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Esports Offer a Way to Engage Hard-to-Reach Students

By Jerry Fingal
February 2, 2021
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For those involved in scholastic esports, the explosive growth over the past three years is no surprise. Esports, they say, are no different from traditional extracurricular activities; it’s just taking time for people to catch on.

“Nobody ever bats an eye at a varsity football team, wrestling, chess club or cheerleading competition,” said Chris Aviles, a middle school teacher and esports coach in New Jersey. “This is just the next evolution in meaningful inclusion for students. That’s all it is.”

Advocates say that scholastic esports go even one better than traditional activities by reaching students who would otherwise not be participating in a school activity. They cite statistics that show an estimated 40% of students involved in esports have never participated in school activities. They also say esports promote interest in STEM and provide an avenue of career technical education (CTE) for the burgeoning professional esports world, a $1 billion industry that’s projected to grow four-fold by 2027.

An opportunity for schools

From after-school clubs to highly competitive high school leagues, esports is exploding at all levels. The nonprofit North America Scholastic Esports Association started as a regional program in Southern California with 25 clubs and 38 teams. In 2½ years, it has grown to include more than 1,000 clubs and 11,000 students in North America.

And then there are hundreds of schools involved in pay-for-play leagues, such as High School Esports League and PlayVS as well as many home-grown leagues run by educators.

Joe McAllister, an education esports expert for CDW who helps schools and districts set up the infrastructure for esports, said only a handful of states had sanctioned esports programs in 2017. That has expanded to 38 states in 2020 with more on the way.

“Every other state is either talking about a pilot or getting one off the ground,” McAllister said. The reasons for the growth are many, including:

  • The rise in the popularity of professional esports leagues.
  • The changing attitudes among educators and the public toward video games.
  • The improvement in school devices and connectivity.
  • The willingness by school officials to go where their students are.

Esports are also thriving at the college level, where scholarships have steadily grown to an estimated $15 million a year. The growth of professional esports also has made it an attractive and attainable career goal. The industry needs more than just players, advocates say, citing the need for all kinds of professionals, including game developers, designers, marketers, event planners and “shout-casters.”

Aviles, a co-author of “The Esports Education Playbook: Empowering Every Learner Through Inclusive Gaming,” says esports have followed a predictable pattern. “It follows the law of innovation, where you have your early adopters and when you hit market saturation is when people start to come around,” he said.

“Schools are learning that esports are just as meaningful to students as traditional sports,” Aviles said. “My kids learn about teamwork, leadership and communication just like they would in regular sports. All you're doing is you're switching out the sport.”

What do esports look like?

Esports are generally defined as digital game competitions. For schools, that competition can take many forms, from an after-school club where students play each other to state-sanctioned leagues that mirror other high school sports. In between, there are esports that are woven into the classroom curriculum and district leagues run by educators.

“There's no cookie-cutter approach to this,” McCallister said. “It isn't like, ‘Follow this step and that step and you'll have an esports program.’ Every school’s political landscape is different. … It's really about giving folks the tools and then helping them navigate that road to implementation.”

Kevin Brown is an esports program specialist for the Orange County Department of Education and the North America Scholastic Esports Federation. He helps the county’s schools launch esports programs and tailors them for each school’s needs.

“We have about half a million kids and 27 districts, and every single district has a different lens on how it wants to come out at this,” he said. “Is it purely competitive? Is it part of the curriculum? Is it a social thing?”

NASEF has come to esports with a larger goal in mind: to promote student interest in STEM subjects. It was started by the Samueli Foundation, a California-based philanthropy focused on youth, education and health. NASEF has created a vast number of free resources, from toolkits for starting an esports program to classroom curriculum that connects esports with English language arts and career technical education. It organizes competitions and mentors coaches.
The organization also works with researchers at the University of California, Irvine, to study how esports affects participants’ interest in STEM and development of social and emotional skills.

ISTE has its own resource for educators. The “Esports in Schools” jump-start guide outlines the strategies and tools educators need to build a successful program.


Esports serve the underserved

On the other side of the country, Aviles is spreading the word on esports via Garden State Esports, a nonprofit he started with a colleague. The goal is to provide support for schools and teachers interested in starting esports programs.

Esports, he says, can be integrated with larger district goals around STEM education, career training, community-building and inclusiveness. It’s also a way to set a school apart and provide an activity for students who are typically underserved.

“Your athletes aren’t the ones coming out for the esports team,” he said. “Your students who have autism and learning disabilities, your students who don't have any home-school connection or aren’t involved in clubs, these are the kids who come out. However you want to split this up, esports teams are some of the most meaningful investments that schools are making right now.”

Kailey Rhodes is a middle school math teacher at Northwest Academy, a private arts-focused school in Portland, Oregon. She also is a learning experience designer at Clarity Innovations, which is working with Intel on its esports program. She has embraced esports as a way to “break down barriers and find more ways to create opportunities for students to find where they can be successful.”

“As a teacher, I've seen the various ways that we unintentionally exclude our students by not formalizing their hobbies,” she said. “If you’re a football player or cheerleader or you're on the Model UN or the chess team, you have a place at school. You have a reason to stay after school. … We are serving these kids really well. But there's a whole host of kids that we're not serving.”

