Nov 01 2021

Why You Should Upgrade Your School Esports Teams

Advancing your team to a competitive level can lead to academic engagement, scholarships and esports careers for students involved.

The competitive video gaming industry has taken off in recent years, and more high schools are tapping that enthusiasm to engage students in esports.

This team sport is quashing the image of the lone video gamer. Instead, like a traditional athletic team, students work together to form strategies for particular games, such as the popular Fortnite, and practice to improve their skills. And, increasingly, these teams are becoming more competitive as high schools discover the benefits of leveling up their programs.

“A lot of our top teams in the league, a lot of students, are definitely getting recruited to play in colleges,” says Matt Bulka, Southeast regional consultant for the High School Esports League, which describes itself as the largest high school sports league in the country. Formed in 2014 with just a few dozen participants, the league now boasts a community of 3,400 schools and 140,000 students.

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Why Should K–12 Schools Level Up Their Esports Programs?

“By investing in an esports team, you’re investing in the whole school,” Bulka says. To level up an existing esports program, it’s crucial to have an invested coach and an administration that sees the value of esports.

Ben Spieldenner, director of professional development for technology integration and innovation at Ashland City Schools in Ohio and Ashland High School esports director, says the program launched in 2019 with support from the school’s principal and superintendent.

The initial goal was to give students with gaming expertise an outlet to share it and feel connected to their school. “The more a student is connected to their school, the more likely they are to stay engaged,” Spieldenner says.

The school, now part of the Esports Ohio league, has varsity, junior varsity and club esports teams. Leveling up those programs means that students are not just “playing a video game” but learning serious skills and getting better at them.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover information on getting your esports program started.

Spieldenner says leveling up an esports program gives it legitimacy.

“One of the biggest struggles that most esports programs have is the legitimacy of the program,” he notes. “If someone has never seen a real esports match, it’s hard for them to picture what goes on or what it looks like. But it’s really competitive, and you have to be good at it in order to win.”

How Do Investments Allow High School Esports Teams to Prosper?

Tom Dore, head of education for the British Esports Association, which is the U.K.’s national body for esports, says such programs help educators engage students who otherwise might not participate in school activities. Dore, who is also a classroom science teacher, says that this often is the “lightbulb moment” when educators recognize esports as credible and worthwhile.

In the U.K., there is a bracket for more competitive esports teams and one for social players. To level up, Dore says, technology investment is key. “You need to spend a little bit more to get PCs that are good enough to play the games.”

Southern University Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, La., knows this well, as it unveiled the state’s first esports room in January.

The lab school’s esports and media lab consists of advanced gaming headsetsgaming keyboardsgaming chairsPlayStation 4 consoles65-inch smart TVs and more.

Ben Spieldenner
If someone has never seen a real esports match, it’s hard for them to picture what goes on or what it looks like. But it’s really competitive, and you have to be good at it in order to win.”

Ben Spieldenner Esports Director, Ashland High School

Christopher Turner, a teacher at the lab school and general manager and head esports coach for both the Southern University team and the lab school team, says the room was a $60,000 investment. The benefits, he says, extend beyond esports, as the room is used to support education in science, technology and math.

The school’s competitive teams play Fortnite, Rocket League, Madden, NBA2K and other games.

“It’s about appealing to the culture,” Turner says. “We know that 95 percent of Generation Z plays video games. It’s a matter of meeting them where they are.”

Turner says the benefits of esports reach beyond competition. “Any soft skill that you learn in traditional sports, you can learn in esports,” he notes.

DIVE DEEPER: Chris Turner discusses how to build an esports pipeline to college and beyond.

These are among the broad benefits to leveling up esports programs and giving students an opportunity to compete, Bulka says. He, too, cites the development of soft skills, such as communication and learning to think strategically.

“Perseverance is really important for our kids, especially after the past year and half,” he says.

Esports also teach students how to win and lose. That includes recognizing that people can be better than you at some things, and that’s OK.

How Can K–12 Esports Benefit the Team Behind the Team?

Bulka says esports programs benefit more than just the players. Behind the athletes are students who support the team by managing its social media and streaming presence, designing digital art or music, creating flyers and more.

“Then there’s math,” he says. “A student treasurer or community manager works to get sponsorship opportunities, and you have someone taking stats.”

There are students who improve their journalism skills by writing about the team and others who advance their video editing skills by creating highlight reels after matches.

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Turner says he also relies heavily on his players for gaming strategy and is a “true believer in student assistant coaches.”

“Everyone plays a role in an esports program, especially a competitive one,” he adds.

Do Esports Lead to Scholarships and Careers?

About 200 colleges in the U.S. offered $16 million in esports scholarships during the 2018-2019 school year — a threefold increase from 2015, according to the National Association of College Esports. These scholarships are helping set up students for careers in esports as athletes, content creators, strategists, organizers and more.

Troy Murphy, a student at the Southern University Lab School, won the High School Esports League’s Spring Majors National Championship in 2020, which included a $1,000 scholarship. At the time, Murphy was just 13 years old. He plans to major in engineering in college, which Turner notes is frequently a career path associated with esports.

One of Turner’s priorities is to increase scholarship dollars available to esports athletes. In the meantime, there are opportunities for smaller prizes, and he looks forward to leveling up his program even further by securing donors and funding for larger scholarships.

“I want to have the opportunity to sit in a living room and offer them a full ride,” he says.

Photography by Daymon Gardner