Coach’s Corner is a series of testimonials from the people who make high school esports successful — the coaches. Every now and then, we’ll highlight some particularly impressive people and share their stories, thoughts and perspectives on the shared experiences of gaming, esports and helping students grow.
Our first coach has been a part of PlayVS since Season Zero. Ashley Hodge, head coach of the Colquitt High School (GA) esports program, which currently consists of NINE different teams was gracious enough to lend us her perspective. Her responses have been lightly edited for concision and clarity, with her permission and approval.
I grew up playing video games in my childhood because I was bullied a lot, and I did not have many friends. Before esports became known, I played in card game tournaments for Magic, Yu-gi-oh, and Pokemon. I was fairly successful at those games and I won quite a bit of money. Once I discovered esports competitive play, I joined up with a group of friends, and we played in all kinds of tournaments together for Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and League (of Legends). My name was recommended to our CCHS board and I became the Head Esports coach at my school because I was the most knowledgeable.
It is very important for the school to have an esports league for a variety of reasons. First, not all students are physically athletic. Esports allows the school to reach a group of children that otherwise may be left out of traditional sports. In addition, esports provides a safe haven for video gamers. I was bullied relentlessly in school because I played video games, watched anime, went to video game and anime conventions, cosplayed, and was into “weird” things. A lot of my esport students are into the same things. This program gives those children a safe place where they can showcase their talents.
An esports league also gives students opportunities for college. College is very expensive, and we are a Title I School. Therefore, an esports scholarship gives my students opportunities that they may otherwise not have because they do not play traditional sports. Finally, esports gives students the opportunity to work together as teams, critically-think to problem solve during stress, and strategize based on statistical analysis. These are key skills students will need to be successful in life, and I believe all students should be provided with these opportunities.
- Were there any challenges you faced as a female coach with your team?
There are many challenges female esports coaches face. First, I have trouble with some of my male students not respecting me as a coach compared to my co-coach, who is male. Many of these students began playing League of Legends last year with no knowledge and I taught them everything I know about the game. Now, many of them have gotten really good — even better than me in many cases — and now they think they don’t need to listen to the female esport coach.
Another challenge I face is getting people to take me seriously — either because I’m a female esports coach or, more broadly, because esports isn’t seen as a legitimate sport. Many communities, surrounding schools, and public opinions do not see esports as a real sport. So, as a female coach in field that’s both male-dominated and generally not always seen as a worthwhile pursuit regardless of gender, it can be quite difficult to get people to respect us and what we do. Of course, it helped that we had HBO come in and film a documentary about us, the local newspaper continued to publish stories, and we have magazines doing cover stories on us. So, the publicity helps, but the battle to legitimize eSports as a sport is very much still on-going.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, and it’s the subject of my doctorate dissertation at Valdosta State University. I intend to study the differences in experiences between male and female esports students and how they experience involvement in an eSports program.
- How do you think being a female coach helps your team overall?
I think being a female esports coach does help the team because of the many ideas and concepts associated with being female. Many players will see you in a motherly role more so than a male coach or authority figure, so you do have to fight that battle and show them who is better in matches that you play. I think having my experience with League and other esports, my amateur competitive experience, and the support from the school helps these kids really learn the basics of this game, and allows me to teach them not just skills in the game but skills in life such as: communication, teamwork, and resilience. I can use my gender and the student’s preconceived ideas about what that means to address problematic issues like lack of team communication, map awareness, and settling disputes between team members. But I also can become that “authoritative coach” who knows what is going on in the game.
I think the most important thing for any coach is to have game knowledge. I think a lot of students fail to understand many of our coaches are coaches purely because they want to help kids and not because they are experts on the sport they’re coaching or, in our case, experts in the games we play. I have helped other local schools set up esports programs, and the coaches all ask the same thing: how am I going to coach this game that I know nothing about or play? My response has always been the same: download the game, play it, and learn through experience.
- Were there any challenges you faced as a female gamer in general?
There are so many challenges; I don’t even know where to begin. Growing up in the 90’s as a female esports gamer was extremely rough. I grew up in a rural community in the south where sports, especially football, were the main focus. My parents constantly hoped that my fascination with video games would pass and that I would “grow out of it”. When I went to gaming tournaments, I was constantly harassed and asked questions like “Oh, you here to watch your boyfriend?” or “Oh? You’re here to play?” Then, in the tournaments my opponents would constantly make the comment “This is going to be an easy match.” It was extremely frustrating.
Furthermore, when I played games at home, many online communities were terrible towards female gamers. I would use my mic to talk online and constantly be asked inappropriate questions or receive inappropriate messages from male players. It was a really bad experience because I wanted to play these games and communicate with my team, but as soon as I opened my mouth and people heard a female with a southern accent, it was over for me.. It didn’t happen every game, but it happened often enough where I just stopped communicating with other players. Even now in 2019, I still do not like to use my mic in online games for this reason. I usually only communicate with others if I am playing with people I know.
Even with more women in gaming than there used to be — which isn’t saying much — the harassment has not stopped. The female players that I have constantly complain about this issue and it needs to be addressed. I think America needs an entity that can sanction esports games similar to South Korea. We need an official ruleset and policies like any other sport and America is lacking in this area compared to the rest of the world.
Getting harassed online over and over again made me very depressed for a long time. Video games were an escape for me during my childhood and still are. I teach English, so I love stories and narratives because you get to be somebody else. Video games were a mode of narrative that I really enjoyed, and I wanted to play competitively online. However, the harassment and messages made it very difficult at times for me to do that. I can recall sometimes calling my boyfriend (now husband) after a match that we had just played in together and crying to him about the messages I received or what was said in chat during the game. I’ve grown tougher since then. It doesn’t bother me as much because I’ve grown to not care what people think, but if anybody goes after one of my female esports students, then it’s game on, and I’m coming after you.
Coaching esports has been an amazing opportunity. I never imagined that I would be called “Coach Hodge” by so many students, nor did I think that the program would explode in popularity in only two years. Coaching esports has opened a lot of doors for my students. I would like to encourage other schools to build their own esports programs. I have noticed an increase in attendance and academic grades among my esports students. Esports provides unique opportunities for students to develop important social and cognitive skills, provides them with a home, and offers them an incredible future.
Ashley has helped build an impressive esports program at Colquitt High in a short amount of time and we're amazed at what she continues to do for her students and her school. Keep an eye out in this space for more words and stories from the coaches that have quickly made high school esports the exciting ecosystem it's become!