldwide for 2017
335 million – Number of people who occasionally or frequently watched esports in 2017
6.6 billion – Projected hours of watching esports video in 2018
$150 million – Estimated total prize money awarded in esports in 2017

Those are all nice numbers, but these are numbers that should shock you if you haven’t paid attention to esports:

$24,787,916 – Total prize pool of The International 2017, a Dota 2 tournament last summer (first place won $10.8 million)
$11,000,000 – Total prize pool of The Masters 2018 (first place won $1.9 million)

The average age of a professional gamer is 20 and the bulk of pros in various games are between the ages of 18-24. This shows why it is important to have high school esports programs, so that students ages 15-18 can learn.

To get a sense of where esports is now and the strong community behind it, check out this video from League of Legends and Riot Games:

The AHSAA only introduced a few small details about esports and what their plans are. They introduced it as a chance for more students to proudly wear their team colors and represent their schools in competition.

The AHSAA has partnered with a company called PlayVS who will help set up the equipment and run the major events. PlayVS is the exclusive esports provider for the NFHS and other states are starting to add esports as well.

They continued to push the simplicity of competition within esports. Here is the playbook from PlayVS and the NFHS for how they are starting esports programs in high schools:

1. Find a faculty member

“A faculty member will be required to oversee and guide the students as they progress. Faculty will be responsible for ensuring student eligibility and keeping school profiles up-to-date, and must be present to oversee on-campus activities.”

They suggest reaching out to advisors for similar clubs such as gaming, robotics or anime clubs, or reaching out to IT members or just a regular coach from another sport. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of that idea and think it would be much better if someone was brought in who actually followed esports and could be a legitimate guide to these students. If it’s going to be added as a real sport within the AHSAA, then it needs to be treated like one. You wouldn’t just get the PE coach to “oversee” the football team.

There is a real opportunity to help and guide these students through esports. I understand that what I’m saying would mean hiring another person to oversee something, but I wouldn’t imagine it would have to be a full-time position.

2. Find students

“Student engagement is the mission of this new program. Many schools have a community of student gamers that are organized and easy to find, but a lot of students are waiting for something like this to exist.”

I completely agree with this, and that’s what is exciting about creating these programs. I look forward to all of the innovative ways that schools approach creating their esports teams.

3. Equipment

“Esports simply requires a one-time purchase approximately every four years. We have established relationships with peripheral and jersey vendors to further reduce the cost to you. You will need: One computer/laptop per student (personal computers may be used), one peripherals package per student (mouse, keyboard, headset), one jersey per student for events.”

While technically, yes, this is the bare minimum needed, I think it would be wise for individual schools to work out a deal with a certain peripheral provider (maybe in sponsorship for the school, but I’m not sure if that would break any rules). Believe me, having the right mouse and keyboard along with a good headset can be a big time difference maker. Just like football players want the best cleats, and many schools go out of their way to get the best pads and jerseys (if they have the financial freedom to do so), so esports should be treated the same. Also, having the most up to date computers helps. I wouldn’t recommend just getting cheap laptops, but solid desktops that can be used just for gaming.

Maybe the relationships PlayVS has will provide top-tier equipment like Steelseries, Razer, etc. We’ll see. I think students should be allowed to use their own equipment as well. Whatever they are comfortable with at home.

4. IT Structure

“During the initial setup an IT staff member will need to be present to install the games played in our competition. An update plan will need to be put in place if computers require new permissions to edit files. One-time IT concerns will need to be addressed. An IT staff member will already have the tools to make this happen.”

I know how some schools operate, blocking all kinds of websites and not allowing installs of certain programs. That would obviously need to be removed, which is part of why a team would need a legitimate private setup in my opinion, not just a couple of updated computers in the school’s computer lab. Some of the games are best played on consoles, so you could get away with only using computers for certain games and having TV/console setups as well (which is much simpler).

5. Join PlayVS

“The PlayVS platform (playvs.com) is easy to use and navigate. This program is student-driven, but a faculty member should be ready to assist as needed.”

