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Hawaii public libraries open doors to esports
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"Who knows," said Hawaii Governor David Ige. "I might not have become governor if this was available in Pearl City when I was a junior in high school."
The state's top executive was at Waipahu Public Library, inside the Waipahu Civic Center, presiding over the grand opening of the first — but by all accounts, certainly not the last — public esports and technology lab in the islands.
"It is so important to give all of our residents the opportunity to see the future and participate in the future," he said to a full house of local officials, community members, educators and students. "It's exciting to see high powered personal computers here in the library that can provide a platform to access esports and these learning opportunities, so that residents in this community can see what the future might hold, and can learn about careers that might be possible."
"I truly do believe it should be in each and every community," he added.
And as documented in Hawaii Bulletin, tiny Hawaii has managed to make a big impact in this massive space, turning what seemed like obvious disadvantages into a unique advantage as competitions outgrow sports arenas and span several countries and time zones.
Just last week, the Overwatch League returned to the University of Hawaii at Mānoa campus for its "Midseason Madness" tournament, featuring a total prize purse of $1 million. This follows a successful series of tournaments last year, where UH became the first higher education institution in the country to host the world’s first city-based esports league.
As emphasized by UH Esports Director Sky Kauweloa, rightfully credited with building much of the momentum now bearing fruit in the Hawaii esports community, there is more to esports than playing games. While the university hosts the Overwatch tournament, the event also provides a diverse array of experiences and opportunities across industries.
And the company behind the contest is supportive of the educational mission.
"Exciting to have the Overwatch League giving this special session for our UH Mānoa and UH West Oahu students to gain knowledge about the industry in IT, networking, events management, and competition operations," Kauweloa wrote, announcing a series of workshops held in conjunction with the tournament. "Also, to have local girl Madison Edgar, grad from Kamehameha Schools, is a treat."
In planning for the future, the state government has kept esports in its sights, and included competitive gaming in the 2020 master plan for the New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District.
"We are going to try to embrace the 21st century sports as well," Sen. Glenn Wakai told KITV earlier this month. "[We'll have] drone racing in the future stadium, everything is on the table, e-sports as well."
Reimagining public libraries
In a country riven by racial, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic divides, libraries still welcome everyone. That commitment to inclusivity, along with a persistent ability to adapt to changing times, has kept public libraries vital in an era of divisive politics and disruptive technological change. But it has also put pressure on them to be all things to all people, and to meet a vast range of social needs without correspondingly vast budgets.
—Jennifer Howard, National Endowment for the Humanities
Ironically, the same tectonic cultural forces that have massively curtailed the demand for printed books are the same ones that make libraries more important than ever. Technology turned books digital. But technology also turned everyday life digital.
Having everything online isn't so convenient if you don't have internet access, or a computer or mobile devices. "Bridging the digital divide" became especially critical during the pandemic, when schools and jobs went remote. For many neighborhoods, that turned public libraries back into critical community resources.
"Think of a library not as a portal we go through on occasion, but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town, or the classrooms and yards of a university," wrote David Weinberger in 2012. "A library as platform would give rise to messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources."
Seven years ago, I was struck by a proposal — by Sen. Wakai, in fact — to turn Hawaii public libraries into public makerspaces, with 3-D printers along with more traditional tools to help residents learn new skills and create new, real, tangible things. What a great way to push back against the virtualization of everything!
It didn't happen, but it was the kind of creative thinking that never gave up on the inherent and untapped potential of public libraries. And now, with a mix of both public and private funding and support, a new movement is underway to expand Hawaii libraries into tech labs and esports hubs.
The first of fifty one
"This is the classroom of the future," Gov. Ige said, gesturing around him.
Waipahu Public Library, serving the hot and dusty former plantation town at the gateway to West Oahu, is already home to a couple of unique innovations: it has "Oahu’s only drive-thru window and exclusive reading room for teens."
That teen reading room will now also host computer classes and esports gaming.
The new esports and tech lab is branded under TRUE — Technology Readiness User Evaluation — a technology literacy and workforce development program under the non-profit Hawaii Executive Collaborative. That non-profit status helped bridge the gap between Hawaii businesses and the state government and library system.
