Making the grade: High School Starleague

HSL already brings eSports to high schoolers. Now $20,000 in scholarship prizes is at stake.

Making the grade: High School Starleague
© HSL

High School Starleague (HSL) burst onto the scene in 2010 to cater to high schoolers interested in competitive StarCraft 2. A couple of years later the rapid growth of League of Legends and the appearance of Dota 2 saw those games added to the mix. Now it's 2014 and the organisation’s just announced $20,000 in scholarship prizes for kids competing in their tournaments. Red Bull got in touch with COO Jesse Wang and Director of the League of Legends tournament Alex Hsu to find out what how HSL works and what the future holds for the scene’s youngest, most talented stars.

The big change, surprisingly, is that teachers now understand eSports more than ever - they get it’s a viable vocation now, and a hobby worth nurturing. "These days there are a lot of teachers who grew up with video games and they're really excited and passionate about it," says Wang. He's talking about the swell of interest from teachers in the HSL. "We've never had the growth in faculty involvement that we've had this year."

Students wanting to take part need to set up a club with players from the same school. They can do so without the school's involvement, but Wang explains that getting teachers involved is incredibly useful. At its most basic it can mean access to computer lab facilities out of hours in the same way a football team might be allowed to use a school field. As schools become more used to viewing eSports in the same bracket as traditional sports HSL has seen them go slightly further, a handful offering athletic credits to players or even offering essay extensions when important matches are involved.

"There's a school in Arkansas where the teacher himself played Brood Wars and went to South Korea to watch the competition. He had a cousin or a friend who was trying to go pro. With him as the computer science teacher he was really helpful letting students get a program started at that school and they have a lot of privileges that a lot of schools would be jealous of having."

The driving force behind HSL is a desire to get eSports seen as a positive and useful way for high schoolers to be spending their time. Part of that is liaising with parents and teachers to deal with any concerns they may have. "I do a lot of one-on-one Skype calls with clubs. I talk to the student leader – the clubs usually have a president – and their teacher about things they can do to get eSports more accepted at their school."

© HSL

There is some general advice the HSL offers. "One of the things they can do is there's a mature language filter. If you turn that on that solves a lot of problems in itself. And, at least for StarCraft 2, I know for a fact there's a thing that turns off the graphic violence, so if that's an issue that can be removed too," says Wang.

"We also encourage safe gaming, which is playing in a responsible manner. We don't want the image of addictive gaming that has been perpetrated by our society over the last decade. I think eSports is doing a really good job of showing that gaming isn't something that people just do that's addictive, it's something they compete in and put a lot of dedication and time in."

In terms of bad behaviour from players, there are warnings and bans of various kinds which can be meted out and there are policies in place to deal with accusations of cheating, although they're rarely needed. "We've had very, very few instances of cheating or other disciplinary things," says Hsu. "In 1,500–1,600 matches of League we only had two or three accusations of cheating. One was because someone misunderstood what DDoSing was and the other two ended with the teams agreeing to a rematch."

In terms of the player base, League of Legends is by far the biggest game for HSL. "We started last summer with 32 teams," says Hsu. "Then as we progressed to fall we got an overwhelming response – 220 teams. Then we started registration for our spring season in January and we almost doubled again, so we're almost at 400 teams."

400 teams of about six players each makes just under 2,500 players in total. StarCraft 2 and Dota 2 represent a combined player pool of under 1,000. To get an idea of the club demographics we ask about the proportions of male and female players. There aren't any exact figures the pair can give me, but they estimate girls make up about seven percent of the current rosters.

"I know you'd expect it to be primarily men, and that's true, but there are a surprising amount of teams who are all-female or who have female leaders, which is encouraging to see," says Hsu. He adds that the numbers are not where he'd like them to be, but that the number of girls taking part has been on the rise.

The way HSL works has the potential to help young players communicate their enthusiasm to people who might not otherwise 'get it'. "We broadcast one of the matches with two schools and one kid had his grandparents over," Hsu says. "Before they had no idea why he was so excited about gaming, but once they watched the broadcast [and heard the shoutcasters getting into it] they understood this is something he finds cool and fun."

