Back to the future: My epiphany with scholastic esports

Seeing the profound impact that gaming was having on students was the moment when everything clicked for me.
By: | June 25, 2020
Photos courtesy of NASEF/Florida Esports League

If you are an educator or a parent like me, you may have spent more than your fair share of time pondering the value of online gaming with a jaded eye.

Sure, I could admit that the communication and hand-eye coordination in video games could strengthen existing skills, but I certainly spent far more time getting kids off screens instead of thinking of ways to get them on. Little did I imagine that in a span of 12 months, I would fall in love with the power of scholastic esports to change lives and lift up the first state-wide scholastic esports league in the country.

If I am being honest, I was definitely not anti-gaming. I have seen the learning in building games that enable imagination, such as Minecraft. I even admit to having thoughtful conversations around my actions in FIFA and Animal Crossing.

Still, like many parents and educators, I couldn’t see esports a vehicle for critical thinking skills, especially when all I saw were kids suited up in oversized headphones, unable to hear my increasingly agitated cries to please finish homework. As a friend of mine once told her students, “Unless GameStop is giving you a college scholarship, you might want to put down that Nintendo Switch.”

Instead, I repeated my reminders about the greater importance of lifelong learning, a commitment to academics for entry into a choice college and deep thoughts about their potential career paths. I don’t think they were listening.

Until my esports “epiphany.”

In the fall of 2018, while attending the STEM Learning Ecosystems Community of Practice Convening in Santa Ana, Calif., we were invited to visit a “scholastic esports” event, an initiative of the Samueli Foundation. At first, I was confused. How did this arena of kids playing video games have anything to do with STEM?

Then, I listened, and I watched. The kids were incredibly excited, fully engaged and cheering their teams, to be sure. But, they were also leading the event, shoutcasting the play-by-plays, breaking down the data to optimize their performance. Their communication was fluid and strategic. They had designed and built nearly every aspect of the esports tournament experience – down to their team logos and merch.


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After listening to Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation, give a presentation to fellow STEM leaders and advocates about the possibilities and virtues of scholastic esports – I realized the power and promise of scholastic esports: it is not just gaming with a purpose. As the ultimate Trojan horse, it uses esports to empower students and enables passion into purpose. Kids game to grow in STEM.

The Samueli Foundation was formed when Henry Samueli took Broadcom public, and has provided grants in excess of $510 million on STEM Education, Youth Development, Integrative Health, and Jewish Leadership. Under Mr. Solomon’s innovative and collaborative leadership, they have built national and global networks impacting hundreds of thousands of children and young adults. His STEM Ecosystem Initiative alone supports 89 communities across the globe, bringing community stakeholders together to reinvent how students learn, how systems educate, and how communities thrive through a STEM-competent workforce.

Having been a STEM educator and ed tech industry veteran, I too had a professional and personal affinity with this mission.

However, it wasn’t until I experienced scholastic esports that I truly understood its immense potential for STEM learning and workforce development: capitalizing on the interest of all of the young people in gaming – well over 95% have some online gaming experience – and building on it to enhance their understanding of the value of science and technology with hands-on learning through game play.

I immediately contacted Mr. Solomon and asked how I could help bring this program to Florida. As the head of LEGO Education for Florida, I knew that my partners in STEM and CTE believed in the power of hands-on learning through play. Still, while some students were excited by robotics, I was passing far more kids in the hallways of schools across the state that were completely disengaged. If scholastic esports was that Trojan horse to meet students where they were, to speak their language, then I could not wait.

In May of 2019, a simple invitation was sent out to the heads of STEM, CTE and applied learning in districts around Florida: come to Tampa and listen to Gerald and learn about the “New Revolution in STEM Learning: Scholastic Esports.”

Larry Plank, the executive director of the Tampa Bay STEM Network and the head of STEM for Hillsborough County Public Schools, co-hosted the session. Hillsborough already had instituted the state’s first scholastic esports team and had seen the impact in just half a year. Maybe, we thought, we would get a few local people to attend. Instead, leaders from half of the state’s largest school districts – including the nation’s top five largest – signed up.

Clearly there was much interest in scholastic esports. After our presentation, the questions came in rapid fire: What were the costs? What was the research? How did we protect student data? How much training was required? Could it be integrated in the school day? What about scholarships and internships? How many schools were already participating? And when could they start?

