How Esports Can Support Powerful Learning
A growing number of schools are using esports to teach important skills and concepts.
- By Dennis Pierce
When the 16 middle school students who make up the Fair Haven Knights competitive gaming team at Knollwood School in New Jersey have a Rocket League match, everyone at the school knows about it. The students proudly wear their jerseys to school on game day, just like the members of the school’s athletics teams do.
Knollwood School has one of the few middle school esports teams in the country. “These are kids who had never felt a deeper connection with the school before,” said Chris Aviles, the teacher who serves as the team’s coach. “They just went home and played video games. Now, they’re getting all the benefits of playing a sport — including the sense of belonging to a community.”
Esports, or competitive video gaming, has exploded in popularity in recent years, with professional esports leagues and tournaments attracting a huge following. According to market research firm NewZoo, the global esports audience will grow to 453.8 million worldwide in 2019, up 15 percent from the prior year.
Streaming services such as Twitch allow viewers to watch online in real time as their favorite gamers play a match, but many fans attend esports events in person as well. In fact, the Philadelphia Fusion, a professional esports team in the Overwatch League, is getting its own $50 million arena in the heart of the Philadelphia Sports Complex with the rest of the city’s professional sports franchises, Business Insider reported.
Several colleges and universities now have esports teams, and in the last few years, esports has made inroads into high schools and even some middle schools.
Supporters of bringing esports into K-12 point to many benefits for participants, including the opportunity to teach students important concepts such as teamwork and digital citizenship — as well as the chance to prepare them for successful careers in STEM and other fields. But advocates of esports often face resistance from stakeholders who worry about making video gaming a school-sanctioned activity.
For Michael Russell, a teacher at Complete High School Maize in Wichita, KS, the spark of inspiration came when he attended BlizzCon, an annual gaming convention hosted by Blizzard Entertainment (maker of the popular game Overwatch, among others).
At BlizzCon, he realized just how massive the esports industry is, with job openings for game designers, team marketers and executives, event coordinators, and even “shoutcasters” — the play-by-play and color commentators who describe a match for spectators.
“Esports isn’t just about playing video games,” Russell said. “You can be a storyboard writer or an animator. You can work on the creativity side or the management side of the gaming industry. I thought: This would be cool to bring to our school.”
When he first pitched the idea of starting an esports team during a school staff meeting, “people looked at me like I was crazy,” he admitted. But he was able to convince the school’s administration that esports held great potential to engage students in learning by leveraging an activity they’re passionate about.
“Students are playing these games anyway. We’re trying to put some structure and learning purpose behind it,” he observed.
His first step was to secure computers with enough processing power to handle gaming, as the school had a one-to-one mobile learning program with Chromebooks. So, Russell applied for grants and was able to purchase $15,000 worth of desktop gaming computers. Gaming computers typically have more powerful graphics cards than standard desktops, along with adequate RAM and mid-range to high-end CPUs.
“There is really no reason to overspend on the computers,” he said. “As long as they are future-proof for about five to seven years, they will be great. I prefer to use desktop PCs, as laptops typically have smaller monitors and slower response times than desktops.”
Complete High School Maize has a seven-member Overwatch team that competes in the High School Esports League (HSEL), one of several new esports leagues that cater to high schools. The students practice six hours per week, working on communication and game strategy. Matches are held Monday evenings at 5 p.m. in the gaming lab, with the students competing online against another school’s team — and many parents and friends come to watch.
Already, Russell has noticed significant changes in his players. For instance, they are able to communicate more effectively — and their engagement in school is on the rise.
“Eighty-four percent of my esports players never did any extracurricular activities,” he said. “Now, they’re participating more in school, and not just in esports. Some of the students are also involved in peer tutoring or other volunteer activities. If we can just get them involved in something, they do better in school. Their attendance has gone up, and their GPA has gone up. It has been great to see.”
The initial reaction that Russell experienced in proposing an esports team is common. Often, proponents have to convince other stakeholders that esports has real value for students.
One of the key concerns that K-12 leaders have about bringing gaming into schools is the violent nature of many of the games.
HSEL, which Russell’s school has joined, offers tournaments for nearly a dozen games, including some first-person shooter games that are rated “M” for mature. While Overwatch is a team-based shooter game as well, its characters are animated and the violence is cartoonish, earning it a rating of “T” (appropriate for teens).
“That’s where I draw the line,” Russell said.
When Aviles polled students at Knollwood School to gauge their interest in forming an Overwatch team, about 75 students in grades 6-8 expressed interest. But the school board had concerns about forming a middle school esports team around a shooting game. So, Aviles formed a Rocket League team instead. Rocket League, rated “E” for everyone, is a vehicular soccer game published by Psyonix.
Although far fewer students were interested in playing Rocket League, Aviles is seeing a lot of interest from fourth and fifth graders who can’t wait to join when they reach sixth grade.
Another common concern is the gaming culture, which is sometimes perceived to be sexist — a perception propelled by the #GamerGate controversy a few years ago, in which a female game developer was the subject of online harassment. But Aviles and other esports advocates say bringing gaming into schools is a perfect opportunity to teach students about empathy, respect and good digital citizenship.
“A lot of these kids don’t even know what they’re saying,” he noted. “They’re just parroting things they have heard online. Part of my job as a coach is to help them understand how some of the memes they are seeing are based in misogyny or racism. I think adults in general are doing a really bad job at helping kids navigate Internet culture. That’s a large part of what I do. I’m teaching them to think for themselves and to know what’s appropriate.”
Using Esports for Learning
Yet another concern is that students already have too much screen time in their lives. By making gaming a school-sanctioned activity, K-12 leaders are contributing to this imbalance, some critics say.
“One thing we have noticed about kids having access to gaming at school is that they play less at home,” Russell countered. “One parent even said to me: ‘My daughter came down and ate dinner with us for the first time in a long time.’”
What’s more, Russell has written a 140-page Gaming Concepts curriculum that addresses topics such as proper nutrition, screen time and mental health, as well as the parts of a computer and other concepts related to gaming. “It uses gaming to teach other skills,” he said. He has been teaching an elective course using the curriculum since fall 2017, and the class is always full — and HSEL plans to distribute the curriculum to its member schools as well.
Others are using esports to teach about core curriculum concepts. California’s Orange County Department of Education, which founded the nonprofit North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) in conjunction with the Samueli Foundation and the University of California Irvine Esports program, has created a high school ELA curriculum around esports. One activity has students create their own concept for a video game, complete with a story arc and characters.
“Students who would not normally read and write are spending hours on this activity,” said Tom Turner, executive director of educational services for the county.
Like Russell, Turner noted that esports is an entire ecosystem that consists of not just the players but the employees who support them. “There are many skills that students can develop,” he said. “They can design their team logo, or run the team’s social media accounts. Esports is a high-interest activity; it’s the Trojan horse that gets us past the barriers to learning.”
At Knollwood School, the Fair Haven Knights take turns assuming various esports roles. A typical Rocket League match is four-on-four, so the students who aren’t playing in the game might control the video cameras used to stream the match, or post live updates through social media. Even if students aren’t playing, they are still involved in powerful learning opportunities.
“They’re learning valuable skills, and they’re learning how to be a team,” Aviles said. “We are tapping into something they love and teaching them life lessons. Just because this is something new or different doesn’t mean it’s bad. I had one group of stakeholders who told me: ‘We don’t understand the attraction of esports, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find value in it for our kids.’”
Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.