Engaging Students in Learning through Esports

James O'Hagan, Director of Digital & Virtual Learning, Racine Unified School District
James O'Hagan, Director of Digital & Virtual Learning, Racine Unified School District

James O'Hagan, Director of Digital & Virtual Learning, Racine Unified School District

Would you be so quick to shut off your child’s video game system if you knew that it could be a portal to a scholarship at an international university or a career in a billion-dollar industry? What about if it led to a reduction in your child’s anxiety, better connections with his/her peers, or an interest in developing better sleep and nutritional habits?

Thanks to the exciting evolution of esports and media attention to events like 16-year-old Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf’s recent $3 million purse win at the Epic Games Fortnite World Cup in New York, these are the types of questions both parents and educators are asking themselves in environments where esports is done right: holistically considered and responsibly deployed.

But first, a pause for those quizzically cocking their heads to the side, Esports? What’s that?

Esports is organized, competitive, multiplayer video gaming. Much like how when we talk about traditional “sports” it encompasses basketball, football, and swimming, there are a lot of games that fall into the realm of esports. Titles such as “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” “Rocket League,” and, of course, “Fortnite” are among the most popular. Dedicating hours to playing these games does not, on its own, make someone an esports athlete- just as tossing a ball around the yard with friends can be considered “playing football” while it takes organization, dedication, discipline, and training to be “a football player.” The difference is similar between casual gaming and esports.

  The most important aspect of esports to be considered is that, at its heart, this is all about play​  

In schools across the United States, we are always looking to engage children in new and dynamic ways. Of paramount importance is meeting children where they’re at: what do kids naturally love to do, and how can we add value to that space without negatively impacting the joy they find there? Pew Research shows 97 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls of ages 13 to 17 in the U.S. identify as being a gamer of some kind. Those demographics cut across race and socio-economics. To responsibly guide the evolution of esports in education and harness its potential, we must tap into the intrinsic motivation- or behaviors based on inherent enjoyment- of gamers and embrace the opportunities for connection offered on the gaming field.

Being respectful in our messaging is one of the first steps to take. Would we tell kids that they draw too much? Dance too much? Play an instrument too much? Hopefully not. Yet too often, video games are dismissed as “just a waste of time” by adults who have not researched the profoundly positive impact they can have when implemented responsibly. The modern space in which the majority of children are choosing to engage in some way is in video games. Let us meet them there and understand why instead of negating their passion for play.

Which brings us to this question: Why embrace esports? There are five core reasons, and they should be at the heart of any program your child joins or your school implements:

1. Redefine Athletic Culture
2. Diversify Opportunities for Student Participation
3. Promote Good Mental and Physical Health
4. Create Career and Collegiate Scholarship Pathways
5. Honor the Importance of Play

Esports redefines athletic culture by encouraging children of all races, abilities, and genders to compete in a space where their passion for play is the most prominent part of their identity as an athlete. Esports is an opportunity for everyone to come together in a shared space around a love of gaming.

In bringing children together across demographics, you diversify opportunities for their participation in extracurricular activities. Research shows that students engaged in extracurricular activities have higher grade point averages, better attendance, and increased graduation rates. So many children who do not fit traditional athletic ideals are often left on the margins. Esports participation draws them into a community in which they belong.

To have children intrinsically motivated to be part of their school’s esports experience, the conversation should now begin to shift towards things typically not associated with video games - positive mental and physical health. The importance of good sleep habits, proper nutrition, and a dedicated exercise regimen are critical aspects of a responsible esports program. Kids are far more likely to pass over energy drinks in favor of water when they learn how their gaming performance is negatively impacted after the sugar crash or to choose snacks that increase their focus during tournaments and exercises (like yoga and weights) that help regulate their heart rate and add stamina during matches. As part of this ecosystem, we employ aspects of traditional sports training: weight training helps develop complex reasoning skills, and aerobic training promotes problem-solving skills. Additionally, research indicates that two of the best ways to promote good mental health are with positive adult interactions and through play. The key is meeting kids in the space they love to deliver the messaging.

Colleges and universities in the United States have also begun to take note of esports and are attracting students with scholarships of varying sizes. In 2023, there will be an estimated $100m in scholarship money available related to esports. The opportunity to access these scholarships is greatly enhanced when primary and secondary schools formally embrace esports. Higher learning institutions recognize that esports is a billion-dollar industry in which playing games is just one element. Marketing, sports nutrition, broadcasting, psychology, esports law, business management, digital art, storytelling, computer science,  these are just some of the career paths through this new ecosystem.

Probably the most important aspect of esports to be considered is that, at its heart, this is all about play. By providing these environments for children to play, we are helping to defray the issue of online toxicity and helping them navigate their world as we would on a traditional playground.

As adults, most of us are standing on the edge of a virtual world that our children have already entered. Esports provides a realm to master their passions and develop tangible opportunities. Let’s pick up a controller and join them there.

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