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Esports take center stage at Hoover High School with new competitive video game facility

They're not an Olympic category, at least, not yet. But esports have been growing in popularity. Yes, we're talking about video games as an organized team sport and the gaming pathway can provide to scholarship opportunities. KPBS Speak City Heights reporter Jacob Aere shows us the new gaming facility at Hoover High School.

An already thriving esports team got a recent upgrade at Hoover High School, not in a video game — but in real life.

The club has a brand new space on campus dedicated to competitive gaming, and it's fully stocked with high-end computers, gaming chairs, headphones and a lot more.

“I’d say the most popular game that's going on right now, at least in esports, is still Rocket League, Super Smash Bros and Valorant,” Hoover High School senior and esports club captain Henry Hoang said.

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Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Hoover High Esports Club President Henry Hoang play video games inside their new on-campus facility, Feb. 10, 2022.

He said the new room is a huge improvement from before and he’s grateful for the upgrade.

“I remember I first joined the esports club here at Hoover in my sophomore year. We kind of had a little underground, dungeon area. We’d usually play on the school computers. We never had the luxury of trying to build one,” Hoang said, smiling at his new state-of-the-art setup.

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With every sports team, there is a coach. For Hoover High’s Esports Club, it’s Jack Wetzel, who also runs the robotics club and teaches both math and computer science at the school. He’s been in charge of the program since 2016.

“I think esports is just any digital sport, ranging from chess, to these competitive first-person shooters,” Wetzel said. “But if I was gonna say what it is here at Hoover, it's a community. It's about students having a safe place where they have like-minded people to collaborate and be friends with.”

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Jacob Aere / KPBS
Hoover High Esports Club members play video games in their upgraded facility, Feb. 10, 2022.

Hoang said esports provide him an escape from real-world difficulties while spending time with his friends, which has been more challenging since the pandemic.

“I didn't really have anyone to talk to. So I’d always play games and have social interactions on there,” he said.

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Hoover High is just one example of the blossoming esports scene in San Diego.

San Diego State University is about to launch a new certificate program called Business of Esports, which is open to people of all ages. Newton Lee will be one of the professors.

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Jacob Aere / KPBS
A Hoover High School student plays a video game in the Esports Club's new room, Feb. 10, 2022.

He sees esports in line with social media platforms, but said they offer competition for all, and are more inclusive than traditional sports.

“It doesn't matter if you are black or white, or a kid or an old man, old woman, high IQ, low IQ, physically disabled or physically strong: they all can compete in the same game,” Lee said. “To me that is truly amazing. You cannot see that in any physical sport.”

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Wetzel said the new room is just the dawn of the esports push in the county. His team already has competitions set up with other schools from around the area, and he plans to try to make esports a lettering sport for their district.

High School Esports League is the national organization that's helping gather everybody together. And there are the ones that actually host those games,” he said. “Colleges are looking on those websites to see which teams are scoring the highest, which ones are doing well through their competitions. And on top of that, there's actually scholarships from High School Esports League.”

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Jacob Aere / KPBS
Hoover High School student Anh Li sits in his new gaming chair and plays Valorant alongside his other Esports club members, Feb. 10, 2022.

Anh Li is a junior at Hoover High and another member of the school’s esports club.

He’s dabbled in high-level esports tournaments and says there’s a wide variety of games offered through the high school league, some of which offer a more affordable pathway to college or even professional leagues.

“I am really passionate about video games, and just being able to have a job or a profession around it would be a great honor. For colleges, I would say UCSD or SDSU are my top choices right now,” Li said.

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Professor Lee said the future of esports is very bright. In fact, he sees the new SDSU esports program, and other similar educational offerings, as a gateway into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“It makes them, especially high school students, more curious about: ‘Wow, maybe I’m not going to be a professional gamer, but I can design new hardware.’ Or ‘I’m really good at art, I can do animation.’ So that's something they would not have thought of if there were no esports,” he said.

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Jacob Aere / KPBS
Hoover High School junior Anh Li takes part in his school's Esports club inside their new facility, Feb. 10, 2022.

The esports industry could be trending in the direction of more physically active games for competition, according to Lee. That means players would have to use their bodies to jump, crawl or otherwise move around while immersed in augmented or virtual reality.

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For now, Hoover High’s Anh Li is grateful to have the opportunity he does in the present.

“I feel like esports is a passion … and a way to escape from all the other aspects in life, like school or personal problems,” Li said. “So I recommend anyone to join esports.”

Esports take center stage at Hoover High School with new competitive video game facility

Professor Lee said one of the biggest challenges for the esports industry at the moment is the need to introduce more girls and women.

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Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Hoover High Esports Club members play video games inside their new on-campus facility, Feb. 10, 2022.

He said it will be a difficult problem to overcome due to a number of online players creating a toxic environment for females in gaming circles; but there’s hope.

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Efforts like creating more collaborative and less violent video games are underway with the goal of driving more women to the competitive gaming community and bridging the gender gap in esports, opening the virtual door to all.