I don’t know anything about PlayVS. The site is only an email signup form right now. It says the faculty member in charge will sign up on behalf of the school, but that students will then need to sign up and pay a $16/month participation fee. Then once that’s handled, the students will register for whichever competitive leagues they want to compete in, create their teams, practice and then compete. The faculty member will oversee students throughout the season and make adjustments to rosters as needed.

If a student has to pay a $16/month participation fee, then that’s $160 for the 10 months schools are typically in session, or $192 if you have to pay year-round. Can everyone afford that? We shouldn’t assume they can, even if that’s not a lot to some people. (see UPDATE below)

That last part is why I’m afraid of this turning into nothing more than a gaming club that a teacher just oversees. If it’s going to be considered a legitimate coach, then they need to be able to understand the games enough to know when to make changes and work with their team to do so. A football coach has to know when to change up his defense, a basketball coach needs to know when to sub in players, and a baseball coach needs to know when to change pitchers. Just like those sports, an esports coach needs to understand the fundamentals of what is going on to be able to make a change when needed.

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That’s all the info we have. When you go to the AHSAA website and hover over “Sports” and then click “Esports” it just takes you to a PDF with the information I just listed.

The games that were mentioned on the initial presentation were a little hard to see on the live stream (I couldn’t attend due to prior conflicts), but the ones I noticed included: League of Legends, Smite, Rocket League, NBA 2K18 and some game called ICONS.

The first four games mentioned all have major professional leagues with big time prize money.

League of Legends (5v5) – LoL has many leagues around the world, but the main one in North America is the League Championship Series (LCS). There are 10 teams that play a spring split and summer split to earn their way to the World Finals against the top teams from other regions in the world. There are also teams that have some ownership through NBA franchises such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockeys, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks. Plus former Laker Rick Fox has his own team as well. The World Finals typically have a couple million in prize money plus plenty of other big prizes in 6-digit territory throughout the season.

Smite (5v5) – Smite has it’s own league and world championship as well, even though it’s not quite as big as League of Legends. Smite is the same kind of game as League, but the way you play it is a bit different. The world championship awarded first place $600,000 this year.

Rocket League (3v3) – This game has also been played 2v2 as well. Rocket League is basically a soccer game where you play with cars instead of people. You can do crazy tricks and drive on the walls as you try to score more than your opponent. It’s a fast paced, fun game. The Championship Series Finals this year has a prize pool of $250,000.

NBA 2K18 (1v1 or 5v5) – It depends on how they want to approach this game. You can either play 1v1 with each player controlling a team (similar to Madden) or you can play five players on each team taking each position on the court, which is what the NBA 2K League is doing. 17 NBA franchises have started their own gaming teams to compete in the league and the league just had it’s first ever draft of players. Each of the first-round draft picks get a salary of $35,000 and the rest of the picks get $32,000 a year. The inaugural season will have a $1 million prize pool.

ICONS: Combat Arena (1v1) – I’ve never heard of ICONS, but it looks like a Super Smash Bros. clone which isn’t out yet. It will be on PC and basically functions the same way as Smash which has a huge community, but Nintendo isn’t really keen on esports. However, it is at major events like EVO. ICONS doesn’t have a release date that I can see, it just says “Coming 2018” and it will be free-to-play.

These games aren’t final, I’ve seen a couple of news outlets report on it and say the list hasn’t been determined, so I assume that list may be a “suggested” list from the NFHS or PlayVS.

I am not 100% sure on the format of the league because there weren’t a lot of questions asked outside of the initial presentation, which was basically just explaining how cool esports is. Someone did ask about when competition would take place and they made it sound like there would be a separate fall and spring season with this so it would go throughout the school year.

They didn’t explain specifics, but it almost sounded like it would follow a CGS format. CGS stands for Championship Gaming Series and it was a league that only existed for two seasons before folding. Essentially what they did was have multiple franchises who had ten players each: five Counter-Strike: Source players, two Dead or alive 4 players (one male, one female), one FIFA player and two Project Gotham Racing (later Forza) players. Essentially each team would compete in the various games and gets points from each game which would then go towards a grand total score and the team with the highest score would win.

