The educational power of putting esports in your classroom

One middle school's journey from concept to implementation offers a familiar refrain: 'Esports teaches students? When can I sign up?'

I had always been actively involved in my grandson’s education, maintaining a first-name rapport with his teachers and principal. As he migrated through Pre-K to sixth grade, my career path had changed again, and I found myself explaining my return to public education to his principal. What caught his ear was that, at a district-level, I was paid to set up esports clubs on high school campuses. Usually this line of discussion ends in disbelief and a frosty farewell, but THIS time, I was invited to come to a formal meeting of the school’s administration to explain myself and my proposition.

That meeting moved through the logic example that …

  • Kids play video games – it’s important to them, they congregate, self-teach and learn communally in their gaming forums and virtual play spaces;
  • Kids will focus on video games – take ANY lesson you’re teaching, allow students to find an esports analogy and you’ll get a robust response to learning prompts and better student engagement; and
  • It’s all about the “chocolate broccoli” – kids will LEARN if recipe (wrapping something good for them but unappealing in something they want) is just right.

… into a full-blown discussion on how to implement such a concept into an active scholastic middle school schedule.

What followed in two short weeks was the creation of a quarter-long (nine week) esports elective class to the school board, a parent education meeting, and the selection and offering to potential students. While students were given a choice to participate (and each “candidate” accepted vigorously, on the spot), it was important to get parental buy-in, something acquired only after their many pointed questions about the academic merits of this course had been satisfied.

After some stage craft and a little hype, a PC lab was dedicated to this inaugural elective. Sixteen students, grades 6-8, 60/40 boys/girls, were ushered into the lab (my unsuspecting grandson among them), and after gasps of realization, the fierce roar of anticipation let me know I absolutely could not let this group of young pioneers down. Whatever I presented had to be on point, engaging, career focused and standards-based…and fun.

Every year, veteran teachers sweat this moment. I was carrying the future of scholastic esports on my back, so no pressure…

The plan was simple, as any good plan is – there is an ecosystem of roles and careers in esports, defined by four domains (Organizer, Content Creative, Entrepreneur and Strategist). This concept formed an eight-week program with the ninth and final week holding a special function (more on that later).

Each week, my class and I met for three sessions (M-W-F) for 47 minutes. The sessions provided, in turn, an intro into the function and scope of each domain, concentrated on key activities that also required English Language Arts, traditional art skills, grade-level math and even psychology, physical fitness and career technical education and STEM components. The kicker was Friday: I would wrap up the weekly lesson in 24 minutes and leave exactly 23 minutes for “purposeful play” at the end of the day. The “purpose” was to highlight how what we did that week actually lived in the gaming world, whether that was story arc analysis, number-crunching play statistics to pick a better squad line up (we played Super Smash Ultimate exclusively) or discussing how diet and sleep patterns affected one’s game play.

Week Nine was special: while flipped classrooms are no longer novel, allowing students to lead the learning, my model was a bigger production – literally. Students helped me use all four domain skills to draft, staff, provision and execute a three-round gaming tournament, preceded by a student-hosted gallery walk and discussion of the learning outcomes and artifacts they had collaborated to create in the preceding eight weeks. They took on many of the jobs in the ecosystem, even shoutcasting (color commentary) on the live game.

Parents were in awe that in only 9 weeks, shy kids, kids from different grades, boys and girls, were unified in one effort – to prove to Mom and Dad that esports was not just a fun thing, it was a scholastic thing, something into which they poured interest, skills and a passion for play that returned dividends we could not have anticipated.

The best part of the story is this – it didn’t end.

The nine-week format became something that other middle schools asked to see, and in working with them, I developed trimester- and semester-length options. NASEF (the North America Scholastic Esports Federation) is working to make the curriculum widely available. Community-based organizations like the YMCAs in Orange County, Chicago, Gaffney, SC, and Des Moines, IA, have also started to use a repurposed version of this baseline curriculum for their after-school programs, and membership continues to climb as scholastic esports makes waves, changes minds and focuses the passion to play into a career and academic plan.

Kevin Brown is a licensed CTE instructor, mentor teacher and wears the mantle of “esports Program Specialist” in a joint position with the Orange County Department of Education and the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). As a life-long gamer, he sees his job as the perfect linkage between parents, educators and administrators, helping them cross the seemingly impossible divide between video game play and all of its inherent educational and social emotional merits. GLHF!

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