Overcoming the negatives

Esports often face resistance based on stereotypes: The games can be violent and promote excessive screen time. The gaming world can be toxic and hostile toward women and LGBTQ people. And there are equity and diversity issues.

But advocates say those downsides are manageable in school settings. Putting adults in the room provides instruction and role models for proper behavior. Organized teams also allow players to be held accountable for their behavior. Organizations can be vehicles to address equity and diversity.

“All of these concerns that parents and educators have about video games and screen time can all be addressed immediately through esports,” Aviles said. “We do lessons on health and wellness, digital  citizenship and all those different areas that potentially are areas of concern for stakeholders. Rather than running from those issues, we are baking them into the esports curriculum and esports practices.”

NASEF has developed its own curriculum on “cyber wellness” that either individuals or entire clubs can participate in. It has extensive resources for promoting wellness and addressing toxicity.

Claire LaBeaux, communications director for NASEF, said attitudes toward esports have changed in the organization’s 2½ years of existence.

“Our initial conversations were, ‘Yes, esports is legitimate. Yes, this is a place where kids can learn,’” she said. “I'm really finding that that tide has shifted. As esports grows as an industry, I think more parents are seeing the fact that, yes, their kids are going to be able to get a real job that's connected to this. And they are seeing that it's more than just sitting and playing games and that there's a lot more potential to it.”

As for violence, advocates say scholastic esports exclude the most violent games. In popular combat games such as League of Legends and Overwatch, they say the violence is cartoonish and not realistic. In addition, one of the most popular esports games is Rocket League, commonly described as soccer with race cars.

Rhodes says esports is “an imperfect industry, just like everything else.” As a gamer, she knows firsthand about online toxicity and inequity issues. But she’s sees esports in schools as a way to address them.

“I don’t want to insinuate that esports are something magical,” she said. “But if we could just all agree that it's worth exploring, then we're going to have better success of solving those other issues together. My big battle is to just hear me out. I don't think any of it is easy, but I do think it's worthwhile.”

She says the pursuit of equity and diversity can be works in progress. “We don’t have to know how to get to the finish line just to begin,” she said.

No experience required

Getting an esports program off the ground is often more a matter of will than of resources. Those involved in esports say educators don’t have to be gamers to start an esports program for students.

“We as teachers feel a lot of pressure to be the subject matter expert in the room, whether it’s social studies, math or even the arts,” Rhodes said. “But when it comes to esports, that really falls away, and you can really use it as an opportunity to put your students in charge. For teachers, you don’t have to be a gamer, you don’t have to know what Twitch is to create these opportunities for students.”

In the Palm Springs School District, which started its esports program with the help of NASEF and has teams at each of its high schools, only one of the five teachers involved had any previous experience with esports.

“The rest of them just love kids and are definitely not experts in esports or gaming,” said Eduardo Rivera, who coordinates the district’s esports programs.

Those who have started esports programs say it’s possible for one person to get a program off the ground. But it takes a wide circle of support — from school administrators and teachers to parents.

Equipment doesn't have to be expensive

And then there’s the computer hardware, infrastructure and finding a space to play. These days, programs can often use existing school computers. No matter what, a district’s IT people have to be on board.

In New Jersey, Aviles said districts often get started with whatever resources they have. That could be computers that are used for STEM subjects during the day and for esports after school. Programs also can rely on Chromebooks or on students bringing their own devices.

“You don’t need top-end stuff,” Aviles said. “There are lots of ways to do this, and lots of ways to do this right.”

He urges interested educators to reach out to nonprofits run by other educators. He has compiled a list of 13 such groups around the country that will help in starting an esports program. He says the #esportsedu hashtag  will “reveal hundreds of teacher-run nonprofits that are doing the work in this space.”

“Reach out to the people who are doing the work,” he said. “Just do your homework before you sign up or buy anything.”

McAllister says starting an esports program involves a balance of human capital and monetary capital. The more you have of one, the less you need of the other.

He estimates that starting an esports program with new equipment costs from $20,000 to $40,000. He said it takes six to 15 computers at a cost ranging from $800 to $1,700 each.

He likes to put the cost in perspective and says schools get a higher return on investment in esports compared to activities such as the football team. Esports offers the same soft skill development as traditional team sports, he said, such as teamwork, communication and perseverance. But they also promote interest in STEM and CTE. And they attract a different segment of a school’s student body.

“I think it is worth it if you can do it,” he said. “If you start looking at it through the lens of how we support other programs at school, it is way less expensive than a lot of them.”

McAllister is a former high school math teacher and he was the sponsor of the school’s video gaming club and the coach of the wrestling team. He has become evangelical about esports in schools.

“It's something that I'm extremely passionate about,” he said. “I think this belongs in every school, because it's such a great opportunity for kids who don't have a lot of other opportunities, to really have a better school experience. And it opens up more options for what they can do in their careers.”

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Jerry Fingal is an ISTE blogger who explore trends that shape the world of edtech.