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.