'An ecosystem of talent': Williamson County Schools introduces esports partnership

MAIN STREET NASHVILLE

BY ZACH HILL

With esports becoming a viable and popular trend in school districts, Williamson County Schools has announced a partnership with Belong Gaming Arenas to bring a comprehensive esports program to the district.

The partnership hopes to bring esports programs to all 10 of WCS’ high schools in August. Belong Gaming Arenas is a subsidiary of technology company Vindex. Belong is a United Kingdom-based company that has established gaming arenas overseas and is expanding with new arenas in the United States.

Video games have been a staple of America’s youth culture for 40 years. Wim Stocks, Belong’s senior vice president of partnerships and commercial, has seen the evolution of video games in society; once thought of as a violent, distracting medium, Stocks said teachers and families are starting to see positives in video games.

“We’re getting to the point ... now educators understand it. The parents who always thought games were destroying their kids are now seeing the values and benefits,” he said.

Stocks said video games help encourage creative thinking, citing games like Minecraft and the Civilization series.

“There’s no question, it (Minecraft) spurs the imagination,” he said. “It’s a creator platform that’s all about imagining and bringing to life things you have in your head. That can manifest itself through the Minecraft platform.”

The school district’s Career and Technical Education Executive Director Jeremy Qualls was looking to include esports as part of the district’s curriculum. Qualls remembers when Mortal Kombat was on an arcade machine 30 years ago. In a pool hall in his native Hickman County, he watched people feed quarters into the machine, trying to defeat the winner of the previous fight.

Qualls, WCS’ former athletic director, remained intrigued by the competitive nature of esports.

“We wanted to blur the lines,” he said. “We wanted to offer something unique, number one. I knew that esports is an up-and-coming, blooming sport.

With companies like Amazon and Oracle building company headquarters in Nashville, Middle Tennessee is becoming an industrial hotspot for computer data science. Just as Stocks related a child’s imagination between video games and their budding imaginations, Qualls said that an esports program in WCS can spark interest in technology, an interest that can lead to postsecondary opportunities.

“I started doing even more research and found there’s also 200 colleges and universities that give scholarships in this thing (esports),” Qualls said. “I was like, ‘All right, how do we set this up? How are we going to be the first district in the state ... out of the box, with 10 teams like nobody else?’”

Qualls envisions a “Williamson County Cup” between its competing teams, and hopes once the program gains traction, more professional companies will join in. He dreams of a tournament at Nissan Stadium one day. WCS already has a partnership with Adidas for team jerseys. When presenting the jerseys, Qualls said one student was moved to tears.

He believes the initial excitement students have displayed is a good sign. Last year, he sent an email to incoming freshmen and rising upperclassmen to gauge their interest. Over 1,500 students responded.

“Once we drove this thing, we felt like it could be unbelievably huge,” he said.

Franklin High School esports coach Braiton Hargrove is also a network technician with the district’s IT department. Hargrove watches esports in his spare time and, along with students, was excited about the partnership.

“Even from our first initial meeting, I had students coming up to me asking ‘What about content creation? What about streaming?’” he said. “I knew it existed, but I didn’t know how much student interest there was. There was a ton.”

Hargrove said the esports program allows for some students, who would otherwise play video games by themselves, to be part of a competitive team that would be representing their school.

WCS’ esports program goes beyond video gaming. Students will be able to learn the broadcasting techniques of professional esports events, the logistics of streaming on platforms like Twitch and game software development. Qualls said the program is cultivating an “ecosystem of talent.”

“You’re talking about changing the lives of people forever,” he said. “Because that talent, all of a sudden, has the chance to get out ... because some obscure, once-taboo thing from years ago is now a marketable skill set.”