When I first approached my administration back in August 2021 about implementing a scholastic esports program at school, I had imagined facing significant opposition to the idea, and, in preparation, had rehearsed my talking points and done my research in order to be persuasive. I was prepared to talk about the connections to STEM learning, the opportunity to engage otherwise disengaged students, the inclusive nature of gaming, the research behind gamification and game-based learning, and more.
None of that was necessary, however, as my school principal was extremely supportive in my effort to implement scholastic esports at the school and, more importantly, to use the program to teach students transferable skills while simultaneously encouraging them to explore related career pathways.
I began my esports program with a focus on social-emotional well-being using resources from NASEF to structure initial lessons. Before jumping into the competitive aspects of esports and gaming, we spent three weeks discussing the importance of positive mental health and the negative effects associated with some online gaming cultures. This included discussions of toxicity and online “trash talk” of opponents, as well as the impact on one’s emotional well-being and overall confidence as a result of being repeatedly subjected to such toxicity.
Together, we developed a set of Core Values and Community Guidelines for our esports program that students used when developing their own individual team Code of Conduct. From the get-go, students were well versed on what I expected of them, as well as what they could expect of each other in terms of respectful gaming. More importantly, they regularly held each other accountable throughout the year!
In addition to developing strong guidelines and expectations around behavior, we also took time to delve into the importance of proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and physical exercise in improving overall performance of competitive esports athletes and gamers. We explored what it means to be “tilted,” (i.e., to experience an emotional reaction to in-game events that cause a deterioration in gameplay), and how “playing tilted” contributes to frustration and rage in gameplay, which, in turn, increases toxic and undesirable behavior.
In conjunction with the esports training exercises we regularly engaged in via gwoop.com, students researched and developed their own individualized nutrition plans and physical exercise routines specifically addressing common gaming injuries. For the first time in the program, students began to understand that there was more to esports than just gaming.
That said, the competitive gaming aspect of the program was certainly a highly motivating factor for students. After all, everyone loves to play! Our program was based around the game Rocket League, a free-to-play, multi-platform vehicular soccer game that is easy to learn, highly engaging, and age-appropriate for middle school.
At first, I provided no coaching or guidance, but instead allowed students just to play. While a few had played before, most had not. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for students to pick up the game and get a feel for the mechanics of the gameplay. It also didn’t take long for students to realize that there was a lot more to the game if it was going to be played at a competitive level. At that point, we began to discuss the importance of developing a strategy, fostering teamwork, and encouraging open communication if they were going to elevate their game to a higher level.
Most significantly, we discussed at length the importance of building confidence through positive reinforcement and encouragement from teammates. After about three months of daily practice, coaching, and strategizing, we were ready to compete in our first official Rocket League tournaments hosted by Esports Canada and the Ontario Federation of School Esports Associations (OFSEA). We were excited for the experience alone, but ended up placing third overall in our very first competition!
Ultimately, my goal was to move beyond just the competitive aspects of esports and gaming and focus heavily on exploring careers linked to esports. Realistically speaking, I know that very few students, if any, will end up pursuing a career as esports athletes; however, every student will eventually enter the workforce and the skills they would learn through participating in scholastic esports will be applicable in a number of careers.
Early in the school year, we were able to connect with the Esports Coordinator at Lambton College to learn about the “business” of esports and some of the related careers linked to their Esports Entrepreneurship and Administration program. Using the NASEF Four Esports Domains Sorting Survey, students began to develop a sense of their skills as they relate to the esports ecosystem, which we then used to assign roles for students to explore throughout the program. My esports program gradually evolved to include two student-run teams (i.e., The Reapers and The Wizards) where students themselves took on the various roles needed in running a successful esports team: athletics & training, shoutcasting & livestreaming, marketing & promotion, graphic design, event planning, statistics & analytics, and social media content creation. In exercising these various roles, students got practical, first-hand experience of different careers that they may one day consider.
Toward the end of the school year and after having competed in several more Rocket League tournaments and events, students were charged with putting all of their learning and skills into practice by creating, organizing, promoting, and running their own five-week Rocket League tournament with teams from other schools in the school board. From creating the tournament bracket, tracking individual team and player statistics, creating graphics and animations assets for streaming, promoting and marketing the tournament to senior admin, running the livestream and providing in-game shoutcasting and commentary, students did a fantastic job and were incredibly proud of themselves on having pulled off a very successful tournament! The value of teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication skills they will take away from their experience with scholastic esports is incalculable.
Beyond the Game
Early on in the program, I knew that I wanted to take students “beyond the game” by having them explore and learn skills that they could transfer to contexts outside of esports. The most logical path to take to go beyond the game was to have students transition from being consumers of games to developers of games by designing and creating their own 3D video game using the Unreal Engine. As such, part of our scholastic esports activities involved analyzing different games—those suited to esports competition and those played primarily for their entertainment value—in order to develop a set of game design principles and criteria that students could use to design their own games. Students learned about animation and cinematics in order to create trailers for their games, as well as about graphic design and print layout to create game box covers and promotional materials. They deepened their learning by learning some basic coding skills using Unreal Engine Blueprints, which they used to make their game concepts interactive.
From there, we began to broaden our application of these skills by having students create other interactive 3D experiences using the Unreal Engine. Students began by designing their ideal bedroom in a 3D space, followed by a re-imagining of a local park as a sustainable park for which they created a 3D model with a virtual walkthrough. Later on, after some practice using the Unreal Engine, students applied their understanding of game-level design to create an interactive 3D science museum to showcase their learning about one of the human organ systems they had learned about as part of our science curriculum. In addition to their organ-specific research, this assignment required students to interview a museum curator (virtually) to learn about how floor layouts and displays are organized and to understand a bit about architectural design features. They also got a chance to discuss museum marketing and promotion with a local advertising company, which they later drew upon when creating the promotional materials for their museum exhibits.
As a final culminating assignment, students combined the skills taught during game design with all of the skills reinforced during scholastic esports (including broadcasting, graphic design, marketing, teamwork, etc.) to design, build, and sales pitch the construction of a (fictional) multi-million dollar esports lab for the school! Students were divided into three groups, each group representing an architectural firm competing to win the construction bid for the esports lab. Within their groups, students played different roles based on their strengths and interests, ultimately working together to submit one cohesive presentation and “sales pitch” it to our school principal, who ultimately chose the winning design. This collaborative project took several weeks to complete, but was far more authentic and engaging for students than any other presentation-type assignment I have given to date.
If you have been considering starting a scholastic esports program at your school, I highly encourage you to start with the excellent resources from NASEF available on their website at www.nasef.org. This program has made a significant impact on my students and I’m confident it would do the same for yours.
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