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Gowanda schools make play for eSports

GOWANDA — Conventional sports have always been a way for students at high schools to get involved in the community, outside of just attending classes.

They encourage teamwork skills, strategy, and a multitude of other skills that help kids develop and grow. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, conventional sports were put on the shelf due to safety concerns, and while things like basketball and hockey have been cleared to return, it led the Gowanda Central School District to explore some other opportunities for student competition.

That search led them to eSports.

eSports, short for electronic sports, are competitive video game competitions between different teams. There are a variety of different games that can be played competitively, and there has been an extreme surge in popularity of the genre in people, especially younger people, over the last few years.

Dr. Sandra Cimbricz, Gowanda’s Curriculum Coordinator, and Zachary Izard, a High School Physics teacher, combined to do research into the logistics of getting Gowanda involved in eSports, after it was brought to their attention that BOCES was looking for local districts to participate. Cimbricz and Izard presented their proposal to the Gowanda School Board on Wednesday night. They began the process with a survey to students to garner how many would be interested in participating, and for what would be a pilot program, they got a good amount of feedback.

“We sent out a survey at the end of last year and the beginning of this month and 33 students responded with interest in one form of participation or another,” Izard said.

When talking to all the different students, Izard and Cimbricz recognized a few details that they thought would make a difference getting this pilot club off the ground. For starters, the demographic of students that this club seemed to attract differed from those who participate in the more traditional forms of competition.

“We discovered through the survey that it was a group of students different from those that participate in conventional sports,” Izard said. “It would help get them involved in the school community, especially during this year where it’s more challenging.”

And while a majority of the students that expressed interest are students that are higher performing, there are some whose grades are on the cusp of eligibility to participate. Izard thinks that this club could help get those students more involved and start to perform better in school.

“It may be a way to reach out to kids, especially now where eligibility doesn’t necessarily mean what it normally does in terms of participating,” Izard said. “It may make them feel more a part of the community.”

The club would be sponsored by both BOCES and the North America Scholastic Esport Federation. The federation takes care of one large concern parents may have in the club, which is the content being portrayed in the games students would be playing, as they select things based on the content appropriate for high school students, straying away from first-person shooting games. One of the first events BOCES will sponsor is a tournament for the game Rocket League, which is effectively a soccer game but with cars.

One other barrier parents may be concerned about is the quality of the gaming system needed to participate in the games. As of now, Gowanda doesn’t have any computers that can serve the club’s needs, but the school is looking into grant funding to be able to purchase computers, which could also be used for other classes and clubs, like digital photography or digital media production. In addition, Cimbricz and Izard are looking into games that wouldn’t require high powered devices to play.

“We don’t want technology to get in the way of students being able to participate,” Cimbricz said. “We’re exploring options that wouldn’t require high powered devices to be able to play.”

The issue of Cyberbullying was also discussed, as online video gaming carries a stigma of hate and vitriol coming from strangers across the world. But because the school team would be playing against other schools and clubs, the competitions would have their own Code of Conduct put in place, which would differ from the one used for conventional sports, but would be similar in terms of the consequences. In addition, all of the events would be supervised by staff members.

Cimbricz, as the Curriculum Coordinator, acknowledged that there are large curricular implications that the club could provide, as well as the potential jobs that gaming can now lead to.

“This connects with our next generation science curriculum, our digital literacy curriculum, and our career in technology standards curriculum,” Cimbricz said. “There are lots of different roles students can serve and avenues for them to pursue, like being a coach, a software developer, a streamer. There are more things at play here than just a game. We know video games can impact academic achievement around math, and more importantly problem solving skills.”

Meanwhile Izard, who would serve as the club’s supervisor, noted a different impact the club will have for students: Control over their lives. Students often feel as though they have little control over their lives, and especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, that feeling is being amplified. Izard said that this club could help students regain control.

“This doesn’t have all benefits of regular sports, obviously the physical benefits would not be conferred,” Izards said. “But they share a lot of the same benefits. What’s especially important right now is students feel like they have control over what they’re doing, which year in particular, a lot of students don’t feel in control of lives. That can have profound impacts if that becomes a life long mentality that can shape how you see yourself and choices you make in potentially really negative ways.”

Though the motion to approve the eSports club was not formally approved, the Board did agree to explore the option. As Gowanda looks into possibly getting the high end machines needed to participate in house, which typically cost around $2,000, BOCES will allow students who have the ability to compete from home to do so. Izard estimated that somewhere from nine to 12 students have the ability to do so, while only four to six students are needed to field a team for most games. Should more interest arise in the club, the Gowanda School Board noted there is room for more computers if they are needed.

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