Mijares: OC’s new esports league looks to power up interest in STEM fields

There was a time when video game consoles were considered incompatible with academics, based on the belief that they distracted rather than stimulated young minds.

But many educators are now recognizing the potential of gaming to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as the STEM fields, while introducing them to 21st-century careers. And that’s what’s driving the creation of the Orange County High School Esports League, which is set to power up in January.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresFunded by the Samueli Foundation, the new league will be structured similar to high school sports, with teams of eligible students competing in the multiplayer fantasy game League of Legends, which combines action and strategy.

There will be tournament play and awards for top performers of course. But the ultimate goal is to promote teamwork, problem-solving and communication while nurturing student interest in STEM.

That’s why a number of heavy-hitters have signed on as league partners, including the Orange County Department of Education, OC STEM, Connected Camps, the UCI Connected Learning Lab, UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, UCI Esports, the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCI, and the firm Alvarez & Marsal.

Gerald Solomon, the Samueli Foundation’s executive director, holds the vision that the Orange County High School Esports League will emerge as a STEM learning and enrichment program.

“Online platforms like esports are the new social gathering places for kids,” he says. “We need to understand these new digital platforms, like gaming, and innovate ways to optimize kids’ learning experiences.”

Meanwhile, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that gaming as an industry is exploding, with worldwide revenues surpassing $100 billion in 2017.

By some estimates, video games have financially eclipsed music and movies combined, and even more growth is expected, opening the door for a new generation of software developers, game designers, animators, audio engineers, writers and producers.

Preparing students for these types of high-demand, high-skill and high-wage jobs is among the top priorities of OCDE, which in 2014 launched the OC Pathways initiative along with Saddleback College.

Today, OC Pathways comprises 14 school districts, nine community colleges and numerous businesses and community groups, all working to develop rigorous coursework and work-based learning opportunities in the target sectors of healthcare and biotechnology, engineering and advanced manufacturing, and information technology and digital media.

Esports is a logical extension of this work, and the right partners are in place to strategically connect students’ natural interests with the skills they’ll need to land the coveted careers of the 21st century.

Today it’s League of Legends. Tomorrow it’s limitless.