More than just competitive gaming: Leveraging esports as a learning experience | Hubert Ham | 8 Min Read

A new and emerging trend throughout K-12 education is the creation of esports programs. At The Alexander Dawson School in Las Vegas, Nevada, our esports elective course is one of the most popular. Now, a question: Did you immediately envision students mindlessly playing video games in a classroom for 50 minutes? I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. In spite of its global popularity and exponential growth as an industry, the term esports still evokes for many the image of hypnotized children playing video games alone in their rooms for hours on end. But those of us who teach esports courses and run esports school teams and leagues know that it is not only a legitimate sport, it’s also a terrific vehicle through which to teach a host of valuable education-based and interpersonal soft skills. 

Through esports, the options and opportunities for student learning are limitless. Even the cognitive and social development benefits are of note, including positive boosts to visual processing, executive functioning, problem-solving and strategy development, as well as interactional connections amongst friends and teammates. In addition, as a technology-based sport, the ability to enhance digital learning opportunities by connecting virtually with other esports and/or tech companies around the world is equally limitless. 

In a Dawson podcast conducted with Allied Esports CCO Paul Chamberlin, who partnered with Dawson to provide an Esports Shadow Day experience for our students, Assistant Head of School Andrew Bishop said, 

“It’s exciting to think about how collections of organizations can come together and redefine what this industry could be… how are we talking with students and families about what this industry looks like… and how it will evolve over time? In any industry, we’re stronger by association… and we want to be pioneers, to look at new opportunities to teach lifelong skills and create lasting impressions… that are going to make the world a better place.”

Andrew Bishop, Assistant Head of School, The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain (NV)

Yet it’s that initial barrier — growing the mindset that esports is an actual sport that is capable of a global presence on a massive scale, and deserving of the same level of support, recognition, and reward that traditional school sports programs receive — that schools need to first overcome. 

While based on video game competition, esports is no different than most traditional sports: individuals or teams play against one another within set rules and guidelines, and with similar expectations of respectful behavior and good (digital) sportsmanship. 

The second step is to recognize the opportunities that the industry itself provides: As a technology-based sport, the skills we teach in our elective course at Dawson are a gateway into a wide array of STEAM-based careers. In fact, esports has many parallels to both traditional sports and entertainment industries, and arguably does the most to blend the boundaries between the two. Organizations like the NFL or NBA aren’t made up of just athletes and coaches, but an entire business that relies on a vast range of skills and expertise. This includes everything from medical, law, and finance to engineering, marketing, and graphic design, and the same is true of esports. But unlike traditional sports organizations, careers in esports continue to develop and evolve at the same pace as the industry itself, as well as make students more employable across a large spectrum of career choices. 

Alex Villalta teaches the esports class at Dawson and his goal is to widen students’ perspectives by:

“showing them the vast depth of opportunity behind some of their favorite entertainment. By helping them look past the singular viewpoint of e-athletes and shoutcasters, we can help them discover many different routes to the same end: joining their passion of gaming with a useful skillset they can use beyond the classroom.” 

Alex Villalta, esports teacher, The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain (NV)

Take a look at job boards such as Hitmarker and you will see a wide variety of esports professions — from UI designers to human resource directors. And as the industry continues its worldwide expansion, even more varied professional opportunities will emerge. “Esports jobs on Indeed are rising very fast,” said Andrew Flowers, a former economist now with Indeed, who saw the share of job postings for roles related to esports rise 343 percent between December 2015 and December 2019, and continuing to surge through 2020.

Dawson seventh-grade student Will Harris said, 

“I think that the Dawson esports class is very unique. I have taken this class four semesters and I learn something new every time. It’s not just playing video games, students practice coaching, shoutcasting, management, etc. Rather than writing essays and doing extensive homework, we learn [through] projects, and we can actually use the things that we learn in this class in the real world.”

