Key elements to building a successful esports program

From mission and philosophy development to a code of conduct and practice structure, a primer on how to make competitive video gaming work on your campus.
By: | July 7, 2020
Photo courtesy of NASEF

There is no singular right way to build an esports program.

Throughout the past few years, we’ve seen programs pop up across the United States, ranging from multi-million-dollar departments to budget renovations in old PC labs. We’ve seen schools competing in massive tournaments hosted by developers, and teams competing in small-time leagues with nearly no audience.

Programs such as these can create new opportunities for students, ranging from competition to employment, student work to internships. Some programs are diving into esports, hiring full-time industry professionals and others are tacking on responsibilities to existing passionate faculty/staff. We sometimes joke about esports being the Wild West, but there are a handful of things you can implement and execute early in the conception of your program that will set you up for success and stability as you continue to grow.

Philosophy

Let’s start at the most logical place … the beginning. You’ve got your program supported and funded by the school district and the high school. You’ve got your staff in place and your facility locked down. Now you’re left wondering, what’s next? Before we get to that, let’s step back and evaluate your high school’s mission. How does esports fall into that? How are you able to support the high school mission through your program? Whatever your high school’s mission is, it’s now the mission of the high school esports program.

Your program should consistently push to be a part of the high school, not a standalone isolated product. This ultimately will lead to one clear and supported mission, but also will promote support from your administration as you continue to grow your program.

With the high school mission in mind, start to draft your esports program mission. Involve anyone in the school district and the high school that you want to be a part of supporting the success of the esports program: school administration, athletic director, recreation director, guidance counselors, teachers, parents, students, and district-level administration that can help with marketing and fundraising are all individuals to consider. Typically, you’re going to need to run these sorts of things through those departments regardless, so let’s just bring them into the picture now.

How to Define a Program Philosophy in Five Steps:

  1. Establish a philosophy committee: Reach out to a variety of different faculty, staff, and administration from each area of your campus and district community that are invested in the success of your program.
  2. Establish the type of program you’d like to build: Competitive vs. Casual, Opportunistic vs. Admissions/Academic driven.
  3. Define key areas of focus: Diversity and inclusivity, STEM, toxic behavior, Title IX, education, community service, academic performance, opportunities for students.
  4. Draft a short statement about each area of focus
  5. Write a philosophy built out of each area of focus

Code of Conduct

Once you’ve had the opportunity to build a program philosophy, you’ll move on to create a code of conduct for your players, faculty, and staff.  Before we dive into the creation of the code of conduct, I think this is a valuable opportunity to define what we really mean by an esports code of conduct and what the purpose of this document should be.

First and foremost, the code of conduct will be utilized to set expectations on day one for your community. This should be one of the first things players learn as they walk through the door, and it should live through each of your players every day. This is the definition of your program, the essentials of being you, the heart and soul of your team.  Program philosophy and a code of conduct might seem like two individual pieces of “identity”, but I believe they’re cohesive and supportive of one another and ultimately should loop back around to support the high school mission.

How to Write a Code of Conduct:

  1. Determine the beliefs, values, and expectations of your program: Understand what’s important and draw the line in the sand.
  2. Keep it simple: Don’t create complex loopholes with passive statements.
  3. Write to your reader: Write to your audience and ensure they’re capable of understanding the code.
  4. Consult coworkers: As with the philosophy, involve your coworkers. Involve your students. Find out what they believe a code of conduct should look like. This also will make them stakeholders in the code of conduct, which will ensure enforceability.
  5. Don’t sweat the tiny details: Don’t look to impose restrictions on all facets of your program. You’re trying to set a standard here, not become a dictator.

If you’re struggling to establish some code of conduct “must haves”, the list of ideas below should serve as a loose inspiration:

  • Diversity and inclusivity
  • Respecting students, staff, and facilities
  • Toxicity (Gender-based, skill-based, and everything in between)
  • Foul language
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • In-game behavior

After you have had the opportunity to create a code of conduct, it’s important that you now have the team read, understand, and sign it. I also would advise creating a structured system of rewards and consequences to create a system of enforcement.  This document needs to be something that not only you as an administrator believe in, but your students also believe in. Creating a rewards and consequences system with defined boundaries allows you as an administrator to not only reward good behavior, but also fairly discipline those who are violating the code of conduct they agreed to. As this document evolves, ensure your students have the opportunity to grow with it. Make the code of conduct visible, accessible, and easily readable. Share it with your students, have them sign a copy, then send another copy home with them to share with their parents. Be as thorough as possible here with sharing this document.

