May 12 2023

Female Coaches Reveal Best Practices for Middle and High School Esports

From increasing gender diversity to bringing students out of their shells, these Arkansas esports leaders share their experiences dispelling toxicity in gaming.

April Coats never envisioned herself as an esports coach, but when her EAST students used their project-based learning assignment to research and advocate for a team at Northside High School, she knew she had to step in. The timing of the students’ endeavor aligned perfectly with the Arkansas Activities Association signing a contract with the PlayVS esports platform, which led to a natural transition to bring esports to Fort Smith Public Schools.

“I don’t play any of these games. I’m not a gamer,” Coats says. “We started that first season with just one League of Legends team, and we’ve slowly been growing ever since.”

That was back in 2019. Now, Coats coaches more than 40 students in games such as League of Legends, Rocket League, Mario KartSuper Smash Bros. and more. Her teams have won Mario Kart and Splatoon championships in the last year. 

For Coats, though, it’s about more than winning the games. She works with the students on her team to build life lessons into esports, and she has pushed to expand the program in her district.

Click the link to explore more content on leveling up your K–12 esports program.

“April called and said, ‘You need to start up esports at the middle school level. Here are three Xboxes.’ She actually donated the machines,” says Eden Buergler, a media specialist and esports coach at Fort Smith Public Schools’ Darby Middle School. “This is my 24th year in education, and I’ve always been into the gamification of content, curriculum and assessments.”

Although the Fort Smith Public Schools program is still relatively new, Coats and Buergler are working to grow it into an inclusive space where players of any gender or background can feel welcome and flourish.

Coaches Build the Esports Pipeline Through a Growing Program

As Coats continues her fourth year of coaching esports at the high school, Buergler is in the second year of her middle school program.

“We played Rocket League again this year and a little bit of Minecraft, but we were the only school in our district with a middle school esports team,” Buergler says. She’s hoping that as esports adoption grows in local middle schools, her students will be able to compete.

She also has big goals for her own school’s program.

“I also want a lab. I’d set up an area with lights and chairs. I’ll get jerseys. I really want to have a dedicated place for esports,” she says. “Right now, our kids have to go an arena to compete.”

DIVE DEEPER: See how one K–12 district outfitted a custom-built esports room.

Buergler is already seeing a large influx of sixth grade students interested in esports, and interest at the middle school level translates to more high school players.

Programs Actively Dispel Toxicity to Encourage Player Inclusivity

In addition to her efforts to help start a program at the middle school, Coats says word of mouth is one of the best ways to get new students involved.

“Every year, it grows a little more, especially with girls trying something new. As their friends get involved, it will grow more,” she says.

Although her program skews heavily toward male participants, she has six or seven female students on her team this year.

“What I’ve learned from the girls we do have involved is that they’re afraid to come into esports because of the toxicity that’s so prevalent when they’re gaming online,” Coats says. “If you can set the tone for your program where that’s not going to be allowed, it makes them feel more comfortable to come into that environment.”

WATCH NOW: Create a successful and inclusive esports program.

Coats and Buergler both emphasize quelling toxic gaming behaviors early on in their programs. Coats explains that when the high school students start out, they’re only allowed to send “GG” — which stand for “good game” — in the chat. As they go through the program and learn more responsibility, they get more leeway to speak with other teams.

Buergler notes that, although she has dealt with some poor student behavior in the middle school program this year, creating an inclusive environment has allowed otherwise outcast students to flourish.

“One kid came to us this year, and he was a loner, and he found us. He found his people in esports,” she says. “He has gotten so much more self-confidence. He is articulate, and he’s able to really have friends.”

K–12 Esports Leads to Future Opportunities for Players

This year, Coats also has a female student in charge of her streaming team, which livestreams all of the matches and edits all of the videos. “She’s just a sophomore, but she leads that crew with no problem. We’ve created an environment where the rest of the team shows her a lot of respect because they know she’s doing a lot of work for them.”

April Coats
We’ve created an environment where the rest of the team shows her a lot of respect because they know she’s doing a lot of work for them.”

April Coats Esports Coach, Fort Smith Public Schools

It’s these opportunities, in addition to the gaming, that Coats and Buergler encourage.

“I’m computer science certified, so when it comes to getting girls into STEM and coding and esports, I look at it from the career side,” Buergler says. She adds that colleges are actively recruiting players from the high school program.

Fort Smith Public Schools esports students have ample opportunities to compete for their home state. Arkansas State University has a rapidly growing esports program on its campus and offers a bachelor’s degree in digital technology and design with an emphasis in game design and a bachelor’s in fine arts with an emphasis in game design.

Edwin Tan/Getty Images

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