May 05 2021

Can Early Adoption of Esports Help Students Learn to Cope with Stress?

Implementing esports programs at the elementary and middle school levels can teach emotional regulation and set teams up for success.

Esports provides a socially distant, collaborative and competitive opportunity for students in any learning environment. These games may also provide a benefit to students beyond safe social interaction with their peers. Students who participate in esports clubs may learn skills to cope with stressors, especially if they practice those skills from a young age.

According to a study by Queensland University of Technology’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, esports athletes experienced less stress when faced with factors outside of their control. Educators can give students the opportunity to learn these skills at an early age by introducing esports clubs to elementary and middle school students.

“It takes a long time to practice,” says Zack Gilbert, an esports coach at University High School, a laboratory school of Illinois State University. “You can get some basic concepts, and you can play it, but it takes a lot to be very competitive.”

Gilbert, who also teaches social studies to fifth and sixth graders at the university’s Thomas Metcalf School, sees firsthand how students have used esports — and video games generally — to cope during the past year.

“I think it gives them an outlet to handle that stress,” he says. “I know it’s been that way for me, and I think it’s been that way for the kids, to kind of get your mind off of things.”

Support for Esports Is on the Rise

The recent surge in the popularity of esports and online gaming can, in part, be attributed to the pandemic and society’s subsequent digital shift. However, increased coverage by ESPN and the growing number of celebrity streamers has also boosted interest in esports. Fortnite hosted a virtual concert by DJ Marshmello in 2018, attracting millions of fans.

Many esports athletes are drawn to the competition by lucrative tournaments, in which the victors can win millions of dollars in prize money. School esports tournaments present scholarship opportunities, such as those offered by Intel Inspires.

With all of this attention, ad revenue for esports grew to $196 million in 2020 and is expected to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023. The growing market creates more opportunities for student athletes and opens the door for nonathletes to develop skills in areas such as event planning, team management, marketing and media. Introducing esports to younger students increases their competitive edge in all the related industries.

Esports Teaches Players to Cope with Stress

Esports and online gaming have been correlated to many positive mental health outcomes. Among these, new studies have found an increased ability in student athletes to deal with stress.

The Queensland University of Technology study, published in April 2020, found that “esports athletes appear to appraise stressors as both a threat and challenge at the same time.” Reframing stressors as a challenge adds the perspective that they can be overcome.

“When playing ranked or competitive play,” the study continued, “many factors can be out of the player’s control, which includes teammates, opponents and character selection. Although these issues might result in stress, being able to accept that these factors are beyond a player’s control could be associated with performing more highly in esports.”

As an esports and wrestling coach at Piscataquis Community High School in Maine, Ryan Botting sees differences between the two teams. “What’s cool about esports, which is a little different than my experience with wrestling, is a loss is a little less personal,” he says. “They still feel those emotions and still can learn to work through those emotions, which is the most important part of sports.”

For many players, these behaviors and coping mechanisms are learned in the same ways they learn game mechanics, such as how to read a map in a game or use a car to launch a soccer ball into a net.

MORE ON EDTECH: How can schools create a winning esports program during a pandemic?

Esports Offers Lessons in Emotional Regulation

Another way to look at how a student deals with stress is to consider their ability to regulate their emotions. Emotional regulation indicates how well a student can overcome stressors that are out of their control. This may help students think more clearly about a math problem, but it won’t necessarily help them overcome all of the difficulties associated with a pandemic.

“This is a trauma, mentally and physically, this pandemic,” Gilbert says. “And so, at the beginning of the year, there was a lot of ‘hey, we’ll get this going.’ And I just think, with the fatigue of it, other things have become more important.”

Despite that, Gilbert notes, students are using esports as an outlet for their stress and emotions, which may be helping them even if it isn’t solving the crisis at hand.

When students play esports and participate in online gaming, they may be learning emotional regulation, according to a study conducted by two Penn State University researchers.

This study specifically looked at League of Legends players and found that, “like physical sports where inexperienced athletes struggle to regulate their emotions, LoL players also need to cope with negative emotions caused by in-game failures and frustrations.”

“Our work showed that players are not passive consumers of emotional content, and possess agency in recognizing their own emotions and developing expertise in ER [emotional regulation],” the Penn State study stated.

The earlier a student is exposed to the frustrations that accompany learning a new game, the earlier they can learn to control those emotions.

Sports and other activities help kids grow as leaders, socially and emotionally.”

— Ryan Botting Esports Coach, Piscataquis Community High School

“One of my big philosophies is meeting kids where they’re at,” says Botting, who also teaches high school social studies. “Sports and other activities help kids grow as leaders, socially and emotionally. What’s awesome about esports is, even in a normal year, it’s something that kids are doing anyway. In esports, they can harness that to grow emotionally, and they can excel at something.”

Introducing esports clubs at the elementary or middle school level would allow students to actively build their emotional regulation abilities while playing.

Beyond that, Gilbert notes that introducing esports at an elementary or middle school level would allow for more inclusion and diversity in programs. Before the pandemic, he had been trying to establish an esports club at Thomas Metcalf School.

“I think it all starts at the elementary and middle school; you set the tone there,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure that there’s a foundation. It’s essential for colleges and universities to start promoting to the to the younger grades, because that’s how you’re going to have a broader, more diverse group of players.”

DIVE DEEPER: Outfit K–12 esports teams to optimize performance and gain a competitive edge.

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