Three months later, the Florida Scholastic Esports League was born. We held our first administrative professional development meeting. Each district sent two leaders to spend the day learning about the framework of the curriculum, the professional development required, alignment to standards and the steps to build out clubs, teams and competitions. Much time was spent on the research from Constance Steinkuehler and Mimi Ito at the University of California-Irvine, which found that the curriculum developed by the Samueli Foundation automatically improved SEL skills and STEM skills, especially among students with the least access.

With an agreed-upon playbook, each district selected teachers (with access to computer labs) and schools to pilot both in the school day and as an after school club. Some districts, such as Volusia and Miami-Dade, worked through their CTE departments. Others, such as Broward and Palm Beach, opened to interested, experienced teachers in STEM. Hillsborough launched clubs in both CTE and ELA classrooms. The key components were: district support, IT collaboration, principal buy-in, an interested teacher and the support, curriculum and platform from NASEF (North America Scholastic Esports Federation).

We conducted in-person training workshops, curriculum integration sessions and job-embedded coaching with all the districts. We worked closely with IT to ensure network security. Districts worked with principals and foundations to ensure internal support for teachers and teams. Most schools held parent information sessions. The flyers and emails were distributed to announce club meetings, and then we launched!

On the first day of club meetings, teachers opened their doors to an average of more than 115 students. Miami Lakes Education Center’s Peter Melton had to open two labs to fit all interested students. At Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in St. Lucie Public Schools, 135 students and parents showed up at the first informational session. This story was repeated over and over in each school throughout our pilot districts.  We had clearly tapped an unmet need to bring scholastic esports to Florida.

Of course, bringing the opportunity of scholastic esports is not an individual effort. The Samueli Foundation, through NASEF provides the vision, tools, licenses, PD, back-end support, marketing and expert coaching for NO COST to interested schools and institutions. It helps to facilitate the understanding and development of scholastic esports, working much like traditional sports programs do – except that student involvement enables a wide swath of kids to participate – not only through hands-on game play but hands-on development of the entire esports ecosystem.


Unlike traditional school or club sports, esports operates at an entirely different and more sophisticated level … Students build esports teams and run them like a business. They incorporate coding, build websites, plan tournaments, develop content and sophisticated marketing campaigns. 


From coding, to systems, to marketing and management, kids acquire valuable insights and experience in taking charge of various elements of the esports industry. The best part is that, unlike traditional school or club sports, esports operates at an entirely different and more sophisticated level.

The result is that students build esports teams and run them like a business. They incorporate coding, build websites, plan tournaments, develop content and sophisticated marketing campaigns. Other kids learn how to gather data, develop metrics and analytics, assess strengths and weaknesses, facilitate communication and can alter behaviors and tactics to enhance performance.

Students learn the value of engaging others into the esports system to maximize the potential of each person and to enhance collective results of the whole.  Teachers get to teach about things that matter in ways where students want to engage.

Real world problems, real world thinking, real world solutions.  True hands-on learning open to each and every student with interest. Much like industrial arts and the distributive education of yesteryear, scholastic esports is a program for student skill building for the jobs that exist now and will exist in the future. And, at the same time, in reaching forward to guide students into the future, administrators and teachers are evolving their curricula and teaching methods to meet the practical demands of the workforce of tomorrow. It’s a true win-win scenario.

Fast forward to May 2020. A year has passed, and our results are astounding.  Our students have won multiple scholarships; one competed in DreamHack on a national stage; many have been awarded prizes in our Beyond the Game challenges. During the COVID-19 quarantine, our teams were the only games available, offering opportunities for students to play and compete and create together.

Each district is expanding their clubs to all students, and we are offering the opportunity to join the Florida Scholastic Esports League to all districts and schools across the state. We are partnering with colleges and universities for additional pathways of studies for our scholastic esports students. And students have grown, matured and found that scholastic esports is a pathway to an exciting, growing STEM-based industry.

So, if like me, you might have been a bit judgmental toward scholastic esports and its benefits, you need to take another look. And you don’t have to do it alone. As one district leader told me, “You don’t just give us the keys to the Ferrari. You get in the passenger seat and teach us how to drive it.”

I invite you to contact FLSEL to gain the knowledge you need to help your students succeed.


Laylah Bulman is Program Officer for the Samueli Foundation and the Executive Director of the Florida Scholastic Esports League. 


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