When asked to rattle off a list of the world’s fastest growing sports, most people typically rattle off sports like lacrosse, rugby, or perhaps even jai alai.

However, the sport that has grown in global popularity around the globe in at a faster clip than any other is esports, or to the layperson, competitive gaming. Video gaming.

It’s Wednesday afternoon, and approximately two dozen students are huddled in a lab at Lebanon High School, each student stationed behind a computer playing the wildly popular video game, Overwatch.

The two teams facing off today each consist of six students. Each competitor sits face-to-face, separated only by a computer. As the excitement ramps up, so too does the communication, with directions and game observations being shouted into headsets from teammate to teammate.

This is just the warm up. These competitors are preparing for a match that will pit them against fellow players from another school, but played remotely from the comfort of these students’ own building.

Some may find it odd that video games, which were once seen as a distraction from schoolwork, are now being embraced with open arms.

Lebanon was able to put their program in motion thanks to support from a few organizations that believe in the positive impact that can be seen thanks to esports.

“We’re working with the Emerald Foundation,” said Shawn Canady, the school’s Chief Information Officer, who oversees the program. “Without the Emerald Foundation we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are with esports in Lebanon and Lancaster counties.”

The Emerald Foundation was started back in 2010 with a focus on education and healthcare.

“The E,” as it’s sometime known, has partnered with the Samueli Foundation, which was started by Henry and Susan Samueli, owners of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, to help bring esports into schools.

“They see it as a high-quality STEM activity that is going to go ahead and lead to high-quality employees,” said Canady.

A 2010 study on the impact of competitive gaming on youth, published by the American Psychological Association during esports’ nascence, claimed the controversial activity can produce a bevy of positive chemical and social reactions in the human brain—promoting emotional regulation, leadership traits and prompting curiosity, especially in young minds.

The North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) is the governing body that oversees competitions. The organization’s website promotes esports as “a platform to acquire critical communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in work and in life.”

On top of these important skills, esports also offers students many of the same benefits seen by those participating in more traditional stick and ball sports.

According to Canady, Lebanon’s esports program utilizes PIAA eligibility standards which students must meet in order to participate, requiring consistent attendance and academic performance.

In the past, playing video games has sometimes been thought of as a solitary activity, but bringing esports into schools has helped foster a sense of community among particpants. One student remarked that participating in esports had helped her to become more social in general.

Canady says that this is actually one of the main focuses of the esports program: helping students connect to school.

“The goal is to keep them active and keep them engaged,” he said. “We’re working on getting them jerseys.”

Acccording to NASEF’s website, there are three esports programs in Lebanon County, with Annville-Cleona and Palmyra also organizing programs.

That number is likely to increase as the popularity of esports continues its ascent.

Read More: Lebanon Valley College esports program going strong, recent grad sees future in local schools

Tech consulting firm Activate projects that by 2020 an esports championship could draw over 70 million viewers. That’s higher than the World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, or Major League Soccer Finals.

By 2021, it’s projected that that esports will have more viewers than all leagues except the NFL, and could accumulate 3 billion hours of viewing, accounting for ten percent of all sports viewing.

This is due in part to the fact that unlike most sports, esports is not tied to one particular culture or part of the world: Esports is a global phenomenon.

The next step for Lebanon’s esports program is the completion of an esports arena, which will be housed in what was previously a storage room. Canady said that the current plan for the arena is to include 24 gaming computers, multiple projectors, and even a place for a shoutcaster (an esports version of a play-by-play announcer—think Al Michaels meets Guy Fieri).

According to esports coach Christopher Forry, one of the long-term goals of the arena is to have another school’s esports program visit for a match. Forry also mentioned that there’s one specific aspect of being involved in the esports program has been the most rewarding.

“Seeing (students) that weren’t previously involved in a school activity become involved in a school activity because the school is such a great learning environment,” he said. “Whether it’s academically or socially with their classroom peers or even building connections with the adults here.”

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