In 2017, more people watched the League of Legends Championship than Game 7 of the World Series and the final game of the NBA Finals that year. This statistic was shared by ESPN, who—for the first time this past September—featured esports player, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins on the cover of its ESPN The Magazine.
But what exactly is esports? Is it just kids just shooting at each other in online video games? Well, it can be. But esports can also be strategy card games, like Hearthstone, which is set in the World of Warcraft universe.
And, as it happens, esports is entering many middle and high schools, as well as college campuses. The University of California, Irvine, recently built an esports arena! What’s more, some universities now offer esports scholarships!
Gaming Real-World Skills
Esports, or electronic sports, describes competitive video gaming. Popular examples include the first-person shooters (FPS) games like DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO), and the aforementioned League of Legends (LoL). The FPS games play like digital versions of paintball, are team-based, and involve strategy. Other FPS games include Overwatch and Fortnite, which are more graphically cartoonish.
Fortnite, of course, has exploded in popularity to the degree that it is has caused a degree of moral panic with some parents. In a recent article for Smithsonian Magazine, Wired contributor Clive Thompson compared the current Fortnite hysteria in the media to pinball crazes in the 20th century. He quotes clinical psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder, who stated, “It’s [Fortnite] enormously social—it’s a really good connector, attracting many girls and other kids who normally don’t play games.” To wit, the University of Surrey recently reported that girls who play video games are 3 times more likely to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields!
As researchers Kurt Squire and Matthew Gaydos (of UC, Irvine and MIT, respectively) argue in Education Week, to kids, esports are more like tag or king-of-the-hill. They write, “Fortnite is, in many respects, a classic ‘third place’—a place that is neither home nor school, but where kids can socialize and play beyond the watchful eyes of parents or teachers. These are places where kids learn to negotiate conflict, become independent, and explore what kind of person they want to be. They are important experiences that we too often design out of our kids’ lives through structured activities and all of the shuffling back and forth we do in today’s busy world.” Further, research suggests that playing violent games may decrease violence.
Esports in Middle School
Admittingly, launching a shooter-based esports club or team in a middle or high school may seem untenable. The good news is that not all esports games involve shooting. One example is Rocket League, a mash-up of soccer and race cars. For many educators, Rocket League is the esports game of choice.
To learn more, I spoke with New Jersey educator Chris Aviles. At his school, in Fair Haven, New Jersey, Aviles founded an esports team. “It’s not a club—it’s a team,” he clarified. “We are approved [by the school board] as a sport.” As a sport, Aviles can cut kids off of the roster if they don’t show up for practice, and he can bench kids. Players must maintain a minimum GPA, too, to help build character. There are varsity and JV levels.
But first, he had to convince his board of education. “My administrators were onboard from the beginning,” he recalled.
To arrive at Rocket League, Aviles first looked at the soft skills (also known as 21st-century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, communication) players learn from certain esports games. While Hearthstone is school-friendly (it’s basically a two-player card battle game), Aviles wanted something embedded with teamwork and collaboration. “League of Legends and Overwatch are good team games, but there is shooting. Overwatch was a hard no, and League of Legends was a soft no. But Rocket League is rated E for Everyone!”
Rocket League also encourages teamwork and discipline just like in traditional varsity sports such as wrestling and football. In fact, Aviles used to coach traditional varsity sports. “I don’t see any difference [in traditional sports and esports] so far.”
It took about a year, from when he pitched the idea of an esports team to gaining school approval. He began by holding an interest meeting, where students signed up. He then brought in college mentors like Kyle Faust from the University of Northern Colorado (full disclosure: Faust was one of my undergrad students!), as well as students from Rutgers University, locally, in New Jersey.
“The Rutgers students have been talking to the team about how to parlay esports into STEM careers. It’s not just the game. Kids edit video, and they do skill-based work.” To see more, check out this Twitch stream of Aviles’ Fair Haven kids playing against Rutgers students.
Social skills are important for students, particularly those who may not be interested in traditional physical sports. In fact, if it wasn’t for his esports program, likely none of Aviles’ team would have any school engagement. These students were simply not interested in traditional school-based activities, and, therefore, had no school-home connection in any way.
To further engage his team, Aviles has kids take on different roles. He has a kid who broadcasts the games on [the video game streaming site] Twitch. Other team members run the website and social media accounts. There are also roles to help run practice and his eighth-graders mentor incoming sixth-graders in mentoring.
To learn more about activating an esports program in your school or community, check out the North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). And be sure to follow #esportsedu on Twitter. Recent chat topics included adding journalism into esports programs to blend gaming and English language arts components while also helping students build usable skills needed in the esports industry.
For breakfast, I had Special K Protein cereal, turkey bacon, and Starbucks coffee.