Struggle to connect from home: Scholastic esports not immune

Although some students and faculty have found a way to play, lack of equity and access across the board is keeping many in the dark.
By: | April 16, 2020
Photo courtesy of North America Scholastic Esports Federation

Even as the last lights went out at schools across the nation, rays of hope in education emerged as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking root.

Many districts pivoted to remote learning, providing thousands of laptops on the fly to students. Teachers sent home instructional packets. Staffers coordinated delivery of meals. Classes began online.

It was a remarkable response to an unprecedented crisis, both by administrators and the dedicated people who serve under them.

However, in some urban areas such as Chicago (where 33% of Public School students have started distance learning without computers) and Philadelphia (where 49 percent of high school students have no internet at home), challenges still remain. In rural areas across the U.S., school work has stopped over issues of access and equity.

For all the positive outcomes in this grand experiment – where millions of students are not in their classrooms – there are other stories of hopelessness and frustration. The distance between students and connecting them virtually is still an insurmountable hurdle for many to overcome, even in activities where it shouldn’t be.

Take esports. The booming activity of competitive video gaming, with its seemingly routine path to gathering online, has provided an interesting window into the Digital Divide that exists between the have’s and have-not’s.

A quick Google news search of “esports” shows myriad articles touting its incredible success during the crisis, with gamers being able to freely connect. But the flip side has been ever-present, too, especially at K-12. Between 21 million and 42 million Americans have no broadband internet.

“While some homes have plentiful devices, high-speed internet, and available adults to facilitate learning, other homes may have no technology at all and limited adult assistance with learning,” says Dr. Kristy Custer, principal at Complete High School Maize in Kansas.

Deep gaps exist. Some students have access to the best gaming computers, while some have school-issued Chromebooks. Some don’t have either. Some have super-fast internet, while some don’t have internet at all. Some have consoles (Xbox, PlayStation, etc.), while some have handhelds like Nintendo Switch. Some can only play games on a smartphone.

The playing field for esports, which relies so heavily on ensuring equity for all competitors, is not level for K-12 students, especially those from rural or low-income areas. It is why many leagues were forced to cancel seasons and formal events.

“Sadly, we are not seeing esports being equitably being offered to our scholar gamers,” says James O’Hagan, Director of Digital and Virtual Learning for the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin and host of the popular podcast The Academy of Esports. “We see issues with a lack of reliable internet access into the home. We are seeing many families that do not have a console or PC in the home.”

So, what can be done to shrink this divide?

“I think one of the first steps to address would be around internet access,” O’Hagan says. “I feel this is the opportunity we have to begin to address internet access as a public utility in this country. We have laid bare how easily it can be disrupted for those who cannot leave the home.”

It is easy to take for granted being able to log in and rev up PCs, to stream effortlessly or download a file in seconds. At school or in an arena setting, it’s not much of a problem. At home, it can be a virtual crapshoot.

Though the Federal Communications Commission has launched a program to help during the crisis called Keep Americans Connected, it is set to expire in a little more than a month. More than 700 companies have signed on, including internet providers Charter and Comcast, who have either expanded services or hot spots. Still that has its limitations, too, especially in areas where access to fast internet doesn’t exist.

Case in point … the have-nots

Andrew Peterson, Coordinator of Instructional Technology at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., teaches an experimental course called “Introduction to Esports.” It is completely online.

“Enrollment is high, student engagement is through the roof, and by all objective measures the course is a huge success,” he says.

But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, things changed quickly.

“I felt safe because these students are gamers,” Peterson says. “They have the hardware, the course is already online, we’ve built community, and I’m not expecting any major challenges. … But then the dorms closed. Instantly, 60% of my class is gone, no longer responding, not posting, not e-mailing, and not connecting in any way. We communicated, we adapted, we identified limitations, and changed expectations. The one thing that most conversations centered on was access to bandwidth.”

For Peterson, the challenges were very real. Because of its location in central Michigan, Ferris State students have been forced to connect through slow DSL lines, wireless point-to-point or even satellite connections. Peterson says others had no access, “as in nothing – as in an AOL trial CD would have been an upgrade.” So basically, 40% of his students have been unable to complete the course, not because of cost, but because they can’t get online.

“My students can overcome insane obstacles, but without bandwidth, the conversation dramatically changes,” Peterson says. “Sometimes I forget how rural we are as a campus.”

And echoing O’Hagan’s frustrations, he says, “I don’t know why this “last mile” issue is still here. I take that back – I know why it’s not here, because it’s not profitable. Until a baseline terrestrial broadband service is considered a basic utility (like phone lines are), there won’t be any real access for individuals living on the end of that dirt road. When you watch the entire world switch to online in a couple of days, it’s sad to see all the shadows and dark areas that are not covered.”

