When school districts are looking to add esports to their lineup of extracurricular activities, selecting an organization to partner with can be daunting.
There are a variety of “leagues” vying for their attention, all with slightly different missions – some with a heavy focus on game play, others with a more tactical approach toward positive learning outcomes. From a K-12 perspective, there is deep value in those that focus on education, programming and distinct pathways that students can leverage at the next level.
The first of those to take an “education-first” approach to competitive video gaming was the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). It now serves about 10,000 students across 49 states, providing robust, research-based programs and even curriculum schools can use around gaming. One caveat it offers that others don’t: It is free for students.
Like all entities navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic and operating under a free-to-play model, NASEF faced some challenges. Those compounded when the Samueli Foundation decided it would gradually stop funding this powerhouse program. That left NASEF at a bit of crossroads, but not without options.
“I said to them, I think this is the future,” recalls Gerald Solomon, the founder of NASEF who had retired as executive director from the Samueli Foundation in September. “Let me see if I can put together a collaboration of people who are willing to take this on.”
After leveraging his connections and brainstorming ideas, he created a plan to reinvent and reshape NASEF. The result: NASEF will continue as an independent nonprofit under the umbrella of a new, bigger organization called the World Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation (WWSEF), which promises to maintain many of the successful elements of the old model while hyper-expanding the reach of the new one globally.
“We’re staying true to the mission, the vision and values,” Solomon says. “We will still be free. But we’re going to have to look at different revenue business models.”
Many of the details of the new structure of the WWSEF – officials are just calling it World Wide – are still in the works, but for now schools that operate with NASEF will continue doing so as the transition starts on Jan 1. The good news is, what’s to come for them likely will be far more expansive and more engaging. Esports is booming, both globally and in schools.
“We really excited about the future,” says Solomon. “There’s so much opportunity here, and not just in the U.S., but globally. It’s kind of like in any engineering design concept. Because we’re STEM based, you build a prototype, you test the prototype, you launch the prototype, and you revisit it. We’re calling it NASEF 2.0”
The Trojan Horse and other mighty horses to help
The one constant Solomon wants to keep alive is this notion of bringing out workforce skills from the shell of these entertainment vehicles. To do that, he understands NASEF and the WWSEF must change and grow.
“One of the things I don’t think we did well was to listen to the field and give the field a real voice,” he says. “We kind of thought we knew, but in retrospect, it was not really as good as it could have been. So we’ve created an entire advisory committee made up of education and gaming leaders around the country who are forming a formal advisory committee [to look at] finance, education, competition, training, etc.”
To that end, he is turning to a who’s who of highly respected scholastic esports and education leaders. Two of his closest allies from the University of California, Irvine – Mark Deppe, NASEF’s commissioner and the program director for UCI’s esteemed esports program, and Constance Steinkuehler, professor of informatics at UCI – will continue in their roles in providing the core elements around gaming and the research that shows positive outcomes, respectively.
He also added some serious clout by tapping these standouts to be part of the new WWSEF lineup of advisory members:
- Clint Kennedy, North American Director of Learn2Esport, an ed tech innovator and high school administrator who helped launch the first-ever collegiate esports program in New London, Conn.
- Brooke Haag, the former education director for Microsoft for gaming and a “chief evangelist for STEM, esports and Minecraft”
- Mark ‘Garvey’ Candella, director of education programs at Amazon’s Twitch Student program, who Solomon says shared the same “fundamental passions and value structures”
- Ryan Johnson, CEO of Cxmmunity, a non-profit esports program focused on ensuring diversity, equity, and access in gaming and esports
- And Todd Harris, the CEO of Skillshot Media and co-founder of video game developer Hi-Rez Studios who will now be the WWSEF’s new chief executive officer
“We have put together a true A-List group of academic and field leaders to elevate and scale NASEF’s approach to scholastic esports,” Harris said.
Solomon says Harris’ breadth in the space will be invaluable.
“Given his background with the National Association of Collegiate Esports [NACE], with Hi-Rez and his understanding of the production end of things and competition platforms, Todd offers a set of resources and tools that we needed to move forward,” he says. “We’ve put together a really diverse group of folks who represent what it is that our core values are.”
Those values go far beyond esports and the battles between students competing for glory on screen. There are numerous roles and paths children and teens have discovered that correlate with the video games they love, including fields such as web and game design, broadcasting, storytelling and technology roles.
“The whole idea is how can esports and gaming be that Trojan horse and that entryway but also look at how it can be used to develop skills in various virtual digital technologies: AR, VR, Unreal Engine, Twinmotion and Unity,” Solomon says. “So, our picture is really big and broad around gaming and esports as an expansive ecosystem to really give kids an opportunity to spur interest and develop passion. And then find articulated pathways to be able to move forward.”
Chance to restart and win big
For Solomon, this will be the ultimate benchmark to see how powerful both NASEF and the new WWSEF can be.
“Todd said this to me early on, it isn’t often when a person has an opportunity to take a vision and build it and then several years later, be in a position to rebuild it,” he says. “I could look back at what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and kind of do NASEF 2.0, the next iteration. That’s really been personally rewarding, to be able to look back and say, wow, there’s some good stuff, but there are also a lot of lessons learned. How do we take that and make it a better product, a better service and better program?”
One of the neat offshoots of the NASEF initiative in the past year has been its expansion outside of the U.S. It forged scholastic esports partnerships with similar groups in England, Japan and Mexico. Solomon says they are developing initiatives in Israel and are in conversations with officials in Dubai, India, Singapore and Korea.
“The whole digital virtual world is now front and center,” he says. “And we want to be able to see how we can use it in a way that’s productive, rather than just entertainment.”
Changes are on the way in North America, too. NASEF relies on many regional affiliates such as the Florida Scholastic Esports League to do work in those areas, and Solomon says it will be empowering them more to be true thought-leaders and partners. It also plans to expand its offerings to students on the gaming side, which should please program coordinators and those who play those titles.
“We’re looking expanding title play to give kids a greater opportunity to engage in things,” he says. “It’s just like anything else. You go to an ice cream store, and you have 31 flavors. Not everyone likes vanilla. That’s actually one of the great things that Todd brings through Skillshot and his background with Hi-Rez, is his relationships within the industry.”
This roller-coaster ride the past few months has made Solomon both grateful and thankful to those who have worked to make NASEF strong and help build a new future under WWSEF.
“It’s been a team effort, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “No one person could have ever accomplished or gotten NASEF to where it is. It’s sad, obviously, with COVID. But at the same time, we were probably better situated and positioned to adapt because we didn’t have to pivot. Most people are pivoting, We just had to enhance. Our platforms were already within the world where people need to be.”