Chris Aviles, Esports Coordinator for Monmouth Beach School District, says nonplayer roles are key to the community.

Oct 26 2021

Esports Thrives in K–12 Schools for Reasons Other than Gameplay

Scholastic esports programs attract an inclusive gaming community while nurturing STEM careers.

After launching Magnolia High School’s innovative Magnolia Cybersecurity Institute at Anaheim Union High School District, English Teacher Lindsay Paananen soon realized that participating students loved hardcore gaming as much as they loved tech – so much so that it was coming through in their writing.

“One student wrote a really insightful essay about his love of esports,” Paananen says. “I knew our students were tech-minded and gaming-focused, and if we didn’t begin to offer esports, we’d just be getting in the way of what they wanted.”

The institute at the California school was launched to prepare students for a career in technology. However, when Paananen and other teachers in the area noticed the growing trend in video game competitions, or esports, they banded together to integrate gaming into the curriculum for academic benefit as well as training for possible esports careers as analysts, journalists, marketers, tech support or event managers.

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Soon, AUHSD assembled an esports program committee and, in 2019, launched its first esports championship series. By the following year, the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body for high school sports, launched its own esports initiative.

“Their endorsement helped legitimize what we were trying to do,” says Adrian Olmedo, teacher, technology specialist and esports coordinator at AUHSD’s Western High School. Olmedo teaches media arts and career technical education (CTE) and knows firsthand that scholastic esports is about much more than gaming.

“A lot of kids come in thinking they want to be a Twitch streamer. It’s what gets them into the esports program,” he says. “But it’s our job as educators to show them what other skills they can develop.”

Academically, various groups harness students’ interest in esports, engage them in extracurricular pursuits, and channel their energy into STEM fields, media and other career paths or postsecondary education opportunities.

WATCH NOW: Create a successful and inclusive esports program for K–12 students.

“Schools are trying to get more students involved in extracurricular activities because it leads to a giant leap in academic achievement,” explains Joe McAllister, formerly CDW•G’s education esports expert. “In K–12, esports programs are built around soft-skill development such as teamwork, communication skills, leadership, dependability as well as CTE pathways. So even if the esports industry slowed tomorrow, it would continue to thrive in K–12 education because of all the benefits for kids.”

A Global Phenomenon Impacting K–12 Schools

Esports has exploded from highly competitive professional teams to nearly 200 varsity esports programs at colleges and universities in the United States. According to Newzoo’s 2021 Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report, esports will rake in more than $1 billion this year alone.

Within the past few years, esports programs have also sprung up in K–12 schools around the country as educators see them as opportunities to engage students in their future. The North America Scholastic Esports Federation supports nearly 2,000 high school clubs across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. PlayVS, a commercial esports platform, hosts state and regional high school leagues in 23 states and provinces.

In 2018, the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine published “Understanding Esports as a STEM Career-Ready Curriculum in the Wild.” According to the study, “while teams of competing players reside at the center of activity, it is the surrounding community roles, practices and products that serve as the generative engine.”

The Connected Learning Lab describes the esports ecosystem as consisting of five categories: players; strategists (coaches, analysts); content creators (journalists, online streamers); entrepreneurs (marketers, business developers); and organizers (tech support, event managers).

RELATED: Discover five hidden building blocks for a scholastic esports program.

Opportunities Beyond Gaming for Student Content Creators

As the founder of one of the nation’s first middle school esports programs and now the esports coordinator for Monmouth Beach School District in New Jersey, Chris Aviles has long supported esports in K–12 education.

He estimates that for every two students who join a scholastic esports team to play competitively, there is at least one who doesn’t want to play but wants to be part of the community, whether that is through “shoutcasting” games, creating graphics and other content, or ensuring the team’s workstations perform at a high level.

“If I have a kid who knows the game and is a talented speaker, I’ll work with them to be our caster, or if there’s another who loves to draw, I might work with them to be our graphic designer,” he says.

Aviles frequently delivers college preparatory workshops about esports, telling students that while it’s tough to become a professional esports player, there are many other opportunities in and around esports. “One of the most interesting people my kids have met — one they still talk about — was a university student who wanted to be an accountant for a professional esports team,” Aviles recalls.

MORE ON EDTECH: Invest in tech that supports K–12 esports content creators to level up your team.

The Tech Powering K–12 Esports Programs

As his school’s technology specialist, Aviles knows what goes into a competitive esports lab. Monmouth Beach recently took delivery of 14 high-end HP OMEN gaming workstations and 40-inch NEC commercial-grade displays, along with all the furniture, racks and cables needed to build its inaugural lab. Excited students also help keep the cutting-edge technology performing at a high level.

“Our district’s not only investing in esports but also in STEM,” he says. “You can’t be serious about STEM jobs without being serious about esports, because that’s where a lot of these jobs are going to be.”

Chris Aviles
You can’t be serious about STEM jobs without being serious about esports, because that’s where a lot of these jobs are going to be.”

Chris Aviles Esports Coordinator, Monmouth Beach School District

At AUHSD, CTO Erik Greenwood is overseeing the build-out of 16 esports labs throughout the district, with 40 MSI Aegis gaming-ready desktops in each lab, along with MSI Optix monitors, Vigor keyboards and Immerse headsets. AUHSD partnered with the local YMCA for help in managing the expansive, multicampus program to ensure students received added support and guidance.

“Our district leaders are well aware of esports’ importance,” Greenwood says. “And, considering our CTE focus, we’re in a good place to also support robust career technical pathways.”

Olmedo, who is also the CTE teacher at AUHSD’s Western High School, appreciates the firepower the district’s embrace of esports has brought to a wider variety of students. He says, “Dual-purpose systems are great. Our CTE courses can also include video and animation work, or even game design, because of these high-end machines.”

Hands-On Experience with Educational Technology

For the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, some students get involved with esports just to work with high-end gaming machines.

“Where you might have a computer maintenance and repair program, we’ll let those kids build and support the gaming systems,” says Kyle Berger, GCISD’s esports coordinator and CTO. “We’ve got pregame routines where they fire up the machines 45 minutes before a match, make sure there are no updates needed and test for network latency.”

GCISD high schools have also adapted their traditional audio/video coursework to include lessons on media streaming and production for esports. “My whole life in ed tech has been about bridging the gap between the way the students live and the way they learn.” Berger says.

DIVE DEEPER: Chris Turner discusses building an esports pipeline for students.

And while students are exploring nonplaying opportunities, a rich esports program can certainly open doors for those who excel at popular titles like League of Legends and Rocket League. GCISD schools were 2019 state champions in each.

“The first time I called a kid’s parents to tell them a college recruiter wanted to discuss esports, I knew I had to talk to the football coaches about navigating the process,” Berger says. “I tell other districts to just get started, be prepared and then share the excitement.”

Photography by Colin Lenton