How to use esports to increase attendance, and funding

Here’s how esports help improve attendance, how you can maximize their appeal, and how to keep your upfront costs low so you can maximize the return on your investment.
Chris Aviles
Chris Aviles
Chris Aviles is the product evangelist at Gameplan and the president and founder of Garden State Esports. While launching the largest scholastic esports league in the country, Aviles served as a public school teacher for 17 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

When I was a teacher, I launched a statewide esports league in New Jersey and saw firsthand how powerfully esports draws students to school.

Attendance rates at public schools are higher than they were at the height of the pandemic, but they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is troubling for educators, who want students safe and learning in school. It’s also of material interest to administrators, since state and federal funds are often tied to attendance rates.

Here’s how esports help improve attendance, how you can maximize their appeal, and how to keep your upfront costs low so you can maximize the return on your investment.

Esports as an attendance booster

Putting esports in school is like putting chocolate on broccoli to get students to eat it. Just like traditional sports, esports can act as the chocolate that brings kids who aren’t excited about school into class.

In a recent survey that my esports league conducted, we found that participants came to school an average of one to two more days during a two-week period than they did before they joined the team. As many as 80% said they were more likely to come to school because of esports, and many reported that esports also motivates their academic performance and encourages them to behave better while they’re there.

Esports programs and curricula are a great draw, but there are steps school and district leaders can take to be sure they are appealing to as many students as possible.

Maximizing the draw of esports

If you’re trying to appeal to a certain demographic, paying attention to what games students already like to play is a good start. If you really want to know what they’re playing, just have your coaches survey them. Ask all the students who qualify for your league what games they play and what devices they use, and then tailor your program choices accordingly.

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It’s also a great idea to tap into the tradition of your school when it comes to the requirements and responsibilities of athletes. On my team, athletes sign the same substance abuse policy any other athlete signs in order to earn their varsity letter. We have the same attendance requirements as other teams as well, barring students from participation if they don’t arrive at school by 11 o’clock, for example.

Finally, to make sure your esports program is a strong draw, be sure your coaches are providing meaningful local competition. Encourage them to find a local or state-wide league, preferably one of the many teach-run non-profit leagues like Texas Scholastic Esports Federation (TEXSEF) or Pennsylvania Scholastic Esports League (PSEL) organizes competitions between local schools, or partner with others in your community to launch your own organization. Students on a team want to compete against their school rivals, just like the football team does every fall.

Launching esports on a budget

One of the biggest misconceptions is that starting a program has to cost a lot of money. I’ve started close to 1,000 programs and, though some have cost quite a bit, many were free or very low cost to launch.

The funding possibilities for are surprising. Title funds at every tier are available to help create esports programs, for example. You can also tap into funding to support social-emotional learning, career and technical education, and students with disabilities.

There are also some fun nontraditional ways of getting money for esports programs. Some schools I’ve worked with ask students’ families and other members of the community to use the free Twitch subscription that comes with their Amazon Prime accounts to subscribe to their school’s esports streaming channel. Each subscription earns $5 for the team, and it doesn’t cost the family members anything.

You see it less often now, but not too long ago a popular way to bring technology into schools was through a bring-your-own-device policy that encouraged teachers and students to bring in their own computers or smartphones. Many students who want to join an esports team—and the teachers eager to coach them—already have their own consoles or handheld gaming systems at home. When we started esports at my school nearly six years ago, our program ran entirely on devices teachers brought from home.

It’s also nice that many of the games, including those played by scholarship teams, are free. If the team can use someone’s personal device and play something like Rocket League or League of Legends, you have a free program.

Even if you decide that you want to buy devices for your program, they don’t have to break the bank. Most of the school districts in my league started with Nintendo Switches. For less than $500 they got a Switch and a Super Smash Bros. game, and students were able to participate in all three seasons our league offers by sharing the device among competitors.

Depending on your district, you might already have game-ready PCs in your buildings. Schools around the country have heavily invested in Chromebooks for 1:1 computing initiatives, but they lack the graphics card, storage, and features necessary for a lot of computing tasks, including playing many games.

But educators know the world doesn’t run on Chromebooks, and there has been a move back to computer labs to provide some of those more powerful and expensive machines for programs like computer-aided design (CAD), graphic design, video editing, video game design, and gaming. There’s no reason a computer lab can’t be the CAD room during the day and the esports team room after school.

When considering your budget, bear in mind that participating students are going to show up more, on average, than they would without the program—and that is going to recapture funding tied to attendance. An as-yet unpublished study done in Moreno Valley with 600 esports players found that participants had a 19.3% lower absence rate than non-participants, leading to the district recapturing nearly $300,000, which probably paid for most or all of their program

Like any other after-school activity, esports engages students with their peers, teachers, and other members of the school community. Teams don’t have to be expensive to start, and when students begin flowing back through the doors to play, they’ll bring funding with them.


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