Panel presents case for esports, best practices when starting up

Five leaders with roots in competitive video gaming and education say giving students opportunities and monitoring them well is the key to success.

“It’s inclusive. It provides a safe space to play. It promotes good digital citizenship. And it’s fun for students.”

During the three-day Future of Education Technology Conference® in Miami that wrapped up Friday, those were some of the key descriptions delivered by a variety of passionate educators in 16 sessions dedicated to esports.

But the words most overheard by those speakers, both in meeting rooms and on the expo floor, were these: “It provides opportunities.”

On Friday, a panel of five of the top academic esports voices in the country presented a strong case for esports being implemented in schools. Moderated by Jason Bauer of the National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors (NAECAD), the group tackled topics ranging from games played in schools to diversity on teams to career paths for students.

The overarching theme: Esports can be good for students if it’s done the right way.

“What I love about esports is it’s so accessible,” said Chris Aviles, who started the first middle school program in the country in New Jersey. “Esports tends to draw an underserved population. A lot of my guys were never part of a club.”

Steve Isaacs, who like Aviles helped pioneer esports at the middle school level as both a game design instructor and leader of competitive gaming, added: “The goal is to include any kids who are interested in the space—not just the gamer.”

Mark Deppe directs the renowned esports program at the University of California-Irvine and is also commissioner of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). He said those interested in getting a program going simply need to embrace the positives that come from giving students the opportunity to do something they love.

“Start with whatever you can,” Deppe said. “If you have enthusiasm and unlock a door, students will find a way to do the cool stuff they want to do. And they will always yearn to do the next thing.”

Dana Hustedt, who is from Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, had one of those doors opened when she became the first woman in the nation to direct an esports program. She sees the tremendous opportunities at her own program with the students they serve.

“Most of the general public doesn’t see all of the career options outside of playing video games,” Hustedt said. “We initially started a game design program and tied it to our esports program. We are now going into our communications department and our graphic design departments, and getting them on board. The opportunities are just so abundant right now.”

Each of the five addressed some of the most pertinent issues, including the implementation and acceptance of esports “as a real thing.”

The most importance piece of advice in starting up a program?

“To write down a code of conduct that you take very seriously,” said Aviles, who has a guide on beginning esports at his “Teched Up Teacher” blog. “Your esports team is going to draw all different types of kids. You want it to be a safe space for everybody, especially if you want girls to play.”

Diversity is something the esports realm has struggled with. But leaders such as Deppe and his team at Cal-Irvine have developed a task force that not only addresses concerns, but also puts together meaningful research.

“The No. 1 issue in collegiate esports is the gender gap,” Deppe said. “We have felt the need to make changes and push the needle for several years. We have a Girls In Gaming camp we offer every summer. We try to bring in leaders from the industry to show the girls that there are role models out there. They have created a community and now support each other.”

Deppe continued: “In addition to the diversity task force, we’ve hosted academic panels … [including] a Women In Gaming panel to talk about the harassment they’ve faced and some of the barriers. Some of the boys hear that and realize how awful that must feel.”

Kurt Melcher, who began the nation’s first recognized varsity esports program at Robert Morris University and is part of sports marketing firm Intersport, said there are hurdles to be addressed before considering starting up a program. He said being proactive, doing your homework before getting started, and seeking out resources are the keys to success.

“Do as much due diligence as you can before presenting it because there are going to be several sticking points that you are going to have to address—from a code of conduct to digital citizenship to gender and violence,” Melcher said. “Be prepared to address all of them.”

All speakers agreed on which game would be most appropriate to start out a program: Rocket League. But many made the case for several other titles, including Overwatch, Super Smash Brothers and League of Legends.

Many of the panelists addressed first-person shooter games, the “esports elephant in the room.” Most advised caution and several said K-12 districts almost assuredly would say “no” to them. All were quick to point out research that says violence in video games does not translate into violence outside of them.

Both Aviles and Isaacs said addressing toxicity and creating a safe space at school is extremely important.

“The absolute reality is that kids are playing these games at home,” Isaacs said. “Their parents, most of them, aren’t really batting an eyelash. I would so much rather address a code of conduct and proper online behavior in a school environment where we can guide students. If a kid does exhibit toxic behavior at school, there will be a consequence. When they are playing in their room, unsupervised, toxicity can happen, and they may not have the skills to deal with it. We need to advocate for students in an environment that we have some control over.”

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. 

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