Beyond the Game: The benefits of NASEF, scholastic esports

From DA's Academic Esports Guide: The North America Scholastic Esports Federation provides more than just a space to play; it offers a path for students to get a real-world education
Photo courtesy of NASEF

This column is from District Administration’s Academic Esports Guide

Esports provides a fantastic environment for connecting “play and learning”. For example, participating in a scholastic esports program such as NASEF, offers all the benefits of the esports experience, plus state-approved curriculum that puts fun back into learning.

Many organizations run tournaments for high schoolers, but lasting education demands an intentional framework, and one that is evidence-based and Department of Education-approved. By tapping into students’ love of esports and related components of the ecosystem, it is possible to genuinely engage youth in the meaningful learning of life and career skills. Scholastic esports, not just esports, is the key.

The North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) has developed an evidence research-based program that incorporates state education standards into league play of popular video games while maintaining an authentic gamers’ experience. Similarly, esports-centric classes impart time-tested principles with illustrations from the games, community, and the ecosystem to make the lessons fun and memorable.

“Online platforms like esports are the new social gathering places for kids,” said Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation and founder of NASEF. “We believe the platform when infused with state-credentialed curriculum, can be leveraged for an even greater benefit, to help them grow their STEM interests and develop valued skills that will be needed for success in the future workforce.”

NASEF’s foundation is based upon several principles: First, it is a scholastic platform that uses esports as the Trojan Horse to get kids excited about learning. Second, it is FREE because education is a fundamental right. And lastly, it is evidence- and research-based, assessing the nexus between the curriculum and the play of esports.

“Millions of teenagers are playing esports, leading many parents and educators to wonder how to infuse positive elements into the outrageously popular video game community and culture,” said Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine and NASEF’s Education and Research Lead. “NASEF provides schools with the tools they need to give teens a complete experience that combines the fun of gaming with deeply embedded education on relevant real-world skills.”

How NASEF’s Education Permeates Esports

In and Out of School Learning

Renowned education experts from the Orange County Department of Education, researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and UCI Esports (the 2018 College League of Legends National Champion) carefully examined the esports ecosystem to create what is currently the only state-approved, full four-year high school and CTE track curriculum connecting education to esports. They were able to integrate education into esports clubs:

  • An environment was created to nurture collaboration, communication and school pride.
  • Near-peer professional coaches guide students to develop social-emotional skills and build a positive gaming culture, as well as improve their gameplay.
  • Professionals lead career-focused workshops, clinics, and mentoring sessions incorporating engineering, technology, and entrepreneurship principles.
  • Students are mentored to build crucial 21st century skills.
  • School clubs gain access to dozens of toolkits that help members with important tasks, such as creating a club charter and code of conduct, fundraising, and building an online presence.
  • And an entire state-approved curriculum for high school and CTE was developed that can used as a framework for connecting learning and play in any school or out-of-school program.

Beyond the Game

High school students interested in a variety of STEM and creative careers should have the opportunity for real-world experience in those areas. NASEF offers recognition and mentorship opportunities in “Beyond the Game” challenges in categories of competition, such as:

  • Ready, Set, Draw: Create Fan Art
  • Making Money Moves: Host a Fundraiser
  • Let’s Get Hype: Create a Club or Team Video
  • Adopt a Bot: Upgrade Your Discord Server
  • Surf’s Up: Design Your Club Website

Aaron Teats, president of business operations for the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks, said, “In every sport, for every professional player, hundreds or even thousands of professionals work to support the game play in marketing, content creation, data analysis, communications, and more. These challenges bring high school scholastic esports clubs the same reality that exists in the professional sports world. NASEF’s work to help students prepare for the real world is impressive.”

