Game time: schools see esports as natural fit for the digital age

Esports is the new way to learn and prepare students for the digital future.

By Brian Horsburgh, U.K. Education sales director and Danielle Rourke, senior higher education strategist, Dell Technologies

Reading, writing, arithmetic…Rocket League, Fortnite and Smite.

While a few years ago, a list like that would have drawn a blank stare from the average educational professional, that’s no longer the case today. Vehicular soccer; arena-based combat; basketball championships played with the sport’s biggest stars: For many of those teaching in 2022, they’re all essential to the wider school experience. Esports, they’ll tell you, is now part of the curriculum—a subject and activity for the evolving digital age.

For the uninitiated: “Esports,” the preferred moniker for electronic sports, involves organized, competitive video gaming between individuals or teams of players. In the biggest esports events, competitors gather in state-of-the-art arenas equipped with high-powered desktops, rows of gaming chairs and concert-quality audio-visual systems that let spectators follow the action from the stands. By 2024, according to one estimate, the number of esports players and viewers worldwide is expected to exceed 500 million, while global revenues for the esports market will likely top $1.6 billion. The esports industry in the U.K. is growing at an average of 8.5% annually, while in the U.S., at least 192 colleges and universities are now members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

A new kind of student-athlete

Esports’ growth also points to its inclusivity. Anyone can play. Students, not interested in physical sports, can still reap the benefits of being part of a team.

Kids with SEN and physical disabilities can compete on a more level, virtual playing field.

In fact, some events have already been held across the world to provide esports opportunities for disabled gamers, and several individuals have been able to break into the pro scene, regardless of their disability.

Education for our times

All of that is not to say that esports doesn’t have its share of detractors. According to Dell Technologies’s esports study, based on research with 500 educational stakeholders and 1,500 parents of children aged 11-18, over 40% of educational stakeholders in the UK believe parents and children alike do not know enough about esports in education. As a result, misconceptions abound. For instance, over half of UK parents who think that esports doesn’t play a positive role in education believe that the content is not relevant or appropriate for education purposes; that it is a distraction from learning methods; and that it will not provide children with real-world experiences. In essence, the very opposite of what we’re seeing.

Esports hones new digital and soft skills for our ever-evolving world (including dexterity, critical thinking, multitasking, risk-taking, focus etc.) and prepares them for life after school (in emerging fields, safe from the risk of extinction). According to Dell’s Breakthrough study, only 10% of workers polled in 2021 fit into the “sprinters” category of working style, meaning they are traiblazers ready to chase after innovation. Digital natives and students with gaming experience may make up for this skills gap in the workplace and inspire innovation culture and transformation in the workplace. There are even opportunities to win scholarships in esports and monetize their skills.

And it opens doors to a burgeoning industry. Those interested in jobs in the gaming world itself—esports team management, facilities development, “shoutcasting,” the list goes on—can leverage their experience competing against their peers to launch promising careers after graduation.

“With global esports revenues growing to $1,084 million in 2021, the world of esports offers huge employment potential, both in the UK and worldwide.”

Source: esports report: Elevating esports in education, Dell Technologies, Feb 2022

Pedagogy for digital natives

Educational establishments have long been told to evolve their pedagogy, in line with how the next generation learns and communicates. The pandemic accelerated this effort. Esports builds on these strides.

As an established communication of choice among young people, it’s a powerful learning format. According to Ofcom, 70% of 5 to 15-year-olds played games online in 2020.

Hence, organizations like the North America Scholastic Esports Federation are committed to “capitalizing on interest-based learning” and using esports to develop the “communication, collaboration and problem-solving abilities needed to thrive in work and in life.” If we integrate esports into mainstream education, we can hold students’ attention for longer, particularly among those that don’t have strong educational influences at home.

“The prospect of a career in an industry that they’ve grown up fascinated by is a real driver to help students progress, and for those who move into different industries the transferable skills they gain are invaluable.”

-Camilla Maurice, MidKent College, U.K.

Source: esports report: Elevating esports in education, Dell Technologies, Feb 2022

Breaking down the barriers to esports integration

So, what does it take to implement an esports program if your institution is starting from scratch? And what about the necessary infrastructure and connectivity? How is a school to pay for all of that? For many, the upfront costs are too daunting:

  • 41% of education stakeholders believe that schools/colleges do not have the facilities for esports equipment.
  • 55% think esports equipment is too expensive and creates a barrier to implementation.

The good news is that the barriers to entry for esports aren’t as onerous as they may seem. Yes, the hardware can be expensive, but so is the gear required for many other sports. And you don’t need a lot of space to run a school club—just a room with a few desks is usually enough to get started.

The secret to success with esports involves starting slow and finding a balance between the start-up costs and interest in the program. Talk to your students about what they’d like to see as the program gets up and running and learn from other schools by consulting national resources like the British Esports Association (BEA). Many schools have secured donor and sponsor money for their programs through fundraising groups like FundMyTeam, for example, and there are grants available from state and national organizations like the Varsity Esports Foundation. And finally, when it comes time to make purchases—to buy computers and consoles and licenses and league memberships—there are often financing and payment options available that can help take the sting out of those investments. An as-a-Service (aaS) set-up can help, from bringing in the devices (as needed) to setting up the general room. With an aaS consumption model, schools can drive down third-party costs with a more manageable, pay-as-they-go operational expenditure model.

Along similar lines, if you find resistance to esports from members of your school community, be upfront about what competitive gaming entails. Talk about the difference between esports and “screen time” and explain how competitive gaming is about teamwork and inclusivity. And while acknowledging that toxic behavior and harassment can be present in esports as they are in any sport, also show that you’re prepared to eliminate such behavior with clear team policies and regulations.

Success in the esports arena will, in the end, inevitably look different for different schools. For some, it will be the moment a kid with a health condition or social challenges finds joy in being a member of a team, while for others, it might entail building a college program that attracts attention from potential applicants from around the world. Whatever your goal, it is within reach—you just need to know how to take that first step, leap, jump or dunk.