York High’s eSports team exposes city kids to ‘world of possibilities in technology’

The video game club’s infrastructure is building skillsets that go beyond playing games while giving them added motivation to stay in school.

Presented by: Our York Media
Written by: Anthony Machcinski
In 2019, several teachers at William Penn Senior High School in York attended a conference on eSports. When they returned, they helped students turn their video game hobby into a legitimate, competitive extra-curricular activity through York High's eSports team. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

Kayla Coe was her older brother’s tail, following him around their home at every step. Video games became a common thread. She’d sit and watch him defeat opponents, and when she got old enough, he taught her how to play games like Super Smash Bros. and MarioKart.

Outside of the house, though, her brother ran into trouble with the law. When he landed in prison in 2017, Kayla turned to video games as an outlet, but they quickly became something more: preparation for when her brother came back home.

“I wanted to be better than him so I could show him how much better I got,” says, Kayla, now a 16-year-old at William Penn Senior High School. “I wanted to show him that I cared enough and that I wasn’t giving up on him in the end.”

Kayla Coe, the president of the eSports team, began playing video games with her brother while growing up. The club helped open her eyes to a multitude of opportunities in the multi-million dollar industry. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

Legit extra-curricular

For Kayla and other teenagers in the city, video games are more than just a hobby; they’re a legitimate extra-curricular activity through York High’s eSports team – a form of competitive video gaming that’s evolved into a multi-million dollar industry.

Alex Gibson, a Geometry teacher at York High, is the team’s general manager – similar to a coach in traditional sports. Local programs like this can save kids from a similar path that Kayla’s brother went, he says.

In the years before eSports’ boom, he’s seen cases where gifted gamers don’t always share the same passion for academics and later drop out. Today’s students, Mr. Gibson says, have added motivation through eSports to stay in school.

“There’s an infrastructure within eSports that includes technicians to set up, marketers to promote the tournaments, and people who use entrepreneurship skills to get the right equipment,” Mr. Gibson says. “There are skillsets students can get from this that goes beyond playing games.”

Students in the club are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA and pass all classes in order to compete in video game tournaments. Alex Gibson, a geometry teacher and the club's general manager, says he's seen students work harder to increase their grades just to be part of the club. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

‘It was a no-brainer’

York High had a video game club for more than a decade, but the format of the club changed in 2019. Mr. Gibson, biology teacher Nick Naugle, and several teachers attended a summit on eSports, which taught them to build an educational curriculum and provide ways to organize their video game loving students into an official eSports team.

In 2019, York High’s eSports team – the Cybercats – was born.

“We thought it was a no-brainer,” Mr. Gibson says. “We saw this as a way to bring more education to our students.”

The North American Scholastic eSports Federation oversees the competition between clubs but differs from the local governing body of traditional sports, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. Students competing in video game tournaments must maintain a 2.0 GPA and pass all classes.

In addition to competition, the organization developed a curriculum beyond the game that includes building skills in entrepreneurship, marketing, and graphic design.

“We did a workshop on the psychology behind getting ready to compete, and I’ve never seen a room filled with students so quiet,” Mr. Gibson says. “This is helping them get experience. It’s exposing them to a world of possibilities in technology.”

The club plays a variety of games competitively, including Super Smash Bros., MarioKart and Brawlhalla. The competition has united students from various high school social groups. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

‘A safe place to coexist’

Since the eSports club’s inception, the Cybercats have provided an abundance of opportunities for students.

Gamers from different social cliques in school find themselves competing against and rooting for each other in a basement classroom twice per week.

Two members of the club are on the Autism spectrum and found a comfortable place where they can connect with others. Some students below the required academic standards have worked to raise their grades and be ready for the next tournament.

Students who aren’t the best gamers find opportunities to contribute to the club, too. Along with tournaments, NASEF runs competitions for artists and graphic designers. The Cybercats will soon begin a letter writing campaign, asking local businesses to donate mildly used computers to the team.

“It gave many of these kids a place to go,” Mr. Gibson says. “The students find ways to support each other. This club is a nice reprieve for the students to have a safe place to coexist.”

Students who aren't the best gamers find opportunities to contribute to the club through competitions for artists and graphic designers. The Cybercats will soon begin a letter writing campaign, asking local businesses to donate used computers to the team. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

A drive to be better

Kayla, a sophomore and one of two girls in the club, became the Cybercats’ president in 2019. She made the lofty goal for the club to go to a national tournament before she graduates.

Competition comes with an adrenaline rush, she says. No matter how good she becomes, she knows there’s always someone out there better than her.

For years, that person was her brother. He returned home from prison last year and, not long after, she challenged him to a race in MarioKart. Using her favorite character, Princess Peach, Kayla beat her brother for the first time.

“He was mad that he lost, but he was also so happy,” Kayla says. “When I finally beat him, you could see that the look in his face was, ‘I taught her something,’ and he was so proud.”

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