James O’Hagan is not playing around. As Director of Digital and Virtual Learning for the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, his job entails not just managing the virtual learning program in response to the pandemic, but also supporting library services, as well as developing his passion project of esports.
In this conversation with eSchool News, James talks about the essential role esports can play when it comes to student health, mental wellness, social-emotional learning, as well as connecting to collegiate and career pathways.
Listen to his podcast, The Academy of Esports, here.
eSN: So what model has your district embraced as of the first week in September?
JOH: Right now we took the approach of going remote to start the year with a re-evaluation come October. And the reason why we did is that we know that a lot of people in our community rely on daycare services. And they usually have to pay for it a month in advance. So we want to make sure that we’re giving families a heads up before changing things up.
eSN: And how is it going?
Obviously, it’s been an interesting start to our school year, but what’s great is that for some of my students who have already been involved with virtual learning and asynchronous learning for quite a while, this, to them, is nothing new. For some of the families who are just stepping into this right now, it’s been a little bit different, but our mission is to make virtual personal. Even today I was out delivering some equipment to some families. And that way we get to know the families where they live. And I find out, too, that some of these people live in my neighborhood, which is kind of cool as well.
eSN: Before the pandemic struck, your work with developing esports programs both within your district and nationwide was a growing phenomenon. Has that changed because of the current crisis?
JOH: Esports for me before the pandemic was very focused on titles and games that are very well-known on the sports scene, such as Rocket League, League of Legends, Overwatch, and Smash Brothers. What we have found now is that what we’re looking at it through a less serious hardcore competitive lens. A lot of that is through quick competitions—not necessarily anything that’s going to take several weeks or months to run, but saying, “Hey, this school wants to have a game night on a Friday night. How can we support that?
We also know that there are kids in our community that have very limited access. In some cases it’s a lack of internet service at home, or they may not have a console or a PC. What can we do with their cell phones? What can we do for those kids who don’t have anything? We’re also looking at things like asynchronous play. So rather than saying, “Hey, we have to have a one-on-one competition,” we’ll look at using something like Minecraft and do competitive building competitions where we say, “Here’s the scenario now go and build it and share it with the group.”
eSN: In a way, is it fair to say the pandemic may help esports become even more popular?
JOH: Some people have been saying that esports is COVID-proof. I would say it is more COVID-resistant. But I think “proof” is a bit presumptuous, especially as we are looking at states next that may have shortfalls in their tax revenues, that there could be some cuts coming. For some schools right now who maybe have just launched a new sports arena or may have a new program, now is the time to show just how important this is. How you can connect with kids in new ways and not just rely on the traditional ways; really looking at how can we broaden the tent to bring in more kids, to make sure that schools and school districts see the value and the importance of this.
It can’t be a situation where it’s willy-nilly, a free-for-all, because some people in school districts are not steeped in e-sports or, or maybe some still look at video games as still a waste of time. We need to make sure that they’re educated on that as well, too, that this isn’t a waste of time but that these are the ways that we are helping kids to socialize in this very difficult moment.