Game-driven: A teacher’s guide to making esports sizzle

Educator Jason Dilley of Sedro-Woolley School District in Washington discusses the impact video games can have both on team play and as tools for teaching in the classroom.
By: | July 22, 2020
A student in Jason Dilley's Gaming and Mathematics class uses data analysis skills to analyze the potential of different item builds in League of Legends.

Jason Dilley’s love for games began with a tradition that started many years ago on Christmas Eve: Every year, his family would unwrap a board game or video game and play it throughout the night.

The ritual still holds a special emotional connection for Dilley. His father was a computer programmer who had a passion for Dungeons & Dragons. His dad’s influence and those magical moments helped shape his future.

“I got a lot of my gaming instincts from my dad,” said Dilley, a science teacher and leader of esports at Sedro-Woolley High School in Washington. “Gaming always had a really big impact on my life.”

Indeed. Dilley started his own gaming club at college, where he met his future wife. Instead of going on expensive dates, they’d play World of Warcraft. Even now, he and friends coordinate buying board games and lots of them.

“I’m a huge board game geek,” he admits. “We all have really stupidly large collections of them.”

While those games have had a big effect on Dilley’s instruction and work at Sedro-Woolley, he says the introduction of video games into his teachings have been incredibly impactful. For years, the school tiptoed in and around esports, but it wasn’t until Dilley started asking serious questions that it took off.

“I said, what do we need to do to make this a better experience for students? What can learn from it? How can we not just build community but learn legitimate 21st century skills?”

He petitioned his district and got a lab going, half funded with grants, half funded from district money. They’ve since furnished it with 30 computers, all top of the line, that is shared with the computer science program. Esports has tripled in size since it started.

Dilley currently has about 75 kids in his program, or about 5% of his school. Most take part playing, while others do broadcasting, streaming and shoutcasting of the games. He says girls comprise 20% of his teams, which he says is “not enough”. They compete in a variety of games, from Overwatch to League of Legends to Super Smash Brothers Ultimate to Rainbow Six Siege.

In the past few years, Dilley has become one of the best resources and champions of esports in the state of Washington and beyond. He shared many of his thoughts on the value and impact video games have had on his school and what other schools can do to have a positive outcome with esports in a recent conversation with District Administration:

What is it about video games that make them so valuable in education?

The biggest tool is engagement. What I’ve learned over the course of 12 years of teaching is that the most important thing you can do in your classroom is just make sure kids are paying attention. The more kids pay attention, the more likely they are going to learn something from it. … I’m generally not a really good lecturer. I’ve always had to kind of do other things to get kids engaged. Video games are engaging. They invite people to participate. It’s very difficult to passively engage in a video game. Kids are going to learn from playing video games because they’re being actively engaged.

What are some of the ways you’ve utilized video games as a tie-in to education?

I have a class that I’ve taught the last three years. It’s called Gaming and Mathematics. I pick games. I don’t have a specific set of standards that I have to teach to. And I say, what we can learn from this game? What is something that is “school adjacent” that they can learn from playing this game? We do a League of Legends unit, where we learn how to play the game and then do some theorycrafting (anaylsis of game analytics, typically in video games). I teach them about statistics. We look at different weapons and their costs. So, they have to build out League of Legends champions with certain item loadouts. We do damage tests on them to see how good they are. And then we compare them. What am I getting for my money? We also play Celeste. It’s a fantastic, story-driven platform game. We learn about the hero’s journey through this game. It’s a really popular English Language Arts lesson where you learn the basics of any hero-type story. I’ve had teachers in the past do it with Star Wars. It’s the same as every other movie or book.

As someone looking at a game for the first time, how do you peel back the layers to find that educational component? 

I think part of it is experience as an educator. I think the longer that you teach, the easier it is for you to create and to see lessons in media. My history as a gamer has influenced me in a way where it’s easier for me to look at my past experiences and say, ‘well, how did Halo or Smash Brothers or World of Warcraft change my life?’ I learned a lot of leadership skills that I did not otherwise have by playing World of Warcraft and being in a raid group. The lens of my past experiences in video games gives me a slightly better edge in looking at a new game that’s played and saying, ‘how can I use it in some way to teach something?’ The example of theorycrafting … I was really big into making spreadsheets and learning that statistics in a real way.

What do you think are some of the best esports titles for schools to play?

I think one of the best esports titles for high schoolers is Overwatch. I don’t think that’s a popular opinion. But I think it’s the most team-based game, and it’s the game that has the easiest entry point. It’s a first-person shooter, but it’s character animated; it has a monkey with a lightning gun. I think schools can do it.

There’s a lot of talk right now talking about Valorant vs. Overwatch. I like Valorant, but it’s for hardcore first-person shooters. It’s the kind of game where really it values technical skill, more than game-based skills, which I don’t think is the best direction for high school esports. Overwatch really values team-based play. While technical play is super important, you can have a team that is so good at their team-based play that they can beat highly technically skilled players.

League of Legends you have to be playing just because it is the most popular esport in the world right now. And you have to be playing Rocket League just because that’s the general public’s most accessible esport.

Your students play some games you may not expect to see at the high school level, including Rainbow Six Siege.

My district has been very supportive of what we do and lets us get away with things that a lot of other schools can’t. I think the team-based play in Rainbow Six is better than Counter Strike, but I don’t think you can get away with Rainbow Six in every district. I think Valorant is going to be the same case too.

Do your students have favorite games they like to play?

I’ve got kids who want to participate in multiple games, multiple seasons. But there’s definitely one that’s their game. I think Rocket League is a good example of that. My Rocket League team has one kid who is a grand champ and two kids who are champs. One of those kids, Rocket League is his game. I’ve been talking to some college recruiters recently and I say, this kid right here is a Rocket League player. But he’s also on my league of Legends team and he is a backup for Overwatch. I don’t think that’s any different from traditional sports, where a kid is going to play three sports, fall, winter and spring … but basketball is his game or volleyball is her game.

When districts or administrators are looking at launching esports or considering new games, they may be trying to pick out games that are safe. How important is it to consider what students want to play?

As educators we have to keep our thumb on the pulse of what’s popular. If I didn’t offer [Smash Bros. Ultimate] as a game, I would lose half the size of my program. Schools have to have this conversation beforehand about what they want to get out of an esports program. They need to be talking to students to make sure that they know what students want to do.

Student feedback definitely has to be a part of that. One of safer esports games out there for high schoolers that is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) is Smite. The problem is, people don’t really play Smite. It has its own esports league, but it is not popular. You might go into your school and say, ‘hey, we’re going to participate in esports and we are going to participate in Smite, we are forming a team and we’re going to play in a league.’ … and four students show up.

There’s a ton of games that I look at and go, man, this would be a great esport. Killer Queen Black is a great game. It would be a good esport, but I don’t know how to make it popular. There’s another one that’s even less popular called Awesomenauts ( a 3v3, two-dimensional MOBA). Heroes of the Storm … I wish I could make it popular. I like it a lot more than League of Legends, but it’s just not going to happen.


Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for District Administration and the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference & Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com