Esports for all … until it’s at home

In the right conditions, esports is the one activity that can thrive during a pandemic.

Provide fast internet for all and the proper equipment and it is possible that millions of students could collaborate on missions, think critically and have some fun.

The beauty of esports is that it resonates and helps connect so many different types of learners – the athlete, the non-athlete, the high-achiever, the special needs student, the cheerleader, the artist. The only thing separating competitors is the quick click of a mouse or the shift of a controller. Gamers also don’t need to physically get together to compete, as with most other athletic or extracurricular activities.

For the majority of students, remote game play is nothing new. Esports started out as this type of endeavor, where playing from home without formal structure existed. Only in recent years has esports blossomed into a gathering at schools across the nation. When districts opened the door for esports, it brought in countless students who otherwise had limited access to fast internet or top-of the-line equipment. In this move to home, those are the gamers being left out. Some of them are the stars of their teams.

In its most recent 2018 report, the Pew Research Center noted that 20 percent of K-12 students didn’t have access to computers or high-speed internet. That void makes any discussion of formal competition moot.

“This is exactly why our official competition is handled at school, because we can ensure equitability of competition,” says Mike Dahle, President of the Wisconsin High School Esports Association. “We can control what students have access to and can oversee their competition while holding them to a code of conduct. When they are competing from home, we cannot control what devices that they have access to and don’t have an adult or responsible figure overseeing all their competition.”

Even those who have a device and internet aren’t immune from the discussion.

“I am seeing families that perhaps have one computer in the home, there have been stresses to share that device,” O’Hagan says. “Parent work – which pays the bills – is being superseded in some cases for student education.”

O’Hagan is one of several featured speakers at this year’s inaugural Academic Esports Conference & Expo in October that will address that divide and offer solutions for, as he says, “Bringing Esports Home.” It is sure to be a hot topic among those clamoring for ideas, both at the K-12 and higher education levels.

Rays of hope mixed with reality

One of the stark outcomes of operating remotely with esports is the loss of camaraderie of live events and practices. Although it can be done (as evidenced by the numerous tournaments happening online and in live broadcasts such as those on ESPN), it’s just not the same as connecting in person. There are social-emotional connections that can’t be equaled.

“Students have lost the spaces where they would normally interact,” says Terry Kraft, Esports Strategist at the nonprofit Emerald Foundation in Pennsylvania. “Esports is vital during this time as a way for students to stay connected to their peers and currently exists as one of the few social circles connecting students to one another …. Understand that for many students this exists as their last social outlet.”

So, several organizations are doing their best to keep the games going, including:

  • The Texas Scholastic Esports Federation, which is hosting a Rocket League tournament for all Texas students on Wednesday.
  • The Varsity Esports Foundation and the High School Esports League, based in Kansas City, Mo., which have teamed up on a Social Distancing Cup and other initiatives.
  • Community-driven groups such as the Center for Educational Innovation in New York City, which are switching from live to digital events, including its NBA 2K program, for affected children.
  • Some colleges and high schools, which are hosting their own events – some more robustly than others – while others are engaging in campus Minecraft builds.
  • The North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) in California, which is running Community Club events and Beyond The Game challenges for educators and for students and opening up its Twitch channel for more free content.

“The gap in access was our first concern when we pivoted from our club to community model,” says Laylah Bulman, Chief Strategist at NASEF and Program Officer at the Samueli Foundation. “We created two channels of content and challenges for teachers and students that they could access from their homes without any firewall or need to register. In its simplest terms, we are calling [the Community Club events] our “scholastic playground. While the disparity to internet (and device) access is a chronic challenge, it has become an acute challenge during this COVID-19 crisis.”

As for what it may take to overcome this divide, Bulman says, “It will require strategic and significant investment by multiple stakeholders to overcome.”

Until then, some are stuck with what they have.

“I now have students writing essays about esports and broadcasting, and I can think of nothing less interesting,” Peterson says. “But when your only access is a postage stamp, we do what we can to keep moving forward.”

The silver lining: It won’t last forever.

“Coaches need to start looking toward the future and start planning for what is to come this fall,” says John Shoemaker, Esports Facilitator and Educational Technology Specialist for Palm Beach County District Schools in Florida. “Discussions about what games will be played, what hardware is needed, how often teams will meet, and others should be started soon so the team can get back to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible.”


Chris Burt is the Esports Editor for District Administration and University Business magazines, as well as the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference & Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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