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‘It’s life-changing’: Collegiate, high school esports programs on the rise

Brayden Seech has been playing video games since he was in elementary school.

He started with Nintendo’s Wii and DS devices, shifting into Xbox and PC games as he got older.

Now, as a 17-year-old senior at Penn-Trafford High School, Seech has earned a college scholarship to continue his hobby by competing for St. Francis University’s esports team.

“It’s great to see my big hobby finally come to fruition with something that I can use in my future,” Seech said.

Esports — competing against other players in video games, often in front of a livestream audience — has been on the rise as high schools and colleges across Western Pennsylvania start clubs or varsity teams.

Upward of 150 high schools and more than 1,500 students compete in the , one of the high school esports leagues in the state.

Nationally, the National Association of Collegiate Esports features more than 240 schools and 5,000 student athletes. The league has distributed $16 million in esports scholarships and financial aid. And the National Junior College Athletic Association’s esports league serves more than 200 two-year and community colleges and 3,000 students.

Penn-Trafford was one of the first high schools in Westmoreland County to start an esports team. History teacher John Carlisle headed efforts to in 2020, applying for grants and spearheading fundraisers to purchase five PC computers.

Now, the esports lab — formerly a bare, white-walled room with a dozen Apple desktop computers — is decked out with about 25 tables, each topped with a PC, monitor, keyboard and mouse. Vibrant light strips and posters highlighting the team’s championship wins line the walls.

The lab houses between $50,000 and $75,000 worth of tech, said Carlisle, esports head coach.

Penn-Trafford’s esports team competes in five games — Super Smash Bros., Valorant, League of Legends, Overwatch and Rocket League. Tryouts are held annually for the competitive team, but casual players can participate in the club, which meets after school and during club days a few times a month.

Those looking to try esports for the first time can take a class at the Penn Township high school. Carlisle teaches three of the four sections of the class.

For Seech, competing in Valorant on scholarship for Saint Francis is a dream come true.

“I came into the high school, and I heard that Mr. Carlisle wanted to start up a program for esports,” he said. “That piqued my interest because I thought, ‘Someone else actually sees how good it can be, the benefit it can provide.’”

Expanding career paths

The reputation of esports has changed significantly in recent years, Carlisle said — particularly since he was a student.

“I myself was a gamer. I played probably thousands of hours — an embarrassing (amount of) time in it — but there was never a league to join. There was never a team at my high school,” he said. “It wasn’t even an opportunity to go to college for esports. People would laugh at you if you would have said that.”

Esports opens doors to a variety of careers, Carlisle said. Though some might go on to play professional esports for teams such as the , the skills gained from competing in video games transfer well to content creation and digital production fields, he said.

The popularity of esports has created production jobs, such as broadcasting and commentating matches, said Jennifer Kassimer, educational technology specialist for Thomas Jefferson High School.

“It’s hard to believe that you would sit there and watch someone play video games,” Kassimer said. “But it’s not that crazy when you think about the fact that we’ll sit there and watch really talented athletes play sports on television.”

After hearing about her students’ desire for Thomas Jefferson to adopt an esports team, Kassimer got to work starting the program in fall 2022.

The group has grown from 17 students bringing in gaming consoles from home to nearly 40 students playing on Nintendo Switch devices purchased by the school this year. Kassimer is working to secure funding for five PCs.

Christian Kampas, an esports instructor for River Valley School District’s STEAM Academy in Conemaugh, teaches his students about the psychology of games and lets them practice game development through Unity Game Engine — the program that was used to design the Pokemon Go mobile app.

Esports skills are directly transferable to a variety of fields in the technology industry, Kampas said.

“Even today in class, one of the students was competing in a game, and his fans got overclocked on his PC tower,” he said. “He was able to fix that by using his skills from class here and in cybersecurity.”

Esports also equips players for fields outside of the gaming industry, Kampas said.

The Federal Aviation Administration launched a in 2021 to recruit gamers for air traffic controller jobs because of their ability to quickly find locations on a map and communicate effectively.

In addition to esports, the STEAM academy features programs for automation engineering, biomedical engineering, cybersecurity, electrical occupations and health professions. The former Saltsburg Middle-High School building was renovated and reopened its doors in 2022.

