As esports programs make their way into schools, educators are seeing social and academic benefits for disengaged students.

Mar 30 2020

Academic, Social Boosts Show Esports Are More Than Just Games

As esports make their way into schools, educators are seeing social and academic benefits for disengaged students.

For one student at Buckeye Central High School in New Washington, Ohio, joining the esports team has sometimes led to more hours spent on math and English homework — and less time playing video games.

“He’s our best player, and he has always struggled with his grades,” says Tammy Studer, technology supervisor for Buckeye Central Local School District. “As with any other sports team, the esports athletes have to uphold all of the rules and be eligible to play, which includes their grades. He has turned his grades around. He even missed esports practice one night because he had too much homework. That’s just huge. He would never have done that before.”

For years, educators have been steering some students toward traditional sports as a way to help those children forge meaningful connections with their peers and motivate them to be more academically focused. Now, as more and more high schools across the country adopt esports, educators are viewing the emerging activity as another way to boost engagement — particularly among students who aren’t otherwise involved in school programs and clubs.

Districts Go All In for Esports Tech Investments

“Video games are a very inclusive experience,” says Jason Kirby, president of the High School Esports League. “We’re starting to see more kids with borderline or failing grades, or a lack of participation and engagement, getting involved in esports programs.”

School-sponsored esports programs tend to help less engaged or introverted students come out of their shell, Kirby says. “Esports takes something they’re passionate about, and then puts them in a room with like-minded peers and adult supervision,” he says. “They get feedback and positive reinforcement, and they make friendships and feel like they belong.”

Buckeye Central schools began “playing around” with esports in the spring of 2019, but lacked gaming hardware, and students mostly ended up playing from home, Studer says. That fall, the district rolled out 15 Lenovo Legion T530 gaming computers along with 24-inch 1080p ViewSonic XG2402 LED gaming monitors.

“That’s really when our program took off,” Studer says. “We said, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.’”

Buckeye Local School District's esports team

In 2019, the Buckeye Central Local School District esports team went undefeated in the regular season for “Overwatch.” Photo by Christine Close.

The program is still small, with about a dozen students competing. But already, those students are experiencing remarkable success — both in the competitive arena and in building academic and interpersonal skills that district educators had hoped the program would foster. Last fall, the team went undefeated in the regular season for “Overwatch,” earning a spot in the state championships, where Buckeye Central students finished as runners-up. The state tournament run was met with the type of fanfare usually reserved for traditional athletes.

“When they went to state, their lockers got decorated, we put it on social media, we made a big deal about it,” Studer says. “A girl on the team designed an esports logo, and we printed out T-shirts.”

Educators also noticed behavioral differences in the students. At the beginning of the season, one student didn’t take practices and games seriously, but he became a dedicated team member once he realized that his peers were counting on him. Another who helped set up the computers over the summer went from “barely talking” to confidently joking around with adults.

“Some of these kids never would have been involved in any type of sport before,” Studer says. “This gives them a chance to compete and be a part of a team.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover why video games and education don't have to exist in silos.

Creating Programs Where All Students Are Welcome

Miles Carey, assistant principal at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Va., built buy-in among other educators by emphasizing student engagement when he launched an esports program in 2017. Of the 50 ­students who showed up to an initial meeting, about one-third weren’t involved in any other sport or activity.

“When I did that same poll the next year, many of those students reported that they were now involved in something else too,” Carey says. “It did help increase their connection to the school, for sure.”

One Washington-Liberty High team recently won the state championship in “Rocket League,” a soccer game where players compete using rocket-powered cars. Because the program is officially sanctioned by the school and a state league, students on esports teams get the same supports as other athletes to help them keep up their grades.

Some benefits have been unexpected. A teacher of English language learners told Carey that esports participants are picking up English more quickly because the program gives them a chance to practice language skills outside of the classroom.

The esports program brings together different types of kids, including popular students and traditional athletes.

“It’s been a huge mix,” Carey says. “One of the students that won the Rocket League championship is going to start soccer practice next week. Others have done crew, baseball and basketball. Another is the drum major of the marching band. Esports is an open-to-anyone activity.”

$1.1 billion

The estimated total global esports revenue in 2019, an increase of nearly 27 percent from the year before

Source: Newzoo.com, “Global Esports Market Report,” February 2019

Esports Students Emerge as 'Rock Stars on the Virtual Field'

Fresno Unified School District launched a citywide esports program in 2018, with students competing remotely from their own school sites against their peers at other high schools. District officials wanted to give esports athletes an experience on par with traditional athletes, so they set up a twice-yearly physical tournament, with teams donning their school colors and squaring off in a school gymnasium. Crowds cheer them on from the bleachers, following the action on projector screens set up behind the teams.

“Part of this is to help students feel like this is a real sport,” says Kurt Madden, CTO for Fresno Unified. “Students in other sports play in a big gym or a football stadium or a tennis court with bleachers. Having the tournament in a large computer lab really didn’t seem to communicate that this is a sport, and this is a way to get to college and a career.”

To support the new tournament, the district invested in MSI Trident 3-series gaming machines and ViewSonic XG 24-inch gaming monitors, along with gaming chairs, headsets and keyboards.

“It’s attracted a lot of students who are not traditional sports athletes,” Madden says. “They come from very diverse backgrounds, including students with special needs and students of all genders. The activity engages students who we don’t often see on a physical playing field, but they are rock stars on the virtual field.”

“Students who used to go home and play on the computer by themselves now have to work as a team,” he adds. “That’s something those students have never experienced before.”

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