Michigan schools give video games new legitimacy with growing esports leagues

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Students from East Kentwood High School compete in the first round of the 2019 StateChamps! Esports Tournament at Lawrence Tech University.

Courtesy of Candace Byrnes

Students from East Kentwood High School compete in the first round of the 2019 StateChamps! Esports Tournament at Lawrence Tech University. Lawrence Tech holds multiple tournaments each year for high school teams in Michigan.

A growing number of Michigan high schools are getting in on the fun of esports.

More than 50 high schools are registered with the Michigan High School Esports Federation, a free, nonprofit league created by Michigan educators in 2019. They join over 170 U.S. colleges and universities with varsity esports programs – including 18 in Michigan.

Southfield’s Lawrence Technical University was among the first state colleges to embrace esports, and it began hosting esports tournaments for Michigan high schools five years ago.

“It was a bit like pulling teeth trying to get these high schools to recognize what we were trying to do,” said Candace Byrnes, a Lawrence Tech graduate and State Champs Esports Show Host. “Esports has always been a thing nationally, but locally and statewide it struggled for a little bit to get any bit of funding or any adults really to be involved and recognize it as a positive thing,”

So what changed? Lori Flippin, the STEM Initiative Leader for the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, an organization that supports programs that improve the economy and quality of life in the Great Lakes Bay Region, said it all comes down to research and affordability.

Research shows esports “improves science scores. It improves math scores. It helps with well-being for students once they build that connection to a group,” Flippin said.

And unlike other science, technology, engineering and math programs, which often come with a hefty price tag, she said, “it’s really not that expensive to run an esports program, assuming that a school district already has the computer technology and they may only need to do just a few enhancements.”

Courtesy of Candace Byrnes

Students at the 2019 StateChamps! Esports Tournament play League of Legends. Lawrence Tech was an early embracer of esports.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated most industries, it may have helped advance esports at the high school level. In March 2020, the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning held an esports summit allowing school districts from across the state to learn more about esports.

“I think that awareness kind of peaked at that time, and then knowing that it could be possible with COVID was just another reason why it was a good time to start,” Flippin said.

Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi formed its esports team in March 2020 – just as the pandemic hit. The team won the 2020 State Champs Rocket League Tournament and now has 71 players.

While Michigan was in lockdown, esports “kept everyone connected,” head coach Stephen Juncaj said. He said the esports team provided students with a sense of normalcy when they were feeling unmotivated or fatigued during the pandemic. 

Esports participation also serves as a motivational tool in more normal times. Esports participation is associated with higher GPA and increased attendance, according to the High School Esports League.

“It’s like any other athletic team. It’s a privilege to be on it,” Juncaj said. “So if your grades start slipping, you’re not allowed to participate in practices or games.”

This is the first time participating in official school extracurricular activities for many of his students, Juncaj said.

“There’s kids who’ve literally told me like, ‘I haven’t done anything after school, at all, until I found this,’” he said. “So it’s really been a great outlet for some kids who never even thought about like, ‘Oh, I could do something for the school and kind of be involved.’”

Courtesy of Stephen Juncaj

Students from Detroit Catholic Central High School’s esports team pose with head coach Stephen Juncaj. Catholic Central’s esports team was founded at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and has become very popular among students at the high school.

As it expands at the high school level, esports does face challenges. Online gaming is often associated with violence. Initially, administrators at Detroit Catholic Central didn’t want students playing Fortnite, Overwatch or Valorant – three popular games that include shooting.

To convince them, Juncaj pointed out that the school has a skeet shooting club where students handle real shotguns.

“I was like if they’re responsible enough to use the real ones, could we potentially let them use the virtual ones that don’t do any harm through the computer?” he said.

Flippin, the STEM leader, said parents sometimes worry their children are spending too much time staring at screens and that administrators won’t be able to closely monitor what students are doing online.

But Lawrence Tech’s Byrnes said “it seriously is like a flip of switch” for parents when they see high school administrators supporting esports.

“Once the varsity esports program started at colleges and once scholarship money got involved, parents were like, ‘Oh, you’re not just in the basement playing video games, you’re practicing for a potential scholarship to a university,’” Byrnes said.

According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, colleges and universities offer around $16 million each year in scholarships, and students are getting recruited out of high school. To keep up with the demand, Michigan universities are expanding their esports operations.

“This is already very big in Michigan and most people don’t know it,” Flippin said. “Northwood University is investing over $7 million into a new center. Central Michigan University just converted their old bowling alley into an esports center. Alma College opened up an esports center that’s part restaurant/bar, part esports center on their campus.”