Making the grade: High School Starleague
Making the grade: High School Starleague© HSL

The scholarship announcement has made the HSL an easier sell to parents and teachers. "Back then, we didn't have the scholarship money we have now," says Wang of dealing with the problem in previous years. "Even if you're getting all these skills out of it [the kids] could be doing something else. Now we can say they're getting scholarship money too."

League of Legends has started to offer university scholarship prizes, so we ask whether that was something which influenced HSL.

"We've always dreamed of having scholarships," says Wang. "I think if anything, their scholarship helped convince sponsors that it was a thing you could have happen, but it wasn't our inspiration – we've always wanted to do this. But it does help, because it feeds from the top to the bottom. It also helps that the US government is now giving athletic visas to professional players."

The scholarships will also come in useful for cementing the idea of a healthy study/gaming balance. At the moment HSL can offer guidelines and advice but ultimately the responsibility falls to students, parents and schools. Hsu notes that if a child's grades are slipping their parents or the school might not let them compete in HSL. "I'd like to think we provide positive reinforcement," he says. But with the scholarships there's a chance to take things further.

"You know how if you get a scholarship to play football at a school, you have to sign a contract? We're going to do the same philosophy," says Wang. Players need to be going to college, maintain a certain grade point average and fulfil certain other requirements. "We want to promote the vision we have for eSports and how students that play in HSL will go on the college and maybe play in CSL [Collegiate Starleague], just like in traditional sports."

Until now HSL has been a North American endeavour, but the organisation is making strides towards Europe. "We just started EU Dota 2 and StarCraft 2 and we're expanding into League of Legends next year. Next year's going to be a very big push into EU," says Wang. But those aren't the only games Europe is getting. "For Europe we have a specific game we're bringing, which we weren't comfortable bringing to North America. We're bringing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive."

Asked why they think CS: GO is less viable in North America the pair point to the perception of the game by society, which might undermine the message they're seeking to spread with their program. "But for Europe, we've noticed Europeans are very good about it and don't have these kind of issues with these kind of games, so we we're comfortable." 'Progressive' is the word Wang uses. "We're excited – I'm a huge CS fan myself and I really like the European players too – they're very funny."

Making the grade: High School Starleague
Making the grade: High School Starleague© HSL

In terms of other games to be added to the HSL lineup there's Hearthstone. "It's – at least from twitch views – one of the biggest games," explains Wang. "We like how it's very accessible to almost everyone. It's the go-to even during other games. When you're in a queue everyone plays Hearthstone."

Smite, Hi-Rez's third person gods MOBA, is also under consideration and the HSL team are in contact with the developers. World of Tanks they're less certain about. "We're not sure how big it is at high school level," says Wang.

In addition to exploring new games, HSL is working with schools to try to get eSports integrated further into school life. One of the major inspirations for Wang is the FIRST Robotics program aimed at getting children into science and technology. "It's cool because it's not only school-approved, but NASA offers funding. Where I can draw parallels to HSL is that it's very student-involved. There are mentors and coaches and the students themselves do a lot of cool work, which matches what happens in eSports.”

"These students talk to sponsors because the parts for robotics aren't cheap, so they do pitches to get more funding. Schools are happy about it because they don't have to pay for it that much and there are college students that come in. I've been working with college students to get them to come and help out HSL clubs."

Finally, HSL are looking at breaking their competitions down by skill level to enable teams of varying abilities to still enjoy being part of the scene, rather than fearing a total stomp. The idea is to have an equivalent of the varsity/junior varsity/novice split.

Asked what their favourite moments have been from their HSL involvement so far, Wang points to the maturity of his StarCraft 2 team as they dealt with being knocked out of the season one semi-finals. Hsu's is the League of Legends season finals in December when Twitch featured HSL on the site's front page. "We had a couple of thousand viewers, streamed for a couple of hours and gave out prizes. To think that eight months ago I wasn't involved in this and it didn't exist. To see something you worked really hard on come to fruition? That was my favourite moment."