Why every school should have an esports team

Renowned middle school teacher and coach Chris Aviles says there is no better activity to enhance SEL, career skills, a sense of community and online safety.

This column is part of a series of articles from DA’s Academic Esports Guide, which serves as a primer for schools and faculty interested in getting started in competitive video gaming.

Chris Aviles has been on the forefront of scholastic esports for many years and even began what was the first true middle school esports team in the nation in New Jersey.

From his early days dabbling in StarCraft to his indoctrination at a live esports event in Atlantic City in 2011, he has seen a lot of transformation over the past two decades, not only in the esports space but also in education. He offers a unique perspective as both a teacher and someone with a sports background (football, wrestling, track).

“As someone who has a foot in both the esports and traditional sports world, Atlantic City was a wake-up call: we need esports in education,” he says. “I have played video games competitively since 1998. I was a three-sport athlete in high school, played sports in college, and I have more than a decade of varsity coaching experience. I feel qualified to say that esports can be as valuable for our students as “real” sports are.”

In September 2018, he launched his middle school esports program. Finding competition was next to impossible (because there weren’t any other teams) so he set up a match against Rutgers University. Shortly thereafter, he got together with friend and fellow educator Steve Isaacs and they launched the first true head-to-head middle school match in Rocket League.

Fast-forward to 2020 … and there is a massive Middle School Esports League set to launch this fall courtesy of Generation Esports. Many people have Aviles to thank for being such a champion and visionary of esports for young students.

His positive experiences have led him to form these three reasons he says that every school should have an esports team:

  1. Esports is a great way to teach the soft stuff and the hard stuff

Leadership, communication, teamwork, and how to win and lose with class are just some of the soft skills that can be taught through esports. The value of teaching Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through esports is proven, but it isn’t new. Mindfulness and SEL training are being done at the collegiate and pro level, so it is only natural that it is trickling down to the high school and middle school level.

Some of the more advanced K-12 esports programs are starting to teach how nutrition and exercise can improve performance and how players can avoid being triggered, playing tilted, or handle toxicity when gaming. There is no doubt that esports is a great way to build students’ skill sets and social/emotional learning.

Although we should continue to teach and grow the soft stuff we teach, it is important, maybe more so, that we are teaching the hard stuff at the middle school and high school level.

We as adults have done a terrible job teaching kids how to navigate internet culture. An overwhelming majority of what gets posted on social media is fine, including the comment sections of websites, and forums such Reddit. However, there is a subsection of the Internet that can be a toxic place filled with racism, misogyny, and homophobia, spaces that try to use meme culture to recruit kids into white supremacist groups and those that celebrate school shooters and other acts of terror.

It is our duty as teachers to keep students safe. Having an esports team, which is likely to be full of Internet-savvy students, is a great place to tackle the tough but important cultural issues our students face on a regular basis that fly under most adults’ radar. The usual Digital Citizenship curriculum is not enough for some students. We need to be there to unpack their experiences on the Internet and model behavior so they can remain safe. Esports is also a way to educate our most vulnerable students.

  1. Esports builds a sense of belonging

When I first started my esports team, I was surprised to see who came out. Many students had IEPs, 504s, or were on the spectrum. Not a single student was playing a sport, nor did they have any home/school connection. They weren’t involved in any clubs, either. Mostly, my kids went home after school every day and played video games by themselves.

The best part about starting my esports team is watching my kids develop a sense of belonging. The community that we have built around esports at my school has given them a new social group to be a part of. Instead of playing alone, my kids generally game together outside of school. It is the sense of community and belonging that is esports’ greatest strength, since these kids who may need it most probably aren’t getting it anywhere else.

I helped facilitate this sense of community in a few key ways. The first is making sure we have a code of conduct. Your esports team has to be a safe place for everyone. Laying out how we are going to treat each other is an important first step to building a community of caring.

Second, one of the first things I did as coach was to purchase my kids team jerseys. Watching them walk down the halls collecting high-fives in their sweet-looking esports jerseys is a thing of beauty.

Finally, I’m tough on them. I’m tough in two ways. I’m tough because I have tied eligibility to be on the team to grades, attendance, and behavior. If students don’t show up or act appropriately they could be benched, suspended, or removed from the team. I’m also tough in what I expect. Just like when I coach my traditional athletes, I am all over my kids. I’m always telling them they can work harder or that they can be better.

Being tough on them is a way of showing how much you care about them and believe in them. Having tough team rules around attendance and behavior shows them you take esports and their presence on the team seriously. It lets them know you value them and you will only accept their best. Esports lets you set high expectations that your students can live up to.

  1. Esports is great for creating the pipeline.

Having an esports team presents a great opportunity to empower students’ Career and Technical Education (CTE). Since esports is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, it is important that students know they can turn their love of video games into careers, especially STEM careers. I call this the pipeline. We need to create, then show kids, the pipeline they can follow to get from middle school through college and into a career if they harness their love of video games.

To do this, I have a team behind my esports team to help build out my esports ecosystem. I don’t just have players on my team, I have players and other support staff that fill vital roles on the esports team, such as shoutcaster, IT specialist, scout, statistician, graphic designer, video editor, event planner, journalist, accountant, marketer, and many more.

By giving students the jobs that need to be done to run a successful esports team, they are getting hands-on experience with possible careers they might want to explore as they get older. To further support this notion, besides the competition, the main reason my middle schoolers play colleges is because afterwards I have the college players talk about what they are majoring in and how their passion for gaming plays a role in their choice.

My students leave feeling inspired after talking to the college students about their shared passion. My kids who may not think college is an option for them are realizing that maybe they want to go to college because they can continue to pursue esports and then graduate into a career, traditional or otherwise, that lets them be involved in gaming. The esports pipeline we build can carry our kids through college and beyond.

Every school should have an esports team.

Chris Aviles is a teacher at Knollwood Middle School in Fair Haven, NJ. There, he runs the renowned Fair Haven Innovates program he created in 2015. Part of his FH Innovates program includes the FH Knights, the first middle school esports team in the country. As coach of the FH Knights, Aviles and his players take on all comers from around the country, including other middle schools, high schools, and even colleges. Chris has been involved in esports since 1998, and he is passionate about growing the esportsedu movement. He has authored “The Guide to Esports in Education” to help other educators start an esports team and travels the country speaking about why every school should have an esports team.

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