Tips for getting started with an esports program in K-12

Simply generating a conversation around competitive gaming can help your school get on a path to be a game-changer, but make sure to set out a strategy and get buy-in from stakeholders.
By: | March 27, 2020
Photo by Soumil Kumar

As one of the fastest-growing industries in history, it’s no surprise to see esports interest skyrocketing in schools. In fact, since the launch of platform PlayVS in 2018, upwards of 13,000 schools in the United States have joined its waitlist to get a varsity esports team.

Esports is a highly-collaborative, educational and engaging activity and K-12 schools want in. Educators are eager to leverage esports programs as a way to create compelling new academic experiences and unique opportunities for students to develop real-world skills while still in school.

Burleson Independent School District (BISD) in Texas is setting a good example. Dr. Leslie Bender Jutzi, Chief Academic Innovation Officer for BISD recently commented that their approach to esports is to focus on college and career-readiness. As a result, every event implemented by their school district includes an educational component.

College representatives and industry professionals meet with students during events, and provide ongoing mentoring at district campuses, and they also have a robust esports and event job-shadowing program.

When attempting to emulate this type of program, the path forward is unclear for many districts. Having spent the last several years working with industry leaders and esports’ pioneers in K-12, here is a list of findings to help K-12 schools get started:

Start the conversation.

The first step in starting an esports program is to start asking questions and gauge interest from the community. The best place to begin is with the students. Consider polling the student population to understand how the program might add value.

Explore the industry of esports—understand how it’s being used locally and globally, who the players are and why esports is of interest to them. Use findings and survey results to extend the discussion to district leaders, school board members, administration, faculty and other community leaders. Consult with the IT department to understand the technical requirements, including what types of gaming stations, network, infrastructure and supporting technology might be needed.

Broadening the scope of the conversation to nearby schools and local esports leagues and organizations will help chart a course for the success of the program by looking to them to provide helpful lessons learned and tips for moving forward.

Map out a strategy.

Use the research to define goals and establish requirements to get started. Start planning with four key areas in mind: academics, logistics, technology requirements and financial considerations.

Look to answer basic operational questions like how many students will be accepted into the program, which games they will play and what other supporting roles the program will require (shoutcasting, analytics, video/production, etc.).

When identifying academic goals, be prepared to show what new academic areas of study will be added, and what career and technical education (CTE) pathways will be associated with it. Unlike some other extracurricular programs, esports has an entirely unique application to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) education.

Identify regulatory and compliance requirements, such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and incorporate policies for how to promote good user behavior, digital citizenship and sportsmanship. Many schools have opted to incorporate existing policies for other sanctioned activities, such as maintaining a minimum GPA and attendance requirements.

When mapping out technology and financial plans, remember that while some schools may be investing heavily into esports facilities and equipment, there’s often no need for a high up-front investment. Define the minimum requirements, and do what is feasible with existing resources, including the use of volunteer coaches, computer lab equipment and relying on talented student interns.

Get buy-in.

Support needs to come from the parents, faculty, administration, school boards and district leaders. It’s essential to show the reality of what esports has become: challenging, educational and a heavily engaging team-building activity.

When approaching key decision makers, focus on how these programs are empowering young people with skills that translate across STEAM disciplines, as well as business, health and wellness, marketing, finance and design. Likewise, these programs open the doors to several new academic areas of study and research, such as design theory, to introduce into the school’s curriculum.

For students aiming to continue programs in the growing career fields in technology and science, there are increasing numbers of scholarship and grant opportunities. In fact, more than 200 colleges and universities today offer full-ride scholarships. Further, esports is providing access to state-of-the-art technological tools, and helps foster lifelong skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, teamwork and good digital citizenship.

Esports is also bringing together students like never before. For fringe students that haven’t participated in extracurricular activities, esports programs finally provide a reason to get involved with their school and community. Kyle Berger, Chief Technology Officer for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, pointed out with respect to the district’s esports program that 70% of students involved in the program had no other involvement on campus, including 10% with autism. The results for these students are compelling, leading to increases in overall grade-point average and attendance.

No matter how you look at it, esports is having a tremendously positive impact on students, schools and communities. It will be exciting to see what comes next as esports continues to transform from what was once just an enjoyable pastime into something far greater: a gateway to students’ promising, technology-enriched futures.

Snow White is a K-12 Education Strategist and Senior Consultant at Dell Technologies.

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