Goals

Alongside your philosophy and code of conduct, you are going to want to define the goals of your program. Are you looking to attract more students into your high school? Win a state championship? Create a large student experience club? Create opportunities for students to network? This doesn’t necessarily need to relate to your philosophy or code of conduct, but it will help you as you build your program. Once you’ve identified the goal of your program, you will have a clear vision of how you will want to build it out.

Developing Your Practice Structure

This one might get a little tricky. Before we tackle how to develop a practice schedule, I want you to consider what type of coach YOU are. Are you an expert in one game? Do you dabble in a variety of games? Are you a better mentor and guide than you are game coach? Are you more of a faculty advisor than coach? I think this is an important step in the process, as you are coming into an influential role in each of these students’ lives.

I have found that students, especially in the esports world, are able to see through imposters pretty quickly. I’ve also found that players respect and learn better when their “mentor” doesn’t try to pretend to be something they’re not. If you’re not a League of Legends coach, don’t try to coach League of Legends. If you’ve never touched Overwatch, don’t tell them how to play Overwatch. It is important to understand that with or without game expertise, you can still provide a structured, learning enriched environment in which these students will flourish. Rather than focus on game sense, focus on communication. Instead of mechanics, focus on leadership. Instead of building strategies, teach them how to analyze.

Once you have had the opportunity to evaluate yourself, it is important to evaluate your players. What are they looking to get out of your program? Are they looking for direct coaching? Are there students that are interested in coaching (that have the credibility to do so)? Are they super competitive or is this a casual, community club? What role do they need you to play? After evaluating both your skills and capabilities and the players’ needs and desires, you’ll be able to develop your practice schedule.

We have established what sort of mentor your students have; let’s talk practice. There are a few sides to this discussion, but they mostly fall under your program goal, students’ commitment, and facilities. If your team is hyper-competitive and you are looking to bring home championships, you will likely practice more than once or twice a week.

If your program is more of a casual club, then once a week should suffice. Are your students involved in other clubs and activities? How often do you plan on practicing on a weekly basis? You are also going to need to evaluate what your teams are doing during practice sessions. If your students are not a competitive team, then let them come in and game with friends. If you are trying to be competitive, you likely will want to include more structure such as scrimmages, film review, and analysis.

Check out the list of high school resources below that might help you define your program. It is important to note that there are dozens of state associations, Discord servers, and everything in-between to help out, too. Just look around and you’ll find something!

Some District Resources to consider:

  • Generation Esports: High School Esports League, Middle School Esports League
  • NASEF: North America Scholastic Esports Federation
  • PlayVS
  • NFHS: National Federation of State High School Associations
  • ViewSonic: Guide on how to start an esports team

I want to echo the words of the introduction. The world of high school and collegiate esports is genuinely in a state of Wild West.

As high school administrators, I understand how intimidating and even scary that can be. Educational facilities often exist in a world of routine, where the concept of competitive video games sounds so out of the ordinary that it’s almost laughable. Sure, it might be intimidating and scary, but I want to encourage you to explore the new frontier. Create opportunities for your students, build a structure that supports your students, develop a sustainable program that will last for generations, and be creative!

I often get asked “If you could give us any one piece of advice on how to start an esports program, what would you say?” I say the same thing every time. “Esports isn’t going anywhere. If you are going to jump in, jump in with both feet.” Don’t steer clear because you are uncomfortable. Dive in because your students are passionate.


Callum Fletcher is the Esports Director at Illinois Wesleyan University. Launched in 2017, the program has earned national recognition as one of the best esports programs in the United States, with one of the strongest League of Legends rosters.  IWU Esports massively expanded this year by bringing in four new esports titles and a new training facility on campus. He has been involved with esports for nearly 15 years and has background as a competitor, event manager, content creator, and community manager before joining Illinois Wesleyan to build its esports program. He was born and raised in England but has spent most of his life in the states with his parents and sister.