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An esports competition at a Henrico middle school? Call it a “smash” hit

More than 100 students from the three schools gathered in the library at Tuckahoe Middle School to battle it out in “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” the most recent installment of the incredibly popular video game series for the Nintendo Switch.

Trevor Dickerson

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On May 24, students from Fairfield and Brookland middle schools put on school uniforms and bussed over to Tuckahoe Middle School. They weren’t there to swing a bat, run a relay or put on some type of musical performance.

They were there to game.

More than 100 students from the three schools gathered in the library at Tuckahoe Middle School to battle it out in “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” the most recent installment of the incredibly popular video game series for the Nintendo Switch.

And this wasn’t a casual, after-school activity. It was a full-blown esports meet held during school hours.

“It’s amazing,” said Jason Moore, a parent of one of the students participating. “I wish I had something like this when I was a kid.”

The “Smash” Into Summer meet was the final event of the year for an initiative that had just started a few months prior: the “Middle School Esports Connection.”

As an innovative learning specialist with Henrico County Public Schools, Jon Gregori is constantly in pursuit of new and creative ways to enhance students’ learning and school experience. He learned of the impact esports had for students during a conference, and he wanted to figure out how to incorporate it at HCPS. Some high schools already feature similar gaming and robotics clubs that have gained national prominence, but middle schools have lacked this type of activity.

He developed and submitted a grant application to the Henrico Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with HCPS to fund innovative initiatives and programs. In the proposal, a few key issues were identified as barriers to student success.

Chief among them was the “middle school engagement cliff,” a phenomenon that suggests student engagement falls dramatically during the transition from elementary school to middle school. A Gallup Student Poll shows the percentage of students engaged by grade drops 34% from fifth grade (74% engaged) to ninth grade (40%).

Other motivating factors included chronic absenteeism, disruptive behaviors, math and science performance, and extracurricular participation.

While these problems exist, the proposal also presented an opportunity. According to a Pew Research survey, a staggering 97% of teenage boys and 83% of teenage girls played video games. Maybe video games – which once held a negative social stigma for children – could be used for re-engaging students at school.

“A large portion of the students who are participating had no previous connection to their school community through extracurricular activities, sports or clubs,” Gregori said. “This is really a great way to engage students who are traditionally disconnected from the school environment because the traditional school extracurriculars didn’t embrace the thing they were interested in.”

With HEF funding the grant, clubs were launched at Tuckahoe, Fairfield and Brookland. The impact was immediate: Tuckahoe’s club brought in a whopping 75 participants, while Fairfield and Brookland had about 25 apiece.

“It caught fire so fast, and there was so much support,” said Erin Daniel, the program officer for educational initiatives with HEF. “… And that’s kind of the ideal scenario with an innovative grant – if it’s successful, it becomes something that can go to scale, and that’s what we’re seeing with this particular project.”

The teams met regularly, before or after school, to practice with each other and learn how to play the games, mainly “Super Smash Bros.” and “Mario Kart.” Gregori highlighted the problem-solving and strategic nature of video games to be a major boon for growing kids, but the camaraderie and teamwork are areas where the clubs have shined most.

“I like to see my friends at school and all that, but when I go to my esports club … I feel like I can connect with people that like video games too,” said Brookland student Zion Oddo.

Their first chance to showcase their skills outside of the club was at the Henrico 21 event at Glen Allen High School in March, with families, friends, teachers and administrators tuned in to the students’ competition amid the learning exhibition.

“The parents were there like their child was the starting quarterback of the football team,” Gregori said. “[We loved] the energy and excitement and how we were able to connect with so many people who didn’t know anything about esports.”

The “Smash” Into Summer meet was conceived as a way to put a cap on the year and promote the success of the pilot middle school esports programs. In attendance were dozens of esports athletes from the three participating schools, as well as family members and administrators from across HCPS looking on as spectators.

They were treated to considerable excitement and competition, with cheers erupting from different sections of the library as pairs from each school put their skills to the test in a 2x2x2 (six players per game) format. School board members and principals also jumped in for a “Mario Kart” competition as an intermission.

For the students participating, it was a smash hit. The excitement was palpable, the competition was fierce and friendships were forged over their collective appreciation for gaming. For Tuckahoe’s players, it also meant a first-place prize – their 123 team points secured the win over Brookland (106) and Fairfield (88).

But on a broader scale, it gave a small glimpse into what could be a bright future for esports in middle schools. Gregori is optimistic that the benefits and legitimacy of the program will help it spread throughout the rest of the middle schools at HCPS.

The students agree.

“I think it would be a very good thing because a lot of schools can come together, grow and progress with games like these,” said Fairfield student Jahsir Fulton.

Added his sister, Solise Fulton: “Even if we don’t win in the game, we always win.”

For more on the Henrico Education Foundation, visit henricogives.org.

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Trevor Dickerson is the Editor and Co-Founder of RVAHub.