Educators receive valuable lessons from esports experts at FETC

From technology and hardware to simply embracing video gaming in schools, attendees at Miami conference learn how to make a new program run well
By: | January 16, 2020

Why does esports matter in schools?

Mike Washburn of Logics Academy in Canada, speaking at Thursday’s Future of Education Technology Conference® in Miami, said simply: “Because your kids care. Because your students care.”

Washburn, a former K-8 computer science teacher, led a spirited discussion with three other top voices for esports and education: J Collins of Hathaway Brown School in Ohio; Liz Newbury of the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center; and Steve Isaacs, a middle school and high school teacher in New Jersey. Their “Esports in K-12: What, Why and How!” session gave educators strong motivation to try implementing it in their schools.

Each of the four shared their experiences and their input on what it takes to help make a program run successfully. They all agreed that it starts with understanding student needs.

“This is the world they are living in [with esports]; we’re playing catch-up,” Washburn said. “We’ve always talked about reaching students where they are. This is where they are. We say, ‘We’ve got to connect with students and what they are interested in and how they want to learn.’ This is what they want to do.”

Among the many topics of discussion during a wide array of esports sessions here were games being played, diversity and inclusion, and implementing an esports program—not only with high schoolers, but also with the youngest students.

The four “Esports in K-12: What, Why and How!” panelists, with Collins serving as moderator, took in questions via Twitter from attendees in the room.

One question posed to the panel was: “Should we start this in elementary school?”

“Of course!” Washburn said. “But it’s complicated.”

Isaacs, one of the few to take a swing at esports at the middle school level said, “Absolutely yes. The game question [which to choose] only makes sense in terms of what games are appropriate. Rocket League, Minecraft. … We need to develop the pipeline from kindergarten through college. Elementary school and middle school are really a group that have yet to be connected.”

Newbury, director and program associate for the Serious Games Initiative for the Wilson Center, added: “It’s very important to show kids from a very early age that gaming is a culture and a community that they can participate in. Certain people are told gaming is for them, and others are told gaming is not for them. One of the things you want to think about is who is allowed to participate.”

Rocket League, probably the most accessible game for school-age children, resonates with many, but not with Collins’ all-girls team. “They say it’s just soccer. It’s for boys. The No. 1 game in my school is Just Dance.”

The four wrapped up their session by answering the question: “What is the one argument for why you should do esports in your school?”

Newbury: “The socio-emotional component is a big reason why it has a place in schools, along with the research capacity. You’re teaching students how to look up strategy to learn about their game.”

Isaacs: “The affinity space I see when you bring kids together with common interests, especially kids who would otherwise not have that space … and now they’ve got a space together.”

Washburn: “In schools, there’s always been a space for the football player. There’s always been a space for the track team. There’s always been a space for the band. There’s never been a space for the gamer. And now there is.”

Educators who attended the day’s opening session received a bundle of information on technology and hardware needs, as well as the games to select, from Joshua Pann, co-curricular specialist at HP Inc. He also echoed the sentiments of those above when considering esports in schools, noting diversity (46% of gamers are female) and improvements in GPAs and attendance as factors.

“There are significant, meaningful, experiential learning opportunities for students, with significant leadership components,” Pann said.

Once a school is ready to start on an esports path, Pann told attendees: “Let’s face it, your students are going to know more about the gaming and content than you are. You’ll have no choice but to design a course that relies on their leadership. Don’t underestimate the coolness factor [when choosing equipment],” he said.

Pann explained some of the basics to his room full of attendees. He discussed the differences in starting small and going big and the merits of maximizing frames per second. He also said that bandwidth can be less taxing with certain games than streaming: “Thirty-nine students playing League equals one watching YouTube.”

Pann also talked about the importance of finding ways to build out spaces specifically tailored to each school, and doing it in phases, if necessary:

Phase 1: using an existing room as a mixed-use space with six to 12 computers

Phase 2: having a dedicated space with 18-24 workstations, with a look at implementing some sort of educational component

Phase 3: the big build, with more than 30 stations purposely designed with esports in mind and robust academic class inclusion

He noted that costs varied depending on scale, but even Collins at Hathaway Brown admitted that schools don’t need much to implement esports right away.

“During our first year, we spent $60,” Collins said, noting that they purchased a few Rocket League licenses and some hoodies. Hathaway Brown is still using existing computers from the school’s library.

What is the biggest challenge? It’s configuring firewalls, which Pann said must be looked at closely by each school and each district before leaders think about spending. One way or another, because of the tremendous growth and interest in gaming with students, it becomes a no-brainer to give it a try, he said.

“Go slow. It’s a new, scary and exciting world out there,” Pann said. “There’s not a ton of organization out right now. But I think you’ll find the people in esports are incredibly helpful. Everyone who is in the space is very willing to share the lessons they’ve learned. It’s in everyone’s interest to help the scene grow.”

Many of Thursday’s sessions at the Miami Beach Convention Center focused on recognizing the benefits that come from embracing esports, especially starting at the secondary school level. Jason Kirby, president of the High School Esports League, spoke on the impact esports has had on GPA and attendance in high schools, while Mark Deppe and Gerald Solomon (Samueli Foundation) of NASEF discussed engaging students through their love of the game. Representatives from Miami-Dade County Public Schools talked about their success in building a pilot program at nine schools. Their students have also taken part in gameplay daily on the arena floor, giving administrators and school faculty a glimpse into the competitive environment of video gaming.

On the collegiate side, Michael Jones of Drury University and Derek Spinell of Mount Union talked about esports and facilities; Jay Prescott and Dana Hustedt of Grand View University in Iowa discussed recruitment, retention and scholarships; and Randy Sieminski led a session on the State University of New York-Canton’s implementation of esports on campus.

On Friday, the show wraps up with a pair of NAECAD-sponsored sessions, including a panel discussion on “Esports Leadership, Vision and Program Development” and “Esports Case Studies: The Good, The Great and The Challenges.”

The show is one of three this year that feature esports tracks: FETC®, UB Tech® and the newly launched Academic Esports Conference and Expo, to be held this October in Chicago. For more information, contact Program Chair Chris Burt at

For all FETC® coverage, click here.

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.