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EGL wants to become the NCAA of e-sports, and it's starting at a local level

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

In 2013 Kerwin Rent raided his own personal retirement account, bought a bunch of game consoles, and set up shop at the local Buffalo Wild Wings for the first of many Madden tournaments. Less than two years later, his start-up is poised to change the face of gaming by creating the first school sanctioned e-sports league in the Midwest.

Elite Gaming Live started as a way to bring fans of the John Madden football series together to compete. But soon after he started his local tournaments around Indianapolis, Ind., Rent realized that what was missing from modern e-sports was a feeder system.

"What e-sports misses right now is that student aspect," Rent told Polygon, "the NCAA of video games — where there’s scholarships given, where there’s contracts, there’s state teams, city teams — especially in the United States. E-sports is so big, but it's also misunderstood. If you use the same methods as a traditional sport, and apply those methods to video gaming, then people who don’t understand it at all will easily recognize what it's all about. And they might even respect it more."

Rent's EGL offers e-sports as an extracurricular activity to participating middle and high schools in and around Indianapolis. He and his part-time staff show up, unpack consoles and run monthly intramural tournaments for 5 different games — Madden, FIFA, NBA 2K, Super Smash Bros. Wii U and Mario Kart 8.

Students in the 2015 EGL Championships, held May 15 outside Indianapolis.

This year the top three to five players of each game, from each school, were given invitations to the EGL championships held last Friday at Fall Creek Valley Middle School, just a few minutes East of Indianapolis.

"Kids are getting more confident," Rent said. "In a way, they’re becoming rockstars in their schools. Some of the Smash Bros. kids, they’ve got people that just come to these events and just watch them play at some schools."

But students aren't just playing to win, they're also learning valuable lessons about the games industry along the way and synthesizing that knowledge gained into short essays.

"We have monthly challenges, and monthly tech talks," Rent said. "We have a scoring system called the LiveScore system. These LiveScore points are what kids earn in order to be invited to the championship, and there’s two ways to get them; how you compete during the after-school tournaments, and you doing the challenges and the tech talks on our web site. They're exercises based on technology and educational and careers in video game design and video game development.

"Kids are not only doing these exercises in droves, but they’re actually enjoying themselves. We initially were getting maybe maybe 70 to 100 words response on these monthly tech talks. And now we get 500 words, 700 words."

Part of the reason these lessons are so valuable, Rent says, is that they're proving the value of video games as a career path to student's parents.

"What we want to do is to start actually bridging that curriculum with universities," Rent said. "We want to be able to give kids college credits for linking some of our educational curriculum to ones at a university level. … And we’re also informing parents about careers in gaming."

"Even if a kid is never a pro gamer, he or she might want to do game design."

Rent says that the feedback he's received from administrators has been especially important for the growth of the program. They tell him that the EGL is reaching communities within the school that don't have the support and character building opportunities that traditional music or sports programs provide.

"We’ll get maybe 60 percent of these kids who just don’t participate in any of the music clubs like band or traditional sports," Rent said. "And then you’ve got the other 30 to 40 percent that are athletes. They are popular kids. They are the 'pretty girl' in a sense in high school. They’re those kids, and they’re sitting next to the kids that they would never talk to. But they’re sitting next to them — playing — and they’re having fun. When they go to the championship they’re sometimes on the same teams representing their schools, so they are creating friends and relationships that probably would most likely never happen."

This season EGL had 6 participating schools, with a total of around 320 players. Next year, Rent said, they already have 14 schools signed up and a total capacity to serve around 20. Their IndieGoGo campaign, launched just yesterday, is intended to help them hire on their first full-time employee who, in addition to Rent, would increase their capacity to 40 schools.

But starting local is just the beginning for Rent, who has dreams of building EGL into a national program.

"We want this to be something that is nationwide," Rent said. "We want to eventually be the NCAA of video games. EGL has the educational benefits that a traditional sport has, and it’s serving a group of kids that are special as well. They might not be athletically special in ways, but they’re still special kids and they need some of the character growth and character development that traditional athletes enjoy.

"Even if a kid is never a pro gamer, he or she might want to do game design. He might want to be a graphic designer, or she might want to be an artist — like a model artist. And we want to teach kids about some of these real careers that they’ve probably never heard of before."

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