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Ocean City plans eSports program for high school

A two-day conference on esports and casinos focused on Atlantic City’s role in the future of esports betting.

OCEAN CITY — The Red Raiders will still get dressed and take the field, the Drama Guild will still take the stage, but a new team headed to Ocean City High School will take the red-whites to new worlds.

Esports are on the way to OCHS.

For years to come, student teams will be able to compete in tournaments in a new game room, where students can watch video streams of Rocket League or Fortnite competitions live in the school auditorium or on their phones.

Games can be streamed on YouTube or newer, more gaming-focused platforms like Discord or Twitch.

Curt Nath, the district’s head of academic services, briefed the board of education on plans for a new esports team at a recent meeting. Later, he and Matthew Friedman, the district superintendent, discussed plans for the program.

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“It’s probably one of the fastest growing areas,” Nath said. “Not that this is a driver, but there’s a lot of money in it.”

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Lunch is served in the team dining room, the chef prepares chicken piccata and fresh vegetables, but there isn’t much time to eat.

It is planned that the school will develop a program over a period of three years.

“We could put a couple of computers in a room and set them up tomorrow, but we don’t intend to do that,” Nath said.

Instead, the plan is to create a play area for the program on the school’s upper floor, in a space overlooking the sports fields, which the school calls the skybox. That means investing in computers, but also in the interior design, which, according to Nath, goes beyond the specialist knowledge of the employees.

Other districts have e-sports programs, they said, including K-8 Brigantine District and Middle Township High School. But Ocean City plans to take a leap toward one of the state’s most advanced esports programs.

“What we’re talking about is next level because we connect it to high school,” Friedman said.

In the coming years, a curriculum element will be created alongside the esports team.

Nath likened it to moving from a flagship football club to a competitive varsity program.

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The expectations of the students are high, they said. Not every student is a gamer, but they believe the initiative will have an impact well beyond the avid gamers.

One of the first steps was for the school staff to submit a proposal to the Board of Education to create a new music department course focused on composing music for video games and films.

While the program has been described primarily as college sports, it is in some ways more like a school theater production, with students working behind the scenes on lighting, costumes, program designs, and dozens of other tasks in addition to playing onstage. The experience gained there in marketing, social media outreach, video production and other endeavors will be important going forward, Friedman said.

“It’s really about creating career paths and opportunities for students,” Friedman said. “It’s not just about creating a space to play. It creates an educational space. it creates connections across content.”

“Most people think here’s a PC, here’s a chair and here’s a headset, but beyond that there’s so much more,” Nath said.

There are also social and emotional components. For example, in the gambling space, concerns have been raised about the inclusion and treatment of female players. The Ocean City program will not allow discrimination, they said.

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“That’s character education that’s embedded in everything we do,” Nath said.

Nath said he started a gaming club years ago that focused on table games and card games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. An e-sports club will be launched this year, with Annelise Buono, a teacher and lifelong gamer and math teacher, as its advisor. She will also be the coach of the new team.

She said the students at Ocean City High School’s esports club love to introduce new people to the games they are passionate about. The club will form the core of the future university team. As with other teams, the participants have to try their hand at it.

For a new generation, computer games are not viewed as an antisocial activity, but rather as an interactive effort, where teams communicate via headsets to achieve goals. In a way, for some people, games fill spaces once occupied by movies, novels, and sports. Hit songs may be released in games first, and the games create detailed worlds of fantasy, sci-fi, history, or high-speed vehicles to play soccer.

Buono prefers the narrative games, she said. There are several genres with games where all players work together in one environment or play against computer generated opponents or other players around the world.

Games also carry ratings. Like movies or other media, the district would focus on games appropriate for teens or all. Anything beyond that would require parental permission, Nath said.

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“There are always substantive concerns,” he said. “We did some research too. Despite this perception, there is no direct or proven link between video games and violence.”

The school’s computer network is adequate, he said, and the gaming computers cost a few thousand dollars each. The school is currently planning an investment of between US$130,000 and US$150,000 with the help of the non-profit Ocean City Education Foundation. This does not include the design of the playing room and curriculum, or preparation for competitions.

The investment could continue to grow.

“There’s no limit to what we want to do,” Nath said. Esports arenas at the professional and collegiate levels can easily reach seven figures, he said. That’s well above what the district will invest, but there’s plenty of room for growth.

That investment will pay off, Friedman said. That could be a direct return, with after-school clubs or summer camps offered by the Education Foundation, or in ways like college credits for undergraduates.

Some universities offer scholarships for esports, and there may be a far better chance for top players to go pro and make substantial money compared to the tiny fraction of high school players who ever get close to the NFL or NBA.

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“It goes back to the 21st century skills that all districts are talking about,” Friedman said. “Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity; those who are there are connected to all aspects of it.”

Since eSports is not part of the NCAA, there are no restrictions on players entering tournaments or accepting sponsorships. Top athletes can earn millions of dollars.

“And it’s real money,” Nath said.

Contact Bill Barlow:


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Twitter @jerseynews_bill

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