Classroom Opportunities for Learning

The rapidly growing esports video game ecosystem provides a unique wealth of material for education around mythology, plot, and character, as well as business-centric principles such as critical thinking, ethics, persuasive writing, collaboration, and developing and making professional presentations, when properly designed and implemented by credentialed educators and when approved by state curriculum decision-makers.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to leverage esports for learning just because it is a sport or, for some, viewed simply as a business venture,” said Solomon. “The ability to go to where the students are, and capture their attention, offers a rare opportunity. The combined enthusiasm of students and teachers for play and classroom study tells us we are onto something big. We have introduced a disruptive and innovative way to re-engage kids into education

English Language Arts (ELA) Platform

NASEF’s ELA Integrated Courses for grades 9-12 were designed by a team of professors and researchers as referenced above. The courses are California-approved for “b” designation (meeting graduation requirements as core classes, not electives, an important distinction). They are open-sourced and modifiable for state-specific standards throughout the country.

Direct connections are made between esports and content standards (NGSS, ISTE, SEL, CTE, and Common Core).

Courses include:

Career Technical Education

Following state approval of the high school ELA curriculum, these same educators designed a CTE state-approved curriculum, which is also available free to all schools and students. It sets forth a multiyear sequence of courses for students in grades 8-12 that integrate core academic and technical knowledge with 25 courses. The curriculum is designed around the four major esports sectors:

  • Strategists
  • Organizers
  • Content Creators
  • Entrepreneurs

The curriculum will provide pathways to all 15 careers including but not limited to:

  • Event Planner
  • Analyst
  • Fandom Art
  • Marketing
  • Theory Crafter
  • Shoutcaster
  • Streamer
  • Journalist
  • Web Developer

Middle School Courses

Because esports offers such an innovative and unique experiential opportunity for learning, middle school administrators and teachers asked NASEF to extend its curriculum to the middle school platform. NASEF complied and also offers a field-tested curriculum for middle school students, as well. As with the high school and CTE curriculum, it integrates standards-based academic and technical knowledge within the field of esports.

Lasting Impact

Researchers at UC Irvine secured IRB approval to study NASEF’s curriculum in esports and found students improved in nearly every outcome variable measured, including STEM career interest, school engagement, relationships with both peers and adults, critical thinking, and many others.

Locations

Just as education happens in a variety of environments, so can scholastic esports. Although many are formed in schools, community-based organizations have the opportunity to participate, as well.

Afterschool Clubs

Jeff Davis, Executive Director of the California Afterschool Network, recognizes great learning benefits that are wrapped into scholastic esports. “Today’s students will have the opportunity to solve critical issues and participate in a workforce that is nearly unrecognizable to us today. Afterschool providers understand the importance of offering hands-on STEM learning opportunities to prepare students for the evolving future. Esports offers a way to engage students through gaming while teaching them skills that will be important to their future success.”

“Today’s students enjoy gaming, but few may understand the career opportunities gaming represents, from professional game play to coding and engineering the next wave of innovative video games. Beyond those industry-specific careers, a wealth of opportunities will be available to students who have developed esports skills such as data analysis, digital imaging, web development, journalism, event management, and more,” Davis continued.

Local Libraries

Libraries have discovered a renewed relevance through scholastic esports. The Pottsboro, TX, library recently launched an esports club to enthusiastic community response. Librarian Dianne Connery said, “We couldn’t be more thrilled to get started building a NASEF club and introducing our local kids to this positive developmental environment. Libraries are important centers of learning that can bring relevant technology and programs to their communities. I’m confident that the esports community we build will help our local kids develop technology, STEM, and life skills. This will help us equip them to leave high school with applicable knowledge, putting them on a level playing field with students from big cities with more options.”

Community-based Organizations

Other local organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA are also implementing scholastic esports clubs. In fact, the YMCA of Orange County, CA, started more than 40 NASEF clubs. Entitled Esports at the Y, it uses NASEF materials to provide gaming clubs in a safe, educational and fun environment facilitated through organized, multiplayer video game competitions.

The YMCA Scholastic Esports program serves today’s youth by providing opportunities for ALL students to use esports as a platform to acquire critical communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in work and in life.  Rather than solely focusing on competition, they are introducing students to the wide variety of roles, expand their skills, and gain real experience in future potential career aspirations.

