Ocean City plans esports program for high school

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OCEAN CITY — The Red Raiders will still suit up and take to the field, the Drama Guild will still take to the stage, but a new team on its way to Ocean City High School will take the red and white to new worlds.

Esports are on the way to OCHS.

In the coming years, student teams may participate in tournaments in a new gaming room, with students watching video streams of Rocket League or Fortnite competitions live in the school auditorium or on their phones.

Games could be streamed on YouTube or newer, more game-focused platforms such as Discord or Twitch.

Curt Nath, the district’s academic services director, briefed the Board of Education at a recent meeting on plans for a new esports team. Later, he and Matthew Friedman, the district superintendent, spoke about plans for the program.

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“It’s probably one of the fastest growing areas,” Nath said. “Not that this is a driver, but there is a ton of money in it.”

Lunch is served in the team dining room, the chef preparing chicken piccata and fresh greens, but there isn’t much time to eat.

Plans call for the school to build out a program over a three-year period.

“We could put a bunch of computers in a room and have them up tomorrow, but that’s not what we’re looking to do,” Nath said.

Instead, plans are to create a playing area for the program upstairs at the school, in a room overlooking the athletic fields that the school refers to as the skybox. That will mean investing in computers, but also in the room design, which Nath said was beyond the expertise of the staff.

Other districts have esports programs, they said, including in the K-8 Brigantine district, and at Middle Township High School. But Ocean City plans to leapfrog toward one of the most advanced esports programs in the state.

“What we’re talking about is next level because we’re interconnecting it to the high school,” Friedman said.

Over the coming years, plans are to create a curriculum element as well as the esports team.

Nath compared it to moving from an intramural flag football club to a competitive varsity program.

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Student anticipation is high, they said. Not every student is a gamer, but they believe the initiative will have impacts well beyond the enthusiastic players.

Among the early steps, school staff brought a proposal to the Board of Education to create a new course for the music department, focused on composing music for video games and film.

While the program was primarily described as a varsity sport, in some ways it is more like a school theatrical production, in which students also work on lighting, costumes, program designs and dozens of other behind-the-scenes tasks in addition to the students performing on stage. The experience built there, in marketing, social media outreach, video production and other efforts, will be important for the future, Friedman said.

“It’s really about creating career pathways and opportunities for students,” Friedman said. “It’s not just creating a space to game. It’s creating an educational space. it’s creating cross-content connections.”

“Most people think here’s a PC, here’s a chair and here’s a headset, but there’s so much more beyond that,” Nath said.

There are also social and emotional components. For instance, there have been concerns raised in gaming about the inclusion and treatment of female players. The Ocean City program will not allow discrimination, they said.

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“That’s character education, which is embedded in everything we do,” Nath said.

Nath said he founded a game club years ago, focused on tabletop games and card games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. There is an esports club forming this year, with teacher and lifelong gamer and mathematics teacher Annelise Buono as the adviser. She will also be the coach for the new team.

She said students in the esports club at Ocean City High School enjoy introducing new people to the games they are passionate about. The club will form the nucleus of the future varsity team. Participants will be required to try out, just like for other teams.

For a new generation, games on computers are not seen as an antisocial activity, but rather an interactive effort, with teams communicating through headsets to achieve goals. In some ways, for some people, games fill spaces once occupied by films, novels and sports. Hit songs may be first released in games, and the games create detailed worlds of fantasy, science fiction, history or high-speed, soccer-playing vehicles.

Buono prefers the narrative games, she said. There are multiple genres, with games in which all players cooperate in an environment, or play against computer-generated opponents or other players anywhere in the world.

Games also carry ratings. Like movies or other media, the district would focus on games rated for teens or everyone. Anything beyond that would require the permission of parents, Nath said.

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“There are always content concerns,” he said. “We’ve also done the research. There is no direct or proven correlation between video games and violence, despite that perception.”

The school computer network is sufficient, he said, and the gaming computers cost a few thousand dollars each. Currently, the school is looking at an investment of $130,000 to $150,000, with help from the nonprofit Ocean City Education Foundation. That does not include designing the gaming room and the curriculum, and preparing for competitions.

The investment could continue to grow.

“As far as what we want to do, the sky’s the limit,” Nath said. Esports arenas at the professional and college level can easily run into seven figures, he said. That is well beyond what the district will invest, but there is a lot of room to grow.

There will be a return on that investment, Friedman said. That could be a direct return, with after-school clubs or summer camps presented by the Education Foundation, or in opportunities, such as college credits for students.

Some universities offer scholarships for esports, and there may be a far better chance of top players going pro and making considerable money, compared to the minute fraction of high school players who ever get near the NFL or NBA.

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“It comes back to the 21st century skills that all districts talk about,” Friedman said. “Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity; those right there are interconnected to all aspects of this.”

Because esports are not part of the NCAA, there are no restrictions for players participating in tournaments or accepting sponsorships. Top esports athletes can earn millions of dollars.

“And it’s real money,” Nath said.

Contact Bill Barlow:


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Twitter @jerseynews_bill


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