"These opportunities are being created because of an amazing partnership and a community of people who connected with each other," said State Librarian Stacy Aldridge. "Everybody was connecting, trying to figure out, how can we create more opportunities for our communities? How can we make sure kids have access to high-powered machines, high-powered connectivity, so that they can be competitive and they can learn for our futures?"
Aldridge recalled playing Pong, one of the first mainstream video games released in 1972.
"I remember being so excited about this simple game that was one little dot going back and forth," she said. "Now to be in this whole new universe of dynamic interconnection, going into the metaverse, people playing together in settings like this, but also playing people globally — what an amazing, amazing world it is."
She also acknowledged the legislature and the governor for passing and enacting HB2214 this past session, establishing a digital literacy program under the Board of Education and executed by Aldridge.
"This new lab, these new spaces that we're creating are just the beginning of digital literacy in our libraries to help our communities be successful," she said.
On the private sector side, Central Pacific Bank, local tech firm Pacza, and Hawaiian Telcom were key players in turning the idea into a reality.
"When my son was about 20, I thought he was playing games too much, and I used to go home and I'd complain to him," recalled Paul Yonamine, Central Pacific Bank Chairman & CEO. "All of a sudden, one day he goes, 'Hey, Dad, I want to show you the PC I built.'"
"From that moment on, my whole viewpoint on games and esports totally changed," he said. "I see so many skill sets that could be developed out of this endeavor that are real important life lessons for future careers — I'm all in on all of this."
Pacxa President Kelly Ueoka stressed that the Waipahu Library space is not an arcade.
"It's really a tech lab to use esports as a catalyst for playing and learning — There's a ton of learning opportunities," he said. "We'll focus on game development and what goes into production today, but beyond that, the technology provided is meant to do a lot more than just that."
Like everyone else at the unveiling, Ueoka sees immense upside.
"It's so exciting to see the intersection of competitive gaming and technology happening globally," he said. "The opportunity has become so large, I don't think we can ignore it anymore, especially with the educational aspects afforded."
Leilani Farinas, who took the helm of TRUE in January, noted that the project only took six months from idea to reality — "pretty quick."
"This project took twelve stakeholders across the state, both public and private coming together to make this lab a reality," she noted, thanking the Hawaii tech and esports community first, including UH and Kauweloa and Hawaii Pacific University and its esports manager Jordan Oliver.
Programming will also include presentations by local and visiting tech and gaming professionals, build-your-own-PC workshops, and demonstrations.
"Tech enabled workers earn 53% more than non tech enabled workers," Farinas noted. "Our local organizations can thrive, and workers can upskill and earn higher wages, allowing them to live better lives here in Hawaii."
Even the governor mused about his future plans.
"My wife keeps saying that I really should have built that next big game," he said. "Suddenly the lights went off, maybe this is what my future holds? I am going to dive in headfirst in this to sports and esports opportunity."
"This is the first hopefully of 50 others that will follow," Gov. Ige said.
"We have 51 public libraries in the state of Hawaii — I think that they're great libraries, but they're underutilized," Yonamine echoed in a special video prepared for the event.
"They have some of the fastest broadband connectivity in each of the communities that they're in," he continued. "Just imagine if we can create these eSports hubs in public libraries, maybe one day even 51 of them... although that might be a little challenging."
"We have this vision that public libraries can become tremendous community centers of young people and other individuals interested in esports to congregate and challenge one another and do something that will be great for their future careers," Yonamine said.
The new esports and tech lab will opens to the public on Wednesday, July 27. It will be open during the same operating hours of the Waipahu Public Library. Public usage of the equipment will be limited to two hours per person.
There were two sets of computers at the unveiling, one brought in by HPU. As the announcement touted "best-in-class gaming PCs, displays and peripherals," I asked what that meant on behalf of the hardware nerds out there.
The lab will feature five stations with HP OMEN 30L desktop PCs with AMD Ryzen 7 5800X CPUs, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 graphics cards with 10GB GDDR6X dedicated memory, and 1 TB PCIe NVMe M.2 solid state drives (SSD).
Sure sounds impressive!