By any measure, esports is a massive industry. In 2018, for example, the League of Legends world championship finals drew 100 million viewers—more than that year’s Super Bowl—and in 2021 worldwide esports revenues will surpass $1 billion. Broadly speaking, esports include a range of multiplayer, online video games, from the bestselling Call of Duty franchise to chess, to digital card games like Hearthstone, and NBA 2K21, an entire franchise of simulated basketball games created in partnership with the National Basketball Association.
Esports have gradually made their mark in K-12 schools, too: The High School Esports League, for example, boasts more than 2,100 partner schools and more than 60,000 student participants across the U.S. and Canada. Like adult players, students compete in a variety of games like Rocket League (a soccer-like game featuring rocket-powered, acrobatic cars), Minecraft, and Super Smash Bros: Ultimate, a game that was designed as a kids’ party game but gamers maintain takes years to master.
Some educators and parents express concern about the games’ sometimes violent content (Counter Strike: Global Offensive, for example, is a first-person shooter game that features prominently in high school esports), but the jury is out on whether or not there is any connection between gaming and real world behavior. And there is a long history of public school hostility to the integration of blatantly commercial, quasi-educational content—think of the frothy debates around Channel One in the 1990s.
But in schools, esports activities often take place outside of classes, and many K-12 educators see them as a gateway to careers in computer science, coding, and other highly compensated STEM fields. Coaches and faculty mentors, meanwhile, contend that esports, like real world sports, offer an environment where kids can practice “soft skills” like communication, collaboration, and sportsmanship while learning to regulate their negative emotions like frustration, anger, and disappointment.
Perhaps unexpectedly, a chief draw of esports in K-12 schools is its inclusiveness: Its proponents in education say that it’s less exclusive than traditional sports, unites kids with highly diverse backgrounds and skill sets, and builds a critical home-school connection that many students lack—but that research repeatedly shows leads to improved attendance and behavior, increased confidence, and greater engagement and achievement in school.
A place to call home
Chris Aviles, a former high school and college athlete who is now an ed tech coach in New Jersey, is a fervent proponent of esports. An 18-student team he started in 2018 has grown into a statewide phenomenon with 64 school clubs, 1,160 students, and seven high school state championships planned for spring of 2021. Aviles says he’s witnessed how esports can make kids who might feel marginalized feel like they are a part of something.
“We have a lot of kids on the spectrum, a lot of kids who may have a physical or learning disability or who don’t like [traditional] sports or aren’t physically big enough to play sports. In most sports, size is an issue,” he says, “but in esports, size doesn’t matter. It’s an area where they can be successful.”
Esports also tend to draw students of color: As Aviles recently wrote in Tech and Learning, studies show that Black and LatinX students play online games 30 and 10 minutes more per day, respectively, than their white counterparts. Children from lower-income families also tend to play more than those from more affluent ones, and LGBT players game slightly more than heterosexual players. Increasingly, the modicum of fame that comes with esports stardom means that kids are introduced to role models like 22-year-old Dominque McClean (professionally known as SonicFox), who is one of the most successful and well known esports players in the world, and is Black and openly gay.
“Chances are you have an underserved population that is looking for a place to call home within your school,” he writes. “Esports can be that place.” A 2017 survey, for example, found that 70 percent of kids in the U.S. stop playing traditional sports by the age of 13, leaving them untethered from an important social anchor. Meanwhile, at one school in Texas, an esports program grew from 75 to 190 athletes in a single year; seventy percent of the participating kids had never been involved in any other campus activity.
At a recent conference, Heidi Baynes, a coordinator for educational technology at the Riverside County Office of Education in California, said that students who are perceived as “loners“ can now be accepted and even celebrated. “They’re no longer sidelined,” adding that online video gaming has transformed from a solo hobby to a highly social one. She says that just like non-virtual athletes, esports athletes often win recognition within their schools.
The team behind the team
Part of the beauty of esports in schools, many supporters explain, lies in the diverse supporting roles that are critical to the activity. At tournaments, “a variety of kids from every walk of life come together and really celebrate one another, with great sportsmanship and great skill,” says Steve Hickman, also a coordinator for educational technology at the Riverside County Office of Education in California.
Leadership and “behind the scenes” roles at these festive events are seemingly endless: event organizers bring together team coaches and managers; graphic artists; IT specialists who support live streaming on Twitch; social media managers; statisticians; webmasters; technical managers who maintain equipment and set it up and break it down at tournaments; podcasters; and media producers who make “hype videos.”
There is even a performing arts component among shout casters (“casters”)—kids who, just like traditional sports casters, bring expertise and drama to events by delivering play by play, live reporting on games, all while developing their on-air personalities.
“You can bring more people into the fold because you’re not saying you have to be an esports person to do [esports]. You can take your strengths, your passions, and they can blend into esports, and you make a more inclusive group by doing that,” says Hubert Ham, director of innovation and information services at the Alexander Dawson School and its Esports EDU Lab in Las Vegas.
Under the umbrella of esports, then, kids can exercise seemingly unrelated passions and skills, all while deepening their knowledge of digital media of all sorts.
At Alexander Dawson, entire academic courses have been designed around esports so students can build their academic skills. “We had a female student who said she wanted to learn something new and get involved but didn’t have an interest in esports,” says Ham, “but she had a very strong writing background and a passion for journalism, so we evolved some units within our esports courses to let her flex [those skills], and so she reviews the games and writes recaps.”
A school to college pipeline
For students who embrace esports, its academic value can extend well beyond senior year: Esports can make college a viable option for kids who hadn’t planned to take their education beyond high school.
Many colleges and universities have varsity esports teams, and in 2019, nearly 200 colleges and universities offered esports scholarships totaling $15 million. According to EdSurge, Miami University in Ohio, the first Division I university to offer an esports scholarship, distributed $4,000 scholarships to varsity esports team members, Robert Morris University reduced tuition and room and board by 50 percent for its players, and New York University also offers partial- and full-ride merit-based esports scholarships. At the post-secondary level, esports often fall under athletics organizationally, and advanced esports athletes spend just as many hours training as a regular high-caliber athlete.
The appeal of being a star athlete and having access to a college education is transformative for some students. “I have kids who didn’t want to go to college but are now interested,” says Aviles, the New Jersey-based esports leader.
But just as esports opportunity isn’t just for esports athletes or within education—esports can also expose students to career paths they might not otherwise have thought of as options. Many hone their skills in their “team behind the team” roles and wind up well-prepared for careers in any number of fields, and the massive and growing esports industry is home to thousands of diverse jobs at not just gaming giants like Twitch and Blizzard but juggernauts like Amazon and Google.
Naturally the STEM value of esports is also at play: One team of researchers has explored how esports communities function as “ecosystems for learning” noting that “esports is a community that natively fosters acquisition and mastery of knowledge and skills that connect to high tech sector jobs not only in the games industry but also in data science, software and web development, social media marketing, and event organizing.”
STEM educators make arguments not just for the power of esports in terms of equity, inclusion, and teamwork, but also for problem solving, scientific methodology, leveraging data and evidence, and technological proficiency. Some leagues are designed from the get-go to introduce kids to STEM and start them down the path of exploring careers in graphics, coding, IT, and data science.