Encouraging Positive Behaviors and Diversity

In order to provide an environment to help students learn, grow and thrive, scholastic-based esports clubs and teams require a Code of Conduct. Diversity just doesn’t happen. To achieve it requires intentionality. NASEF has developed such a document that serves as the foundation for participation. All clubs review, personalize, and adopt it. All are expected to adhere to the same standard: to ensure that the esports environment is inclusive, supportive and respectful.

Esports are for everyone, and NASEF stands with AnyKey in asking students to commit to a high standard of personal character and behavior, rising above the negativity, toxic behavior, and discrimination that exist in many gaming communities. NASEF and AnyKey are focused on creating a gaming ecosystem that welcomes everyone and includes all, no matter their shape, size, color, gender, background, disability, or beliefs.

AnyKey is intent on transforming esports into a better place for all, and NASEF has partnered with them for that mission. As such, all students participating are expected to adhere to a formalized code of conduct.

Playing Games

With a learning lens, the play of the game becomes even more exciting and fun. Tournaments are offered in popular game titles. As with many esports leagues, NASEF offers a number of tournaments every season, carefully selecting titles that meet the rigorous standards of its academic partners.

Learning Must be Free

Education as mentioned is a fundamental right, and no one should have to pay to become educated. Thus, NASEF does not charge any fees for participation. Everything is free, a unique characteristic of NASEF. There is nothing wrong with playing in leagues that charge a fee, but to be true to the educational experience and mission, NASEF chooses to be free.

Evaluation Overview

As esports continues to grow, so do the number of opportunities to participate. Here are some questions and factors to consider when evaluating how to adopt an esports program for your school or community organization:

  • Is it a non-profit organization?
  • What are the motives of the program?
  • Are there costs for schools and students to participate?
  • Does it offer mentorship to students by legally screened professionals?
  • Are the professional coaches skilled and trained, by whom and to what standards?
  • Is education and learning an important factor, and if so, is the curriculum state-approved?
  • What is the cost if any of curriculum and other educational materials?
  • Is there an intentionally on diversity and equity through a formalized Code of Conduct?
  • What types of game titles and tournaments are you comfortable with (i.e. first-person shooter vs others)?

“We’re approaching esports through the lens of learning … personal growth and career preparation. Our No. 1 objective is to help teens learn, grow, and thrive,” concludes Solomon.


Mark Deppe led the effort to create the award-winning esports program at UCI that boasts a 100% graduation rate. Working closely with student leaders, administrators, faculty, and industry partners, Mark built a business plan that is both cost-neutral to the university and that broadly approaches the world of esports through the five pillars of Competition, Research, Community, Entertainment, and Careers. Mark was selected to serve as the inaugural commissioner for the North American Scholastic Esports Federation, helping connect learning to student interests. In June 2018, UCI’s League of Legends team won the College League of Legends Championship.  In October 2018, UCI’s esports program was awarded “Most Outstanding Collegiate Program” by the esports industry at the Tempest Awards.  While at UCI, Mark has coordinated many campus traditions, including helping break Guinness World Records. Mark has a B.S. in psychobiology from UCLA and an MBA from Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics.


Gerald Solomon has served as the Executive Director of the Samueli Foundation since 2008, overseeing the family’s global philanthropic activities. The Foundation was formed when Henry Samueli took Broadcom public, and since his hire has provided grants in excess of $510 million. The Foundation’s focus is on STEM Education, Youth Development, Integrative Health, and Jewish Leadership. Mr. Solomon has demonstrated an acute ability to be innovative and collaborative, building national and global networks impacting hundreds of thousands of children and young adults. His current initiative is connecting “play and passion with purpose”… integrating esports and gaming with a scholastic platform approved by State of California, especially focused on underserved and disenfranchised youth, through a program called the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). In just eight months, NASEF has grown to 35 states with more than 5,000 students connecting esports play with learning and workforce skill development. 


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