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A Conversation with MiHSEF President Dakota on the Power of Scholastic Esports

Dakota VandenToor, a dedicated member of the Bravo LT team and a driving force in the Michigan esports community, is leading the charge as President of the Michigan High School Esports Federation (MiHSEF). In this conversation, he shares his passion for esports and the transformative impact it's having on students across the state.

The Michigan High School Esports Federation (MiHSEF) is at the forefront of a scholastic esports revolution, uniting thousands of students in competitive gaming across the state. 

In this exclusive Q&A, Dakota offers insights into MiHSEF's mission, the recent Spring State Finals at the University of Michigan-Flint, and the growing impact of esports on Michigan's high school students. Join us as we delve into the dynamic world of competitive gaming and its transformative influence on education.

Bravo Lt's Offices in Monterrey

Q: Could you share what initially sparked your interest in esports and how that led you to become the president of MiHSEF?

A: In high school, I played four sports and was a competitor on our FFA, debate, and chess teams. I’ve always enjoyed competition, and I started playing Starcraft in middle school, which gave me the opportunity to compete when I had free time. I continued competing in college when I was at Michigan State, competing in Starcraft 2 and being introduced to the entire world of esports.

After moving back to Grand Rapids from Ann Arbor, I was looking for an opportunity to participate more in my local community. As much as I loved the Pi Camps we run at BravoLT, they are not a daily occurrence. Initially, I looked for opportunities to coach wrestling when I stumbled upon the opening at Grand Rapids West Catholic for a head esports coach. After being hired, I saw within the first year the need for the growth of esports in Michigan, and the benefits it brought all of the students who participated. MiHSEF was one of the leagues that we competed in. It was the only local one and the only one where I thought every coach’s voice was heard. I volunteered and was elected Vice President of MiHSEF in my second year coaching, and my third year was elected President while taking on another role in esports as an assistant Valorant coach at Grand Valley State University. I was just recently re-elected to the position for another year.

Q: What are the most significant benefits that high school students gain from participating in esports, both personally and academically?

A: Personally, students gain soft skills like teamwork, collaboration, communication, and leadership. They increase their cognitive skills with strategic thinking and problem-solving. Physically, their hand-eye coordination improves, and to keep improving, many will add physical workouts outside of practice time. Many students polled also have increased self-esteem and confidence, as well as reporting they have increased sizes in social groups. Almost half of these students have not participated in another school activity before, so the personal advantages are huge.

Academically, studies show increased attendance and increased academic performance. Students are exposed to more STEAM programs, are more likely to attend college, and are more likely to study in a STEAM field. Increasingly, scholarships are available to students who want to compete or adjacent study for a career in esports.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in growing scholastic esports in Michigan, and how has MiHSEF addressed those challenges?

A: Many educators, parents, and school administrators initially lack awareness or understanding of the benefits of esports, often viewing it as merely recreational. This limits schools’ abilities to get funding, other resources, and coaching candidates to lead programs. MiHSEF has addressed this by hosting seminars, giving presentations, and engaging with local communities. MiHSEF has also started a coaching summit to allow anyone to participate and learn how to be an effective esports coach.

Promoting inclusivity and ensuring diversity within esports programs can be difficult, particularly in terms of gender and socioeconomic representation. MiHSEF has always been a free avenue for students to compete, and MiHSEF has always stood against exclusivity deals between game developers and national leagues that push students to not be able to participate.

Q: How can individuals and organizations get involved in supporting MiHSEF's mission to foster the growth of scholastic esports in Michigan?

A: First, a big thank you to the individuals and our partner organizations who have helped so much in the growth and development of our students. Without all of them, none of this would be possible.

Our mission at MiHSEF is to provide a safe, educational, high-quality, and competitive esports environment for Michigan high school and middle school students while promoting the importance of preparation, communication, sportsmanship, collaboration, and the ability to process success and failure.

Individuals can help by advocating for MiHSEF and educating others about esports in Michigan. They can also do everything from volunteering to run an esports event to making a simple donation.

For organizations, MiHSEF is always looking for partners and sponsors to work with to host our events, provide resources for our member schools, or contribute to MiHSEF monetarily. MiHSEF is completely volunteer-run by educators from the state of Michigan, so all of our donations and sponsorships go directly back to the students’ experiences.

Anyone who would like to volunteer or partner can find more information on our website at www.mihsef.org or can email us at info@mihsef.org

Q: What kind of feedback have you received from parents and educators about the positive impact of esports on their children and students?

A: A few key areas stand out. First, that their students are actually more engaged at school and have increasing grades. Secondly, that their children are increasing their social group sizes while having a safer social environment to compete in their games. Finally, their students have more confidence.

Q: What are MiHSEF's plans for the future, and how do you envision the organization evolving to meet the growing demand for scholastic esports?

A: MiHSEF has a few initiatives this year lined up, first and foremost to increase access to esports for all students in Michigan. MiHSEF is increasing the number of games available, as well as varying the selection of titles to include a larger audience of students. MiHSEF is also expanding our educational offerings and building out better support systems for schools.

Next, MiHSEF is working to build out the professional development piece for our member coaches. MiHSEF believes that in the long term, more and more of our coaches will not only become advocates for MiHSEF, but for esports in Michigan. MiHSEF also wants to ensure that any new coaches or people interested in coaching have access to resources to help them grow and that they feel supported and confident enough to start a program.

Finally, MiHSEF is adding new community, industry, collegiate, and educational partners. This will ensure stakeholders have the correct messaging and easy access to participation in esports.

MiHSEF envisions becoming the leading organization for K-12 scholastic esports in Michigan, recognized for its competitive leagues, inclusive policies, and educational integration. We don't believe students, teachers or schools should be profit centers and we will strive to keep it that way as long as we are running. MiHSEF also will have more of a national influence, as a founding member of the Interstate Scholastic Esports Alliance, MiHSEF wants to take a larger role in setting standards that can be used across states. MiHSEF will do all of this while keeping sustainable growth and a high-quality experience for all of our students and partners.

Q: What is your proudest moment or accomplishment as president of MiHSEF?

A: One of my proudest moments as president of MiHSEF was organizing the 2024 spring state championships, where over 370 students from across Michigan competed. Our fall and spring in-person championships are the second largest in North America, only behind Texas. Partnering with the University of Michigan-Flint and Dell, the event highlighted the incredible talent and dedication of our students, showcasing high-level competition and sportsmanship. The event had over 100 PCs and 32 Switches for use in competition and hosted over a dozen vendors in the Recreation Center. More information about our spring finals can be found at https://www.mihsef.org/spring24/.

It brought together a diverse community, underscoring the educational benefits of esports and showcasing the student growth from the past season. Seeing the joy and excitement on the faces of the participants reaffirmed the importance of our mission and the positive impact of scholastic esports.

At Bravo LT, we're proud to see team members like Dakota making a positive impact in our communities and beyond. His dedication to empowering young gamers is a testament to the values we hold dear, and we look forward to witnessing the continued growth of esports under his leadership.

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