Feb 16 2024

How Schools Get Esports Programs off the Ground

K–12 administrators rely on grants and community partnerships to start and further their schools’ esports programs.

Esports programs are popping up in K–12 school districts across the country. These initiatives are supported by research into esports’ benefits and college programs that offer esports career paths, scholarships and communities.

For some schools, however, starting an esports program can feel like an uphill battle. Getting administrators on board is the first step, but once schools have their approval, they still need to find ways to fund the equipment for these programs, start or join local tournaments, and integrate the program into the education ecosystem.

In western Pennsylvania, superintendents have found ways to overcome these hurdles as they work to build out their new esports programs. Sue Mariani, superintendent of Duquesne City School District, says the original idea for starting the program came from the students.

“They wanted game design, which really is the beginning piece of esports,” she says. “In a district that has historically been athletics-driven, being able to provide other kids who aren’t athletes an opportunity to be successful is empowering.”

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To make her students’ interests a reality, Mariani relied on support and inspiration from other school leaders in the community while funding the creation of her middle school game design lab with grants.

Admins Rely on Connections with One Another and Nearby Districts

When Mariani first became superintendent of Duquesne City School District in 2018, she felt distant from other schools in her community. “It felt very much like a silo,” she says.

Since then, she’s built relationships with other superintendents and school leaders in her county, including Laura Jacob, superintendent of Pennsylvania’s California Area School District.

“Laura and I are among the few female superintendents in the region,” Mariani says. “We have truly built this network of professionals where it’s not about who’s one-upping the other, it’s about what can you learn from them.”

GET STARTED: Lay the groundwork for esports in kindergarten.

The two have leaned on one another when it comes to incorporating esports and the lessons that accompany their programs. “It hits a whole new demographic of kids and engages them after school. They’re not necessarily your sports-affiliated kids, but they are good kids, and it hits a new niche that really engages them in a different way.”

Mariani also found out, after starting her school’s program, that nearby Baldwin-Whitehall School District “has a robust esports high school.” As Duquesne City School District is currently a K–8 district, Mariani is working to find funding and space to reopen a high school within the district. When she does, she says, she will model its esports program off Baldwin-Whitehall School District’s example.

“We become this ecosystem of learning from one another,” she says. “It’s not about the haves and have nots anymore. It’s about, ‘What can I learn from you?’”

Schools Maximize Grant Money to Include More Students

Neither Mariani’s nor Jacob’s districts had room in their budgets for building out an esports program, so both schools applied for Remake Learning grants, which allowed them to get games and hardware.

“The computer consoles are about $10,000 apiece, so I would only be able to have two, maybe three consoles, but that wasn’t what I was looking to do. That defeats the whole purpose,” she says. “So, we currently have Xbox video game consoles for them, which we were able to obtain with the grant money.”

Opting for Xbox systems allowed Mariani to build out an entire esports arena. “We created our esports lab for middle school kids, so it’s only for my seventh and eighth graders.”

Jacob’s district has esports from elementary through high school, and the students use the arena on rotation. “Right now, we only have 10 Xbox systems, so we have an elementary group, which is our K–6 group, stay after school. Then, the 7–12 group meets a different day on those same systems.”

At both schools, the students play games like Rocket League, and both administrators have seen increases in engagement. “They’re more engaged. They’re more in tune with what they’re learning, and now they’re applying it, so they really get to see that connection,” Mariani says.

UP NEXT: Could esports reverse the trend of boys falling behind in school?

gorodenkoff / getty images

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