COVINGTON -- The Kentucky High School Athletic Association Board of Control on Thursday stopped short of prohibiting the popular video game League of Legends for its esports competition, but took action out of concern over violence in the game.
At a meeting in Covington, the governing body for traditional sports and activities in high schools across Kentucky voted to require the written approval of principals, superintendents and parents before students can play League of Legends.
School administrators will receive preview videos and correspondence that includes "appropriate warnings" co-authored by the KHSAA, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
The decision reversed a suggestion made in May by KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett to eliminate the popular game.
Tackett said in a May 3 memo that the KHSAA supported the 2019 General Assembly's legislation to require school safety measures.
"Even the slightest chance that a 'battle game' could be perceived negatively has led me to re-think our continued participation in League of Legends, at least for the foreseeable future," Tackett had written in May. "Despite its popularity and growth, it is likely the better course that for the fall of the 2019-20 school year, as preparations are made, that they are made without League of Legends as an offering."
On Thursday, however, Tackett told the Herald-Leader that since May, KHSAA board members had received more information that helped them find "a workable path to help them keep this game."
Tackett said League of Legends features "animated fictional property destruction," but does not involve "shooting bodies."
Tackett told lawmakers on Kentucky's Interim Joint Committee on Education on Wednesday in Frankfort that many school officials liked the game and statewide, there was divided opinion on whether to continue it.
Kentucky was one of the first states and only one of five states to experiment with an esports championship by early 2019.
The original plan from the California company PlayVS was to have four to five games as an option for schools to hold online competitions without the necessity of traveling to another school, Tackett said in the May memo. But when play began in the fall, only League of Legends was available.
He said League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena video game. The game was developed and published by Riot Games, whose representatives did not immediately respond to questions Thursday.
The game lends itself to a debate of whether "its a shooting game, is it a violence game or is it not," Tackett told the Board of Control. "It's created a real problem for us going forward. It's our most popular game in a wildly growing sport," he said.
Tackett said KHSAA would continue to push solely for esport games that are focused on sports and not games that focus on destruction.
But he said the current challenge for KHSAA is that more than 400 students who play esports don't participate in other athletics, they are somewhat disengaged from regular athletics and are students "that we seek to get involved and need to get involved."
In January, Boyle County defeated St. Henry, 2-0, in a best-of-three "League of Legends" match for the first sanctioned high school esports title awarded in Kentucky.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association staged the championship event at Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville in conjunction with PlayVS, the group founded two years ago to help bring competitive esports into high schools.
"If they want to require permission slips I think that's fine," Damian Laymon, the head coach of Boyle County's esport team said about the KHSAA decision, "But I think the idea that League of Legends is controversial in any way for a high school student is a bit much.
"If anything, there's cartoon violence. There's no realism to it whatsoever. It's 100 percent fantasy-based," he said.
Kat Lark, the co-captain of last year's Boyle County team who has graduated, said Thursday that "there's no gore or blood in this game, it's all animated characters.
"I wouldn't call it violent. I understand the school wanting to do permission slips...but usually I would say if a kid is signing up for esports, it means they've seen worse than League of Legends," Lark said.
Associate Kentucky Commissioner of Education David Couch and Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis have both expressed concerns about League of Legends, Couch told the Board of Control on Thursday.
"I'm very uncomfortable with ...combat games being played from a K-12 setting," Couch said. He said he spoke with superintendents who had no idea that League of Legends was a combat game.
Tackett said he and Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, would be writing school officials a letter asking them to familiarize themselves with the game and confirm that they were aware of its characteristics.
"It's not," Tackett said, "an easy issue."