LOUISVILLE – Even after Kentucky High School Athletic Association Commissioner Julian Tackett sent out an email notifying school officials that esports teams may not participate in the video game “Fortnite,” there was nothing to be done among schools here.
That’s because “Fortnite,” an online video game developed by Epic Games and released in 2017, was never included among the games played by Kentucky students in high school competitions.
“Fortnite” is a third-person shooter game that doesn’t include any blood, injuries or dead bodies, but nevertheless was given a Teen rating for violence by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Epic Games and PlayVS, a software company that provides a platform for competitive esports, last week announced last Wednesday a partnership to introduce a competitive league for “Fortnite” across high schools and colleges.
“There is no place for shooter games in our schools,” Tackett said, adding that the KHSAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations had no knowledge that “Fortnite” was being added as part of the competition platform and are “strongly against it.”
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So why not ban other video games?
PlayVS has a partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and launched esports with three games – “League of Legends,” “Rocket League” and “SMITE” – in the fall of 2018. As one of the six states involved in the initial 2018-2019 season, teams in KHSAA only play those three games.
“League of Legends” also features violence among game characters, but does not include guns. “SMITE” has violence too, but like “League of Legends” is a multiplayer online battle arena without guns. “Rocket League” is a vehicular soccer video game.
“The violence isn’t central to it,” said Matt Bulka, digital innovation leader at Jefferson County Public Schools (including Louisville), about “League of Legends” and “SMITE.” “Communication and teamwork are more central,” Bulka said.
Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) officials who lead esports said they weren’t surprised by Tackett’s ban of “Fortnite.”
“I assumed that was the conclusion they would come to,” Bulka said. “KHSAA and (Kentucky Department of Education) worked really hard to develop a school safety plan where everybody felt comfortable.”
The news last Wednesday came on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Marshall County High School shooting, which resulted in the death of two 15-year-old students and wounding of 14 others near Benton, which is 200 miles southwest of Louisville. Police referenced that shooter Gabe Parker had a video gaming history that showed he had visited or played some games related to World War II.
“I wasn’t really surprised (at the ban) because I realized that they had released it on the eve of the Marshall County shooting,” Shawnee esports coach Bryan Miley said. “That was not a surprise to me that they were upset about it. Overall, I think they made the right choice though because it is a gun game, and I understand where they’re coming from.”
Dr. John McCurdy, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Norton Children’s Hospital and the University of Louisville, said he understands KHSAA’s decision. He said it’s “similar to not having boxing in high school sports because it glorifies boxing. It would be the same kind of manner.”
“There’s plenty of evidence that indicates there is not a correlation between escalated aggression and playing online video games,” he said. “However, in my practical experience and other portions of literature, there is a correlated and increase observation of more externalizing behaviors in children and teenagers who play online games.”
He said those behavior includes more unbridled rage and less clear sportsmanship employed.
Esports coaches at various schools told the Courier Journal that they weren’t surprised at the commissioner’s email either.
“We already don’t let the kids play,” Central esports coach Shawn Canaday said. “So it was an easy thing to continue not letting them play.”
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Forty-seven schools from Kentucky participated during the fall season, and JCPS held a City Championship for “League of Legends” last week between Central and Shawnee, the only two JCPS teams to participate in the fall. Sixteen teams have registered for the spring league, which begins in late February.
But the banning of the popular “Fortnite” video game could hurt the high school participation numbers from growing even more as there were 250 million registered users of the game worldwide as of March 2019, according to Statista.
“I do think it alienates a lot of students who would normally (play),” Miley said. “I probably had 20 students sign up for ‘Fortnite’ when they heard that there was a chance that there was going to be a game that they can play.”
A few students who play “Fortnite” repeatedly asked “Why?” when they heard the news of the ban.
“I don’t know why. I like it. It’s a game. It’s a cartoon-y game,” Central High School freshman Gary Robinson said. “I understand it’s a shooting game and all, but everything in the game is fake. You don’t see people complain about ‘Looney Tunes’ where the (coyote) gets his head smashed.”
They also argued that “Fortnite” involves strategy and teamwork, similar to other approved games.
“You need strategy and building to play the game,” said Central High School senior Kendrick Bailey, who’s on the school esports team. “It involves shooting, but it’s not going to potentially hurt someone to the mind to a point where it’s going to make them do something. You can play with your friends, but also your family. People need to understand it’s just a game.”
Esports has been turning heads the last few years as universities have offered scholarships like any other sport. Ashland University in Ohio is the first college to award a scholarship for playing “Fortnite.”
“I feel like if ‘Fortnite’ can become an esport, that would get a lot more kids into colleges with a scholarship,” Robinson said. “Most people don’t have money to go to college. It’s very expensive. I feel like ‘Fortnite’ could be that outlook for a lot of people.”
Follow reporter David J. Kim on Twitter: @_DavidJKim.