Rural Oklahomans foster growth and opportunity through scholastic esports
Four years ago, Brian Morris helped start an esports program at Canute Public Schools on a bit of a whim. He didn’t expect his efforts to gain so much momentum, but superintendents from other schools noticed what Canute was doing with esports and wanted to get in on the game.
“At that point, I started to realize that this could be bigger than I really thought,” Morris says.
What was meant to be an intramural-style esports league at Canute grew into a full-on league: Western Oklahoma Esports. But the league was so successful and popular that it quickly leveled up and became Oklahoma Scholastic Esports (OKSE), a statewide league in which schools from every part of the state can participate.
“The first year we did this, which was three years ago, I had nine schools involved. We had 37 last year. This year, we’re at 200 and we are actively climbing,” says Morris, the founder and executive director of OKSE. “For us on the scholastic side, that’s huge because now we’re taking kids that don’t have a place – they might not be involved in traditional sports – and this is giving them an outlet for that.”
Though the focus of esports is on competitive video gaming, it also helps students develop the same skills as traditional sports – sportsmanship, teamwork and perseverance. Because of the digital nature of esports, there’s not necessarily a need for physical proximity. Games can be played online and livestreamed for anyone around the globe to enjoy. Thanks to the media and technology surrounding esports, they also provide students with skills like video production, graphic design and multimedia knowledge.
“Some of our schools have entire video production crews,” Morris says. “They’re doing broadcast production, media production, podcasts, journalism – you name it. Those are huge skills, especially in this day and age.”
Most universities across the state have either a degree program for esports or an esports club. Oklahoma City University (OCU) has both. Connor Knudsen, the OCU esports coach and coordinator, says the university’s esports programs are modeled around jobs that students could pursue immediately after graduation.
“Whether that’s a sound engineer, lighting designer, team manager, coach or actually playing the game professionally, there’s so many different career avenues and learning opportunities,” he says.
“Almost every college across the country now is catching up and offering scholarships and resources. There’s a lot of potential and great opportunities. It’s no longer just a student sitting in their mom’s basement playing until 3 in the morning, that’s the old stereotype. It’s now something way different and heavily legitimized.”
Colin Cummings and Jacob Rudd are OCU esports management students from Crescent, Oklahoma, who helped their small town embrace esports. Thanks to support from their school’s after-school program director, they hosted a video game tournament that helped set both of them on the path to majoring in esports management.
“I made a bracket. We made posters and told everyone we knew, and it ended up being really awesome,” Cummings says. “Jacob and I were in the grand finals of it, and I ended up taking home the bacon. It was a really good time, and because of that, I want everyone to have the ability to have a moment like that. I’ve made a lot of good friends through gaming and esports.”
Though they had to essentially build and organize the esports tournament on their own, they both say it was worth it. But Rudd says they couldn’t have done it without the support of their community.
“Throughout high school we had people supporting us, and that’s why we’re here now,” Rudd says. “We had a really friendly community that was willing to back us up.”
Though it can be difficult to start an esports program in a small, rural town, Cummings encourages people to give it a shot. Organizations in Oklahoma, like OKSE and Oklahoma At Home Esports (OATH), a youth esports program for students age 12-18, can help provide resources and support. Some schools also host open tournaments where anyone can show up to participate.
“Esports is a really easy thing to get into because if you have a computer, a headset and a mouse and keyboard, you’re good. You can play from anywhere and be connected with thousands of millions of people,” he says. “Truly, it’s just about getting out there and looking. It’s everywhere now, and it’s so accessible.”
Oklahoma Scholastic Esports has grown exponentially since its inception and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Morris is always encouraging more people to get involved and reach out for support if schools want to start an esports program of their own.
“We’ve had kids that have been in bad home situations that esports has helped out. We’ve had kids that were failing every single class and esports helped turn that around. There’s just countless stories like that,” he says. “We want anybody out there who wants to be involved to get involved. We would love to have more people understand why esports are so big and still growing. If a school thinks they can’t run esports because they don’t have the budget, that’s not the case. Please reach out, we can definitely help you.”
Visit okse.org for more information.
What are esports?
Electronic sports boil down to competitive video gaming, but don’t let the simplicity fool you. Esports are a billion-dollar industry that’s only expected to keep growing.
Think of it as the digital counterpart to traditional sports, but instead of athleticism, it’s all about mastering gameplay strategy in a virtual world. Most esports take the form of multiplayer video game competitions where teams of players face off against each other, making teamwork crucial.
Just like traditional sports, esports features a wide range of games that people can play. From first-person to more group strategic games, there’s typically something for everyone.