The CGS wasn’t a bad idea in theory, but I’m curious if they will do that here. The other option is that there are individual tournaments and championships for each game, and then maybe a points system based on how each team finished to award an overall school championship.

WCG kind of did that – they had various games that representatives from each country participated in, but then at the end they would tally up the medals and final placings of each country and award a bonus prize to the country that had the most success. I think the best comparison to an actual AHSAA sport is wrestling. Each school has individual representatives in each weight class, and then depending on how each individual wrestler does for your school, you get an overall score and the school with the highest score is your champion. You could also do like what wrestling does with their wrestling duals championship where it’s not the main championship system, but you could compete school vs. school in all games and a winner moves on.

I still have many questions like:

– Can schools just compete in one game or do they have to play all of them? I guess that depends on the format. (see UPDATE below)

– Will it be split up into boy’s esports and girl’s esports? Or will everyone play on the same team? (see UPDATE below)

– Can larger schools have two teams? Like an A team and a B team that both get to compete? (see UPDATE below)

– Will there be a varsity and JV program? What about a freshman program? (see UPDATE below)

– Because of the nature of the game, can we have more state vs. state competitions? Make it similar to the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game?

– Will schools only play in large-scale tournaments or will there be one school vs. one school match-ups? (see UPDATE below)

– Will only major events be streamed on the NFHS Network or can schools stream on Twitch during some competitions?

Obviously there is still a lot to work out. I’m so excited for it and can’t wait for more details to emerge. I look forward to seeing the cool and innovative ways that schools grow their programs outside of just the bare minimum requirements, and if any of the players get potential scholarships to college for esports.

Also, if anyone is looking for a coach or someone to guide their program, I’m always available…just saying.

UPDATE (April 16, 2018)

I did some research and found the answers to a few questions on the actual NFHS site. Just because this is how it’s suggested to be done through the national federation, I assume it doesn’t have to be done exactly this way in Alabama. But here is what it said:

– There will be two seasons. The “Fall” season will be October-January and the “Spring” season will be February-May.

– It says there will be different games that have to be approved by each participating state association, so I assume the AHSAA could add or take away games from the five listed above that were in the initial presentation. That could at least keep the games fresh if something new comes out.

– It says that each season will consist of a pre-season, regular season and post-season with a state champion being crowned for each game at the end of the season. So that makes me think there won’t be one overall esports champion, but rather just focus on the games individually.

– The NFHS site says there will be no traveling during the regular season and that all match-ups will happen within their own school walls with competitions played online through the PlayVS platform. I assume PlayVS will function like a GameBattles or ESEA style platform, and then you just play the games online. This will mean that the schools have to have great connections. This will also mean that it will be hard to completely police things.

One thing I’m curious about is if these games can be streamed online (like if a school has it’s own broadcast setup). There is no requirement to broadcast any games from a school, but many do have partnerships with the NFHS Network or some other provider (YouTube, etc.). If a school wanted to broadcast it’s own games on Twitch, could they do that? Could there be one set group (or multiple groups) who choose “games of the week” to broadcast from another location?

– It says student teams will be matched up with other schools across the state based on skill level. I don’t know if that means they will just follow the standard 1A-7A classifications or if there will be a different way to look at it.

– The NFHS rules say that each school can field as many teams as they can for as many games in a season. So does that mean a school like Hoover, which is the biggest in the state, can have 10 League of Legends teams if they want? (FYI, that would be 50 people assuming no subs)

– I haven’t found anything official that says this, but I’ve seen a couple of reports mention that boys and girls will compete together on the same team.

– Finally, it says students are required to pay a $20 per month participation fee. The PDF I linked above says $16 per month. That would mean that if the students only had to pay during the competition months (October through May), then it would be $160 for those eight months, but $240 for the whole year (if they had to have access during the offseason as well).