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CMS esports league plans big expansion after finding success in its inaugural season

Carolina Esports Hub
Carolina Esports Hub
Gamers practice esports.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new esports league is gearing up for its first spring season, with plans to double the number of high schools fielding varsity-level video game teams.

In November, the CMS esports league kicked off its inaugural season with 12 schools competing. CMS partnered with Stiegler EdTech, a nonprofit technology education firm led by Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari, Carolina Esports Hub and Tepper Sports Entertainment to form the league.

About 500 students signed up to try out for the first, 10-week season, but only 100 were selected to compete at the varsity, junior varsity and club levels. Students played Rocket League (a soccer-like video game where players control flying cars) against each other in teams, and also worked together to create and produce games.

The first champion was crowned in the new league, with Ardrey Kell High winning the CMS esports league’s inaugural season. J.T. Williams Montessori won the associated Science, Technology, Engineering and Math competition.

In February, the league will host tryouts and kick off pre-season competition among the schools. And when CMS spring athletics season kicks off, the CMS esports league will return on March 6.

“This year, we're going to have all 23 full-time CMS high schools participating,” said Charlie Mulligan, director of operations at Stiegler EdTech.


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Generation Z’s sport

Mulligan believes esports will someday soon be the choice for many high school students as Generation Z (those born between 1997-2012) grows up. The CMS esports league is the only one in North Carolina and one of the few across the country at the high school level.

“You can make the argument that esports is the sport for Generation Z,” Mulligan said. “But what's amazing is that there are less than ten states in the entire country that have an officially organized, high school-sanctioned league.”

Professional esports is taking off as well. The Charlotte Hornets have an esports team named the Venom that plays NBA2K. Johnson C. Smith University launched an Esports and Gaming Management program last year. And in February, UNC Greensboro is hosting an esports tournament in collaboration with Cary-based Epic Games.

The gamers themselves aren’t the only ones interested. According to a study from video game marketing firm Newzoo, viewership for esports soared in 2022. The study found there were 215 million esports viewers worldwide last year, a number that will potentially grow to over 300 million by 2025.

Founding partner of Stiegler EdTech Malcolm Zapata says the competition creates more benefits.

"It's a way to learn problem-solving with technology," Zapata said. "These are, a lot of times, kind of technology problems designed by other technologists that have created the games ... They teach a lot of communication skills, how to work in small teams together, how to, you know, not ... not fight with each other at important times, but give critical feedback about the other players' performance."

Stiegler EdTech raised about $100,000 from sponsors for the league's inaugural season, Mulligan said.

Diversity in tech & gaming

The gaming industry has historically been male-dominated, and that was reflected in the CMS esports league. In its inaugural season, almost 87% of participants identified as male.

Mulligan said that divide and lack of diversity in the gaming and technology world is something they took into account when creating the league.

“Diversity is a constant topic and theme that we talk about. And Stiegler attacked that in general and also specifically with this league,” Mulligan said.

“One of the main things we've been focusing on is creating a safe space for non-male gamers, and that can be extremely difficult, especially coming into places that might be male-dominated,” said Mulligan.

Among the 12 schools from the first esports season, three schools were classified as Title I, higher-poverty schools: Harding University High School, West Charlotte High School and Garinger High School. Those schools also have a higher share of non-white students.

“When it comes to racial diversity, that's why we're not doing this with the private schools first, right? We want public schools that show really the spectrum of the entire Charlotte-Mecklenburg community,” said Mulligan.

What’s next for the CMS esports league

After a successful first season, the league will return at double the larger capacity in the spring. The inaugural championship was held at the Carolina ESports Hub in South Charlotte this year. The venue was at capacity for the December match. With 11 new schools joining the league, Mulligan said they might need a bigger venue for the championship.

“You might be able to imagine what types of places there are, but it's going to be a traditional sports stadium,” said Mulligan. “I'm not sure which one, but we need that space.”

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Kenny is a Maryland native who began his career in media as a sportswriter at Tuskegee University, covering SIAC sports working for the athletic department and as a sports correspondent for the Tuskegee Campus Digest. Following his time at Tuskegee, he was accepted to the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program as a Marketing Intern for The NASCAR Foundation in Daytona Beach, Florida in 2017.