Over 20 school districts across Oklahoma are preparing to give its students a brand new competitive league and opportunity to jump into a growing industry, partly thanks to the efforts of OU Esports Club.
The Oklahoma Esports League, or OESL, is a league comprised of 28 teams from Oklahoma school districts that compete in several video game titles, including Super Smash Bros., Madden, Rocket League, League of Legends, Overwatch and Clash Royale. OESL’s inaugural season will start the first week of November, according to the league’s website.
Mike Aguilar, the adviser of OU Esports Club and a member of the OESL advisory board, said the club will provide extensive coverage of the league — including live streaming of certain matches, gameplay commentary, lighting and sound engineering at the events — to help the club’s students improve their skill sets in these areas while also growing the profile of primary and secondary education esports competition in Oklahoma.
“Being the University of Oklahoma, we understand that the brand is impactful and powerful in the state,” Aguilar said. “We want to use that for the betterment of K-12. With esports, you need broadcast journalists just like you have at the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals. We've provided that service to OESL 100 percent for free.”
Aguilar said he hopes that students wanting to be involved with OESL will encourage schools to expand broadcast journalism and other media extracurriculars that some high schools in the state offer.
OESL originally reached out to OU Esports Club and asked them to provide coverage of an event in May, said David Kaucic, shoutcasting director for OU Esports Club and chemical engineering senior. League directors were so impressed with the quality of the production that they asked the club to cover OESL on a permanent basis.
Todd Borland, founder and chairman of OESL and Union Public School’s director of technology, said the level of professionalism brought to the event by OU Esports was unlike anything he expected.
“(Aguilar’s) group brought this whole level of professionalism, and it was nothing we could afford,” Borland said. “The kids brought this level of credibility and professionalism to the game where everybody in the audience was excited about it. Everybody in the audience was feeding off of that excitement and energy, without them, it would’ve just been, ‘Eh, OK, they’re playing a game.’”
Kaucic said along with providing students insight into the kind of skill sets that can be useful in the growing esports industry — which Business Insider has projected to become a $1 billion industry by the end of 2019 — OU Esports is building a curriculum around the job skills students can learn by participating in scholastic esports.
Journalism and video production are two jobs in high demand in the still-growing esports industry, Kaucic said, but participating students can also get hands-on experience with coding, graphic design and programming.
One of OU Esports Club’s media mentors, Sarah Enders, is an example of how the club is hoping to give members an entry point to working in esports, Kaucic said.
“She works for (professional esports organization) Team Liquid,” Kaucic said. “She lives in Norman, and she just works off-site. She does Discord interviews with players, she works with translators, she’ll work with a translator from Japan who will translate from Korean to English, interviewing a player on vacation in Korea … and she’ll do it all from home.”
Borland also said OESL in particular does not limit its opportunities to the students who play the games.
“We're not just limiting this to the esports athletes. We actually have team members that are journalism kids that are graphic designers who are creating logos and doing what I call ‘SportsCenter-lite,'” Borland said, “which is a recap from the weekend of what events happened or how the games played out and who did what, scores, all that good stuff.”
The rapid expansion of esports facilities in the U.S. has opened the door for numerous job opportunities that upcoming students could be poised to take advantage of by the time they graduate, Aguilar said.
“More and more arenas are popping up across the country, and they need production crews there,” Aguilar said. “Esports revitalizes a lot of preexisting degrees and academic opportunities that we all know and, really, a perfect example is broadcast journalism.”
In October, several announcements were made for the construction of facilities dedicated solely for esports. Florida Atlantic University is expected to install an esports facility in its student union by 2020, while several Arizona colleges are also investing in esports. In Miami, the world’s first esports racing arena is expected to open next year.
Aguilar said beyond allowing students to learn skill sets, esports has shown the potential to have a positive impact on their academic performance and attendance in early studies, citing a Unilad article from September.
As the inaugural OESL season begins, Aguilar said he hopes more schools facing potential budget issues will see esports as a lower-cost alternative to building a more traditional program that still gives students opportunities to compete and learn job skills.
“We have a big heart for philanthropy and giving back, and I don't want to position K-12 as a charity case, but statistically and analytically we know the K-12 scene in Oklahoma isn’t as healthy as it could be,” Aguilar said. “Instead of us trying to erect a football program that we know is completely financially out of reach because of the state budget cuts or something that's impacting their budget, here's another opportunity that has no entry barrier for gender or race.”
OESL has already established partnerships with Microsoft, Dell and other companies to help generate revenue for the league and potentially cover costs of entry, Aguilar said.
Borland said by next spring, he is hoping to focus on how to keep students who participate in OESL in Oklahoma to further their education, whether they are players or reporters.
“We’ve talked with numerous universities — OU, OSU, Rogers State — what does it look like if we have a couple of kids who really have the talent and skill set, what does a scholarship look like for them?” Borland said. “But (nonplayers) have a skill set also, and is there any opportunity for them to get a scholarship to the next level?”
There are several universities in Oklahoma, including OU, that are quickly developing its esports programs, Aguilar said, which opens up future opportunities for esports in the state.
“There’s over six universities now developing (programs), four of which have full university endorsement,” Aguilar said. “That means by next year, we’re talking about potential for scholarship opportunities in our own state, which changes the dialogue completely.”
Other universities across the country offer its own scholarships through various means. Some are self-sustaining, like the esports program at the University of California-Irvine, which brings in between $700,000 and $800,000 a year.
Even if some students leave the state to take advantage of esports opportunities elsewhere, Aguilar said, it is still a success in his view.
“I want to create new opportunities for students, and if I can keep them in the state, great,” Aguilar said. “If I can't, at the very least, it's still a success because it sort of legitimizes the fact that (Oklahoma) needs to be more present in (esports).”