SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The definition of a student-athlete is changing as electronic sports become more mainstream. Better known as esports, tens of thousands of students are finding connections and opportunities through on-campus clubs.
"I've always been a gamer, but when I was in high school, it wasn't cool. I never really told people I played games," said Angelique Gianas, an English teacher at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, California.
In college, Gianas never thought her two passions would merge.
"Five years ago now, we started the club. And it was like three kids, and they just wanted a place to play after school, and I said, absolutely," said Gianas. "When I started, it was virtually impossible for me to find somebody else who was doing something like this, definitely not in San Diego. I couldn't find anybody."
Today, esports is an officially sanctioned high school sport.
"It's building a lot of their critical thinking and communication skills, their emotional regulation," said Gianas.
In 2017, the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) was established to provide esports opportunities for all students. In addition to offering free registration and tournament play, the nonprofit developed a curriculum for high schools and middle schools.
NASEF also teamed up with researchers from the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, to document, assess, and improve its programs.
“It's just a fun environment to be in. It's exciting,” said Gianas.
The San Diego County Office of Education has also embraced the budding sport, supporting esports management with county schools, districts, and community organizations.
"Some people would think all gamers are stay-at-home people – but video games are actually very interactive," said Benjamin Garcia, a member of Helix Charter's Gaming Aspire. "Multi-player games, online games, you meet new people. These could be your lifelong friends."
Garcia plans to study computer science and video game design in college.
"So, I think playing video games definitely helps career-wise. How to tell a story, how to make the game, what graphics need to be made," said Garcia.
Chase Ellis joined the club his freshman year.
"Esports, it is a sport, just you're not running around the field trying to catch a ball," said Ellis. "There are parts of it that are just purely entertainment, and there are parts of it where you have to crack down and use your brain and think."
He helped keep the club running during the pandemic, setting up a server so students could game together remotely.
"Because of the glory of online networking we were all able to connect and still talk," said Ellis.
Colleges like Butler University are expanding esports programs and offering scholarships to prospective students. The school is set to break ground on a 7,500-square-foot arena dedicated to esports and technology.
Gianas says career opportunities go far beyond professional gaming, to "tournament organization, marketing, shoutcasting, broadcasting, video editing, managing someone if they're a streamer, accounting."
But despite the billion-dollar industry's growth, she knows some parents are still hesitant to play along.
"I think supporting your kid and letting them play, but also play responsibly, teaching your child how to regulate and be responsible for their time and time management. But understanding that it's not all bad!"
Reinforcing inclusivity and respect, Gianas hopes the younger generation will help combat toxicity in the industry. Over the years, hundreds of women have come forward with allegations of sexism, bullying, harassment, and sexual assault.
"I think the only way we fix that is one talking about it, but two is going into that space and showing everyone that we are here too, and we are valuable too," said Gianas. "A lot of girls play video games, but they don't want to admit it."
Among their club's rules, everybody is welcome.
"For me, that's what makes it worth it," said Gianas. "If I can give students a place where they feel safe and where they meet friends who like the same things as them, that's why I'm here."