Smart spending and esports: tackling 10 startup questions

Schools looking to launch don't have to break the bank to get gaming going. If they first determine their program's purpose and look for available help, the sky is the limit.
By: | August 25, 2020
Photo courtesy of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to starting or funding an esports program.

Some schools or districts may have strong budgets to work while others may not. Some can immediately turn to leaders who understand the nuances of competitive video gaming, while others must rely on a teacher willing to put in the time to simply give children opportunities to play.

No matter the approach, there are strategies that can ensure positive outcomes for any school looking to get involved in esports, one of the few activities that has been somewhat insulated from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. It often doesn’t start by crunching numbers.

Before looking at bottom lines, Jason Dilley says there are a number of questions and factors that will determine the direction of any program. As a math teacher in Sedro-Woolley, WA, and now the CEO of the Washington State Scholastic Esports Association, he built his from the ground up … and got a significant amount of grant money by leveraging esports through academics and the school’s computer science program.

While not every program will experience the same windfall, he says every school or district can be a player in some way in this hugely popular realm that not only boosts participation in students but also helps them learn about new technologies.

During a recent conversation with District Administration, Dilley shared some of his expertise on how forethought and shrewd investments in esports can be a boon for  schools looking to make a splash with students and parents.

What are some of initial questions schools should be asking when looking to start and fund esports program?

Jason Dilley

I kind of stole this from Jim O’Hagan (the well-known leader of esports at Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin and host of the The Academy of Esports podcast), but the very first thing you should always be asking about is mission and vision. What do you want esports to accomplish and what role is it filling that is not otherwise being filled? That is going to help create a lot of your framework for how you build something out. From there, you’re going to have to just determine your needs. What do we need in terms of consoles? Do we need all consoles? Do we have a need for PCs? Are we going to buy games for students, or are we going to expect students to have their own copies? And, how are we pairing esports with academics?

How much of a difference can an esports program aligned with academics make?

The talks that I’ve done in the past with schools, I asked them, if you had really powerful machines, what would you upgrade in your classes? What would your computer science program look like if you suddenly had significantly more powerful machines? What would your digital design classes look like? Or, could you now have digital design classes?

The reason that I got the funding I did is because it wasn’t just for esports. I talked to my computer science teacher and said, what computer science things do you need to be doing to make sure that your students are learning relevant career skills in computer science? How powerful of a machine do you need? We kind of made a list together and said, if we had this as a machine, we could both accomplish our goals. And then we went to the district as a team and said, ‘if we buy a lab full of these machines and 15 3d printers, we could run a digital design program, a computer science program that does 3d modeling in Unity programming, we can even get into Unreal Engine, and in addition, we can also do esports.

The reason why that’s so important is because you’re not tapping into what is the district doing, you’re tapping into what CTE [career and technical education] grants are available.

How much did your lab cost … and do schools need to spend a lot to have esports?

Our lab costs around $35,000, which is a lot. You don’t need to spend that much money. We got most of that paid for on grants … because it wasn’t just for esports. We didn’t go to the state and say, ‘hey, we need this money.’ We said, ‘we want to upgrade our computer science program and we can create this esports program.’ There is a lot of state funding available out there for those kind of ventures that you can take advantage of for your esports team as long as you’re willing to change around your CTE programs, which I think schools should be doing anyway.

Can you talk a little more about the CTE connection and esports?

It’s important for schools to be able to build comprehensive CTE programs that give students legitimate job skills. Good technology is the way you build for the future. If you’re a school that only buys Chromebooks, and you don’t have any good desktop PCs, you are extremely limited in what you can prepare students for. My Intro to Esports Careers class is actually CTE, so I have to be certified to teach that and get the funding for it. High technology and computers are huge career fields that we need to be preparing students for. Oftentimes, a lot of schools just don’t have the equipment to be able to do it.

Are there certain equipment or peripheral items where you can overspend and not get that return on investment, say high-end gaming chairs over standard ones?

