North American High Schools Embrace ESports As Traditional Sports

With Twitch and Newegg partnering with High School Starleague (HSL) on over $20,000 in scholarships for pro gamers, Tomber Su, CEO of HSL, talks about the growing potential for eSports in North America.

The groundwork is being laid across high schools in North America to make eSports as commonplace in the future as football and soccer are today. High School Starleague (HSL) is the leading eSports organization with over 750 schools representing 46 states and eight provinces. Over the past 12 months, the player pool has grown from 500 students to 4,000.

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Players in the HSL are proving to be well-rounded beyond gaming. Over 50 teams represent schools on US News and World Report’s ranking of top 200 high schools, and the average weighted GPA of players is 4.1. HSL recently partnered with Twitch and Newegg to support a new scholarship pool with over $20,000 to help bring eSports and academics to high schools across North America.

HSL supports League of Legends, StarCraft II, and Dota 2 and draws inspiration from professional tournaments such as Riot’s League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and Blizzard’s StarCraft II World Championship Series (WCS), where professional teams compete for prize pools in the millions. HSL will be holding its finals for the 2013-2014 season this June in Southern California. Tomber Su, CEO of HSL, explains the implications of this growing league on the future of eSports in this exclusive interview.

How did HSL come about?

Su: “The High School Starleague started as the High School Starcraft II Team League, or HSSTL. It was a longtime dream of Adriel Leung (now our Dota 2 director), focused on hosting a mix of individual and team events in SC2. After the first HSSTL Season 0, the staff was able to partner with the Collegiate Starleague. This partnership allowed us to leverage the experience and resources of CSL, and was the catalyst to our rapid growth. The partnership was also what prompted the name change from HSSTL to the HSL.”

What type of growth has your organization experienced since 2010?

Su: “From 2010 to 2013, the HSL steadily grew in participation, but also more dramatically in streaming viewership and sponsorship. Even though StarCraft II growth has slowed in recent seasons, our stream numbers have continued to increase and retention rates remain high from season to season. In the 2013-2014 season however, with the addition of League of Legends, Dota 2, and EU Dota 2 we had explosive growth in both the spectator and participation areas. We started League of Legends over the summer with 32 teams (approximately 230 players) and have grown to nearly 400 (approximately 2,700 players) teams this spring.”

How accepting are high schools of eSports clubs?

Su: “While the eSports environment is still developing, we’re working with an ever-increasing amount of schools to foster local eSports communities. Some HSL schools have very impressive eSports programs, where students can use school computers to practice for HSL or even have HSL participation count as gym credit. On the other hand, most schools’ clubs consist of meetings of avid gamers.”

With some colleges now recognizing eSports as club sports, how do you see the high school level eSports “club” growing like a real sport?

Su: “We have actually spoken to a few collegiate athletics directors – while eSports is recognized as an intramural club sport, such as at UCI, collegiate athletics need to have one established tournament for eSports to be recognized. At the high school level, HSL is THE premier tournament for High School eSports, so we’re hoping that high school level teams will soon be recognized as an official sport.  Our eventual objective is for eSports teams to be as common as sports teams are in schools today – allowing for local competition and rivalries to flourish naturally and supporting the rise of new players, both casual and professional, through these leagues.”

With Riot and others talking with the NCAA and colleges across the US, how will that infrastructure help what you’re doing at the high school level?

Su: “We definitely look at the impacts of collegiate level eSports and its implications at the high school level.  A strong collegiate eSports scene excites the entire community, including High Schoolers, who want to one day play in those leagues, and thus want to begin competing now. Also, when our club presidents and team coordinators attempt to break into school approval for eSports, the legitimization of eSports at the collegiate level through the North American Collegiate Championship by Riot Games is something we emphasize heavily on top of things such as government recognized visas for professional gamers.”

What impact will these scholarships from Twitch and Newegg have on your league?

Su: “The sponsorships from Twitch and Newegg — including $10,000 scholarships each, among other things — are huge for the average HSL participant. A majority of our players are either Juniors or Seniors, meaning they are becoming increasingly concerned with college, which includes college tuition. In terms of our league, it only further legitimizes eSports at the high school level and encourages more students to join HSL. Furthermore, the funding from Twitch and Newegg demonstrate the willingness of these companies to invest in the future of eSports.”

Can you talk about some of your graduates’ success?

Su: “It is fairly common for HSL coordinators and players to move on to play in the Collegiate Starleague for their colleges and carry on the eSports torch in the next level of competition. Rarer, however, is the event where an HSL player becomes a professional after having participated in the league — if that is the measure of success you were going for. The HSL is too young at this time to expect such an occurrence, however as one of our aims of the league (concurrent with community development) is player development, it is highly possible in the future.”

What has livestreaming opened up for aspiring high school students who want to become pro gamers?

Su: “Livestreaming has helped high level players of all ages gain notoriety, especially through their personal streams. The livestreaming of tournaments also helps up-and-coming pro gamers. In this respect, livestreaming can be used as a tool to help high school students just as much as an aspiring pro gamer of any age. HSL players like BoxBox have cultivated large followings on their streams even though they are not considered pro gamers. The emergence of livestreaming has leveled the playing field for all aspiring gamers.”

How do you go about choosing which games to focus on for eSports?

Su: “We focus on multiple criteria when selecting new games. First, we look at what a game has to offer students and how students may benefit from the game. Does it challenge players strategically, cooperatively, intellectually, or a combination of two or more? Second, we look at overall popularity of a game — would tournaments we hosted in the game be sustainable and have long-term viability if supported by HSL? We have other considerations as well, such as our available resources and staff; however, the first two are typically the most crucial components before we could even consider allocating resources to a new game.”

How are you drawing from established eSports leagues for your own season and tournaments?

Su: “HSL tournaments are definitely influenced by other leagues, especially in regards to our tournament format and rules. In StarCraft II, for example, we mainly replicate a mixture of the professional and online ladder map pools when constructing map pools for the league. Also, our League of Legends seasonal tournament format mimics the format of the NA LCS (two splits with playoffs at the end of each split,) as well as OGN (weekly matches are BO2.) Our Dota 2 division follows a similar set up to Valve’s The International.”

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John Gaudiosi
John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game business for over 20 years for outlets like The Washington Post, Reuters, Fortune, AOL and CNN. He's EIC of video game site