If you’ve tuned into the news recently, you would have seen all the shock headlines. The fact that video gaming kills brain cells. The World Health Organisation classifying gaming addiction as a disorder. Even kids foregoing basic hygiene to keep playing.

These headlines, designed to warn parents of the dangers of gaming, fail to recognise the good that can come from getting their kids involved in gaming. The High School Esports League is a demonstration of what good can come out of gaming for the younger generation.

A program built around mindfulness and interpersonal skills with a healthy dose of competition, the High School Esports League is something all gamers would have wished for in high school.

League commissioner Woody Wu is looking to grant those wishes to the next generation. Having experience in the past previously with Riot Games Oceania as their community manager, Wu has set up his fair share of groups, tapping into communities left untouched by others.

“There’s a high percentage of high school kids nowadays that play video games, so we are using HSEL as an opportunity to teach kids the same lessons they would learn through team sports, but through their other passions.”

“It’s about building skills around leadership, communication, dealing with adversity, loss, and how to win gracefully and be sportsmanlike. It’s about learning these lessons and developing character through their passion, and obviously having some fun.”

It also builds a sense of belonging in esports from a much younger age.

“When you interact with guys in your high school who play games, you feel like you belong. After graduation, you can go and find your university’s club and join that too. No matter what phase of life you are in, you can find a group of people to play with.”

HSEL brings grassroots development of the esports ecosystem into our schools, streamlining it with more traditional sporting programs.

“A big thing for esports in general is to be seen as a sport and have that support and infrastructure bigger sports have. Kids are introduced to basketball, rugby and other sports in a completely different way than they are to esports.”

“Say, with League of Legends, you usually learn solo or with a friend or two and find your own way. The goal of HSEL is to eventually have that structure in place to show you how to play the game, how to learn valuable lessons and build on your own character.”

Where school sports programs have that structure for traditional sports for years, many schools are now adopting esports to teach students these valuable lessons. And not many schools have adopted it as much as Roxburgh College, located 45 minutes north of Melbourne.

As part of his role as a Year 10 and Esports Coordinator at Roxburgh, Brett Duncan has seen all his students grow through Roxburgh’s esports program.

“We started originally in 2017 to compete in Flaktest Gaming (another high school league, currently focusing on Overwatch, CS:GO, Rocket League and Dota 2), where our students were fortunate enough to fly out to Perth to play in the Grand Final. Since then, we’ve expanded into other games including Overwatch.”

The school lives by three beliefs: Respect, Learn and Achieve, and the program Duncan has set up has given students another opportunity to reach those beliefs.

“The program is all about getting students involved in the school community, and learning valuable life skills through gaming. While they enjoy the competitive aspect, they also learn a bunch of skills like managing a team, solving conflict and developing strategies to compete at their peak.”

The program also manages to find a balance between their schooling and their gaming. “Obviously it’s education first. While they might sacrifice some study time for scrims, at the end of the day if their performance at school drops we will need to try and help get them back on track.”

“If a student is falling asleep in class and a teacher is worried, a student might say to the teacher that they stayed up late studying, when in reality they’ve been up all night gaming. I make sure the students build a healthy relationship with gaming and they find a balance so they can still be attentive in class.”

An avid gamer himself, Duncan sees the benefits of the program. “I’ve played a bit of League in my time, and I went to high school with ‘Atlus’, the LCK caster. It’s always been a part of my life and I’ve made some lifelong friendships through gaming.”

“It helps them realise that gaming is more than just an activity they can do at home. They can do it with mates at school. It gives them career opportunities outside of being a player in esports. They can play for their school, then go into managing, admin, coaching, streaming, journalism – the list is endless.”

While none of the 2017 Flaktest runner-up League team remain at Roxburgh, their 2018 team recently played at Melbourne Esports Open in front of hundreds of people in the finals for HSEL Victoria.

Top laner Mark “NoxusMight” Mikha, jungler Peter “SirVeilance” Royal and mid laner Gokay “VenomouS” Tilki are all part of the Roxburgh 2018 team who played at Melbourne Esports Open last weekend.

“We all knew each other before playing together for HSEL,” said SirVeilance “but we’ve definitely grown closer since.”

Throughout my entire time with them, they were non-stop talking about scrims, strategies and most of all, having fun as a team.

“I’m not the most mechanically skilled player,” said VenomouS, resident Galio player, although he pulled out a great Diana in the finals at MEO to win Game 2. “I just love playing the game with everyone.”

NoxusMight added onto this, saying “because the skill difference between me (at Diamond 2) and Gokay (at Silver 3), we have learnt as a team to adapt around people’s comfort picks and learn macro play.”

“Macro play at this level of competition is much more important compared to Silver, Gold, Plat solo queue. Not everyone has a strong grasp of it, so it’s my job as the team shotcaller to dictate the plays late game.”

“We try and manage ourselves too. We have Mr. Duncan to help coach us, but on top of that we need to organise scrims and practice times. We organise to meet-up at LAN cafes to play games, or borrow computers from each other to practice” said SirVeilance.

As to whether they see themselves pursuing esports as a career, they are relatively grounded. “I’d love to play professionally, especially in the OPL. I really look up to Shernfire and would love to play against him one day,” said SirVeilance.

“I could possibly make a career out of streaming, but I just play League for fun mostly. I want to go through university and work, while keeping gaming a hobby,” was the concensus for NoxusMight, while VenomouS bluntly stated “I’m not good enough to go pro, but I love playing for fun.”

For now though, it’s a nice break from the monotonous school routine. “Being able to play at MEO in front of our friends and family has been an amazing experience,” said NoxusMight. “While I thought we could take out the win, we didn’t, but being able to play at a LAN event was special.”

Gaming is now transcending the high school space, infiltrating the primary school system. Fortnite is on the lips of every primary school teacher according to Duncan.

“They come to me and ask ‘all my students are obsessed with Fortnite, how can we utilise this in the classroom?’ Teachers always want to engage with their students, and this is just another way.”

“I’ll sit down at the morning and see a sticky note that says ‘Call Principle X from X School, Re: Esports’. It makes me happy to see that more and more schools are looking to engage in what students are passionate about.”

And the future for grassroots esports is bright for any high schoolers aspiring to take their passion to the next level. “We are looking at setting up a League for high schools in and around the Hume area. There’s been around 12 schools interested and plenty more students, and there’s projects like this all around Australia.”

Speaking from experience, representing your school is one of the best experience I ever had as a player, having played for Murdoch at two University Games. The more opportunities to streamline esports with traditional sports, and normalise it in Australia, the better. Tournaments like HSEL will be the breeding ground for the next generation of esports professionals in Australia, and for the players, it’s the highlight of their schooling journey.