The school’s library was transformed into an esports lab through a $250,000 renovation in summer 2022.

Connecting with students in the digital age

Kassimer can practically hear the groans of parents — “My kid’s been sitting in front of the computer gaming all night.”

But he does not see the prevalence of technology in students’ lives as a negative.

“One of the main benefits for me is that our students are communicating with each other through these headsets and through these games,” she said. “How can we take that communication and harness the power and energy and the love of the game that these kids have and turn that into something where they’re communicating in person in school when they have to be at school?”

Esports also has provided opportunities for Kassimer to teach her students critical life lessons, she said, such as teamwork, respectful communication and overcoming obstacles.

“As teachers, that’s our job — to teach them how to react in situations when they’re frustrated and not call someone out,” she said.

Thomas Jefferson senior Ryder Pielin is a great example of this, she said.

Pielin, 17, of Jefferson Hills will play Valorant for Robert Morris University’s esports team next fall. He has been playing video games since he was at least 10, he said.

“(Ryder) really stood out to me as a leader last year,” Kassimer said. “He just wanted to play a video game, and then he got into teaching the younger kids and mentoring. It’s opened doors like that.”

Providing community

Pielin is deciding whether he wants to study accounting or computer science at Robert Morris, but he’s sure of one thing: competing in esports will serve him well.

“I see esports just as a sport,” he said. “It’s just another activity for someone to express themselves.”

Esports gives students who do not gravitate toward traditional sports an opportunity to be a part of a team, said Carlisle, who noticed this with one of his first esports students.

“I will never forget,” Carlisle said. “He goes, ‘Mr. Carlisle, I’m just so happy.’ I said ‘Why? What do you mean?’

“He said ‘It’s just so nice to be a part of something for once.’ That woke me up.”

Having played baseball in college and video games for much of his life, Kampas said being a part of a team is one of his best pieces of advice for students.

“I always stress to everyone else that whether you have an opportunity to be a part of a club, an organization or a sport, like esports, you automatically go in with friends that you are going to be playing with,” he said. “I think those bonds last a lifetime.”

College recruitment

In the four years Christopher Sanders has coached collegiate esports, he has seen great variety in esports scholarship offers.

Large universities with flexible budgets might be able to offer good players a full-ride scholarship rivaling a traditional athletic scholarship, said Sanders, who began coaching and managing Seton Hill’s esports program in September.

Scholarships of a few thousand dollars are more common for smaller collegiate esports programs such as Seton Hill, Sanders said. He came to the university after coaching at Defiance College in Ohio.

The scholarship disparity does not matter much to Pielin.

“They’re still a decent amount either way,” Pielin said. “Just a couple thousand, but it still adds up.”

Some believe esports scholarships will see a dramatic increase in future years — including Waynesburg esports director and head coach Chris Davis, who recently spoke with esports students at Thomas Jefferson High School.

“He basically told our children that he thinks that esports scholarships are going to eclipse traditional sports scholarships over the next five years,” Kassimer said.

Players also can earn cash prizes for performing well in open tournaments, Pielin said. Carlisle said some of his students have at high school esports competitions such as TEC CON All Stars, hosted by the Esport Company league.

Recruiting new players for Seton Hill is a big part of Sanders’ job, he said.

“If you don’t get enough students in the fall semester, the university is going to be upset,” Sanders said. “If you don’t have enough success, students aren’t going to want to come here because they’ll be like ‘I don’t want to join a losing team.’”

But helping Penn-Trafford host a high school esports tournament last fall expanded Seton Hill’s recruiting opportunities, Sanders said.

For Carlisle, the future of esports is only looking up. Every week, he receives emails from colleges and high schools requesting advice from Penn-Trafford about how to start an esports program.

“It’s life-changing stuff,” Carlisle said. “I’m so dedicated. I love it. I never thought in a million years I’d be teaching esports.”

Quincey Reese is a TribLive reporter covering the Greensburg and Hempfield areas. She also does reporting for the Penn-Trafford Star. A Penn Township native, she joined the Trib in 2023 after working as a Jim Borden Scholarship intern at the company for two summers. She can be reached at .