Will Harris, student, The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain (NV)

A program that is limited only by your imagination

So the question becomes, how can we engage students’ attention, both academic and strategic, to esports while also giving them a broader understanding of the opportunities — some existing, some that have yet to emerge — inherent in this new and growing industry? This is something Dawson is exploring by first listening to our students’ interests and then delving into units that span everything from performing arts (shoutcasting) and journalism to game design and event management. In this way, we’ve created a student-driven esports curriculum that focuses on building STEAM skills with an entrepreneurial mindset. This, in turn, helps students to develop resiliency, resourcefulness, and creativity with a foundation set in a fresh take on design-thinking. 

The opportunities in esports are so versatile, in fact, that when we ask students about their expansive and changing interests, we always find opportunities to engage those interests while maintaining an esports focus. And we have learned a lot in the process by listening to our students and remaining flexible. In this spirit, we share our tips and suggestions as a roadmap for other schools interested in starting their own esports program. But what your program ultimately looks like should be a direct reflection of student voice and choice.

  1. Ask students about their interests so you can tailor the course and curriculum to their interests. This will help create a more fulfilling program that will also have some longevity. It is easy for us to prescribe what we think is best for students, but partnering with them will result in a much better outcome for everyone. Listening to student voice and choice will also help you build a more inclusive program.
  2. Survey your faculty to find teachers who share an interest in esports education. There is often an assumption that a “techie” should lead an esports course or team, but should be someone who will champion this type of learning as an advocate for the students. It should be someone who can help build not only the program but the community that it creates. 
  3. Explore the idea of launching an esports club or competition team. We can separate the curriculum from the competition because we want students to realize that there are many roles and responsibilities that exist within the overall umbrella of esports. It’s not always about being the next elite streamer or game.
  4. Find partners in the community and industry who can help you build your program. Whether it is a family member of a student or a collaboration with the local university esports team, the esports community throughout K-12 education is growing and is very supportive. At Dawson, we recently started an Independent Schools Esports League to assist schools as we grow our programs. Consider joining us to get started!

Creating Inclusive Communities: Another reason K-12 education needs to take a larger role in esports

Currently, esports is the fastest growing sport in the world, and outside of schools it is a largely male-dominated industry. But it shouldn’t be this way. As one of the few gender-inclusive global sports that is also known for the neuro-diversity of its players, esports has the power to level the playing field for all of its athletes, no matter their identity. This is why educating students about the industry is so important: Through esports programs, we can teach students at an early age how to create inclusive communities and organizations that illustrate how diversity, equity, and inclusion work enriches an entire industry. This next generation of empathic innovators and critical thinkers can become self-confident industry leaders and mold esports into the inclusive global sports community it can and should be.  

In addition to using esports to teach students about pathways to inclusivity, we have also seen an increased need for education in digital citizenship and empathy skills. To ensure that our students are modeling what it is to be a good online citizen, we must give them opportunities to develop the basic fundamentals and practice their abilities. Just like any team sport, esports clubs and teams can provide students with the freedom to learn good sportsmanship and appropriate online behavior through the guidance of a trusted adult. At The Alexander Dawson School, we view esports through the same lens as any athletic program because of its many benefits to students. And as more schools purposefully engage their students through the creation of thoughtful and inclusive esports programs, the image of the wan child holed up in a bedroom playing video games for hours on end in isolation will be an outdated and incorrect one. Through these novel programs, we show students what a supportive, gender-inclusive, and healthy online competitive experience looks like. 

Esports is excitingly multifaceted, and at the root, it’s an important venture for students to experience during a time of remarkable physiological, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Under the guidance of teachers serving as coaches and mentors, esports can help young learners uncover new and independent passions, take risks, and open their minds to new affinities. Although this path of learning and discovery may be uncharted and open to detours, the best educators encourage students to embrace the unknown and strengthen their intrinsic motivation to excel in the spirit of learning something new. And the greatest part is, if you were listening well, the students may just be the most reliable assets for determining how best to create a thriving esports program in alignment with their needs and your school’s current research and educational best practices. 

Hubert Ham

Hubert Ham, Director of Innovation & IT, The Alexander Dawson School (NV) and The Esports EDU Lab, has experience as a science teacher in grades 6-12, as a curriculum coordinator and as an instructional technologist. Hubert earned a master's degree in STEM education at the University of Texas, and he brings a mix of technology experience and teaching experience to lead Dawson's I.T. department and innovation initiatives.

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