As esports grows in popularity, many schools are evaluating whether and how to implement esports programs. There’s a big difference between programs that incorporate only gameplay and tournaments, and those that intentionally incorporate learning into the esports environment.

The University of California Irvine (UCI) has been researching the learning impacts of students enrolled in esports clubs and classes through the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). From its inception two years ago, NASEF has focused on developing a program that taps into students’ excitement around esports, with an emphasis on personal and educational development.

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Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of Informatics at UCI, researches the cognitive, intellectual, and social aspects of esports and multiplayer online videogames. She and a team of researchers have just completed several empirical studies on student behaviors and learning specific to NASEF’s scholastic-based structured environment.

The data documents significant positive learning outcomes for high school students because of their participation in NASEF’s scholastic esports program. In fact, researchers found that students improved in nearly every outcome variable measured, including STEM career interest, school engagement, critical thinking, and many others.

In a study on Academic and Social-Emotional Learning in High School Esports, the team performed a quantified analysis of qualitative data, examining the impact of the high school esports league on teens using national academic (NGSS) and social-emotional (CASEL) standards. Findings revealed important benefits in science, math, English language arts, social-emotional learning, and school affiliation. Surprisingly, the most dramatic benefits were social-emotional.

Both students and staff spoke at length about the ways in which the league was transformative in terms of both self-awareness and self-management, on the one hand, and social-awareness and relationships skills, on the other. Students frequently told stories about transformation in their understanding and skills of emotional regulation, social acumen and sensitivity, and the ability to regulate what many refer to as “tilt” – strong emotional responses during gameplay that degrades decision-making and teamwork.

For example, as one student commented, “I get tilted very easily, and whenever I play with them, I would start getting upset, and they would start joking, and it would take me off tilt, and then I would sit down and focus and be like, okay, I know what I’ve been doing wrong. I know how to improve it for the next games. So, I haven’t been getting as tilted as often, because I have gotten better to where if someone does do really horrible, I don’t care. I just focus on myself playing.” (School 4, Student 3)

Students also remarked on the role the league had in increasing their affiliation with school. By acknowledging students’ interests and making a space for their game-related accomplishments, students came to feel more meaningfully connected to both the institution of schooling and the adults participating in it.

Another surprise was that students from lower-income schools showed greater gains than students from higher-income schools, contrary to initial concerns about the equity of esports based programming for high schoolers based on prior research. While the increased learning outcomes for students from low income schools allow us to infer that economic inequities do not interfere with interest-driven learning in this context, they do not assess other forms of equity that create barriers to entry for many. Such findings are therefore encouraging but require further investigation to assess differences based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and level of gameplay skill.

Mentorship and student leadership both seem to mediate the relationship between league participation and many of the benefits found in this study. Teacher GMs and coaches appear to play a key role in modeling behavior and fostering environments in which students learned to focus on improving their social, communication, and analytical skills. Having experts model best practices for team play and success, such as post-game reflections, gave students tangible actions to take before, during, and after each game.

In Enriching Esports: Assessment of an After School Esports Program for Teens, the research team conducted a retrospective posttest survey on students participating in esports club activity hosted by NASEF. The survey assessed their STEM Attitudes and Career Knowledge, School Affiliation, Social Skills and Relationships, Self-Regulation, and 21st Century Skills. Club participants were paired with non-participating students with similar characteristics in terms of GPA, gender, and the school site.

Researchers created an online retrospective posttest by combining the PEAR instrument, a validated survey used to assess STEM attitudes and career knowledge, with supplemental in-house items designed to evaluate students’ school affiliation, social skills, self-regulation, and mastery orientation.

The goal of the survey was to measure students’ assessments of whether and how they changed on each variable. NASEF students reflecting on their time within the program yielded 18 significant results out 19 interest variables across all five topic areas. 17 of those results were positive, indicating an improvement over the course of the NASEF esports program. Together, these results show that NASEF program significantly and positively improved students’:
• STEM Activity Participation, Career Interest and Knowledge, and Engagement
• Grit and Perseverance
• Relationships with Peer and Adults
• Critical Thinking
• Communication and Cooperation
• School Values and Engagement
• Sense of Belonging
• Self-Management

“You can’t just guess at whether a new approach to learning will be effective,” said Steinkuehler. “Teenagers are tricky; they can’t be talked into liking something or easily convinced that certain classes are relevant. I’ve been researching games and learning for more than a decade, working to hone in on something that kids are authentically drawn to AND that provides a meaningful, authentic context for meeting key educational goals and standards. These data suggest that NASEF is onto something important with scholastic esports.”

“The tide has turned,” said Tom Turner, chief education officer at NASEF. “Esports and video games used to be seen as negatives by parents and educators, but this research documents the positive benefits children realize when they’re involved in esports in a NASEF club, with structured learning built right into the fun. It’s time for all of us to embrace this new world of learning and to give our children the ability to learn while doing what they love.”

About the Author:

Claire LaBeaux oversees communications for several STEM and education-focused organizations. She works with NASEF to expand awareness of scholastic esports and highlight the positive impacts on youth.


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