There are definitely certain accessories that having the highest quality doesn’t make a difference. I think a chair is a great example. If you have the money for it, that’s fantastic. But you shouldn’t be spending your core money on that unless you have the other equipment taken care of. The hardest thing when you’re looking at it, from a schools’ perspective is the computers. That’s your biggest ticket item. You don’t need a 2070 graphics card and have everything be water-cooled. You can run games on a smaller machine. Schools can spend under $5,000 on computers and be esports ready.

Looking back, was there a single item you overlooked that wish you had included when you started?

The thing I didn’t place as much importance on was console gaming and its role in esports. My program does not own any consoles. Everything we run for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, we’re running on personal Switches. I bring my Nintendo Switch, and we play on that one and students bring their Switches in. If I was going back to the beginning, I would invest some of that money in that first because I think that’s a better entry point for schools. You can work on that the other stuff later. You can buy two Switches for your school and you can play Rocket League and Smash Ultimate on those. Don’t necessarily look at the big-ticket costs of the PCs and say, we can’t participate until then.

Why is it so important to have console gaming?

It’s cheaper for schools but it’s also a significantly more equitable approach for disadvantaged students. Somebody posted on Twitter the other day the percentage of college esports programs that play these games. At the top of the list was League of Legends, which is in like 85% of esports programs. At the bottom of the list was NBA2K, FIFA, Forza … games that are almost console exclusive. The problem I have with that is most of our most socioeconomically challenged students don’t have a gaming PC and they can’t play League of Legends at home. But they have an Xbox and they have a PS4 and they can play those other games. I don’t want them feeling like they’re at a disadvantage or don’t think they can take part in esports.

Aside from computers, are there items you just shouldn’t skimp on?

I’ve had students tell me they don’t like playing at school because we have 60 hz monitors and they have 144 hz at home. But I don’t know if displays are that important. Gaming accessories like keyboards and mice, you don’t want to buy bargain bin accessories. Students will know the difference between a $5 mouse and a $40 mouse.  But you also don’t need a $140 mouse. I definitely think there’s a medium in there where you need to buy smart.

If I want to do a scholastic esports program on the cheap, what kind of ballpark range am I looking at to get started?

You can get a decent enough esports starter kit for $1,000 to $2,000. You can get two Switches and Xbox controllers and a couple of the major games for just over $1,000. That’s enough to start something. I don’t know if there’s a single school in the United States that Smash Ultimate is not going to be hugely popular. That game is everywhere and really accessible. You can probably get support from a lot of local businesses and maybe even a Nintendo or Microsoft, depending on where you’re at in your relationship with vendors.

In terms of PCs – good/better/best – for the good, you can do six $600 machines. If your school is willing to go refurbished, you can get a machine with an i7 [processor] and a 1070 [graphics card] for $650 or $700. You buy six of those, you’ve created an esports arena for under $5,000. For better: get more of those, increase the power and don’t go refurbished. For best: you can build out a lab, but I wouldn’t recommend anybody do the best option unless you’re getting a fairly big grant.

Regardless of budget, is investing in esports really money well spent?

It’s definitely not wasting money. You’re going to get a ton of engagement. And you are going to be hitting students who are non-traditionally participating in school. I did a survey of my teams – 72 students – and 80% of them, an esports team is the first and only extracurricular thing that these students have done. So, I’m not stealing from other programs. And I’m introducing this really great environment for a ton of new students. So, it’s definitely money well spent.

At the same time, it’s important for schools to be good stewards of their money. Decision-making will be difficult next year and probably the next two years because we’re going to have some economic troubles. Look at esports as cross-curricular and go after that CTE funding because even though the general budget might get cut, our state here is really good about keeping their CTE budgets high. CTE gets funded separately from the general budget. So, if you can align yourself as a CTE program, your availability for funding is significantly higher, because you’re not pulling from the general budget; you’re pulling from the CTE budget.


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


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