NAECAD Interview: Joe Angolia, Kentucky High School Athletic Association

November 18, 2021

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) was organized in 1917 and is the agency designated by the Kentucky Department of Education to manage high school athletics in the Commonwealth.

Joe Angolia, the Assistant Commissioner for External Relations and Special Programs at the KHSAA, sat with NAECAD to discuss esports and the KHSAA.

What is the current state of KHSAA Esports?

Joe Angolia: Well, we have been partnered with PlayVs through the NFHS Network for a couple of years now. We have seen a lot of interest in esports. We’ve seen it grow statewide.

That growth kind of got derailed a little bit because of COVID. We shut down sports in the spring of 2020, so we had to cancel our season that year. The following year, with all the various education models in place, a lot of kids were participating from home, which made it difficult for schools to get on board with esports, in terms of adding a new offering or monitoring an existing one. We opened opportunities for kids to compete remotely from home.

Our growth had been on an upward trajectory but was stalled because of COVID. This year, our state has returned to a more normal education model and esports participation is rising.

We have added two sanctioned state championship games. League of Legends and Rocket League have always been sanctioned offerings, but this year we have added state championships in Super Smash Bros and Madden for the first time. Those offerings are all based on the participation levels across the state.

We’re seeing it grow and hoping it can continue to grow. Before the pandemic, we had our first in-person state championship at the University of Kentucky. It was a great event, and really showcased the positive aspects of esports. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that because of the pandemic last year, but we’re hoping to do it this fall for our championship.

How did the KHSAA convince school districts that esports was the right move for students?

Joe Angolia: The message we try to get across to our schools is that this is a way to engage with kids. Not just any students, but maybe those students who have no involvement at all in your school community. It’s a chance to reach a different population of your kids. These might be kids who have no interest in any extracurricular activities except for this one.

Now you’re getting them engaged in your school. They are more bought in, and they’re getting more focused on their academics because they have more investment in what's going on in the school.

As an association, we have done that. We have sports and sports-activities. Our activities include bowling, archery, competitive cheer, dance and bass fishing. It’s an avenue to get these kids involved in their schools. To build engagement with not only their school but their classmates and to help them grow.

What learnings or advice do you have for other state associations offering esports?

Joe Angolia: It’s evolved for us from where we started to where we are now. We’re still learning. There are a lot of things that go into it: The equipment, the coaching, the network infrastructure—gauging your students on what they want to do, but also getting your constituents on board with the mission.

I am behind the mission 100 percent, but it is not an easy sell. People look at this and say this shouldn't be a championship, it’s not a sport, or it’s just a game. But if you’re creating opportunities for kids and it’s a great experience for them that makes it a worthwhile venture. Esports also affords students opportunities after high school and if you’re giving them a chance to succeed in life with something they're interested in, I fail to see the downside in that.

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