The Benefits of Esports in the School Library—and How To Start a Team

Esports programs offer the opportunity for lessons that fit educational standards, as well as helping with school attendance and student engagement.

Last year, a library volunteer asked me to start an esports team at the school. He asked every week for a month. While I explained multiple times that I didn’t play video games and knew nothing about esports, the student persisted. He created a team name, designed a jersey, and taught his friends to play League of Legends. After a semester of his appeals, I agreed to try to make it happen.

The first Baldwinsville Esports Team.
Photos courtesy of Lindsay Cesari

Esports, at its most basic, is video games played competitively. Professional esports players compete, often in teams, to earn millions in tournament prize money. The most popular games include League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (if you have no clue what I’m talking about, don’t worry, neither did I). Players are celebrities and competitions are held in stadiums filled with screaming crowds that can rival those of any professional sport. Championship events are now broadcast on ABC and ESPN. This money-making industry generates revenue from advertising, sponsorship, and media rights. This year, the esports industry will be valued at more than $1 billion, a growth of more than 27 percent from 2018, according to a report from gaming industry analytics firm NewZoo.

But my teenagers weren’t ready to go pro, so what do esports look like at a high school level? And how could I possibly convince skeptical administrators that competitive video gaming was a good fit for our school?

First, I had to establish interest. In a random survey of 100 study hall students—a little more than 10 percent of my student body—more than 50 percent expressed an interest in playing on a high school team. Students who hadn’t taken the survey started showing up in the library, asking how they could play. With this evidence that students wanted esports, I needed to identify how the program would align with our district’s goals and my library program. It turns out that esports is a natural fit.

Esports have strong local and national standards connections, including with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the American Association of School Librarians. The programs offer opportunities to address media literacy objectives including netiquette behavior, using appropriate language and images online, and demonstrating respect and empathy towards diverse perspectives and experiences.

Using the limited research available, I also learned that esports provides many opportunities to develop career-ready skills, including social-emotional learning. Video-game playing, especially in a team setting, can develop and enhance collaboration, communication, empathy, decision-making, and problem-solving SEL skills.

A new cohort of esports researchers is studying their impact on student engagement and has established that esports programs build community and relationships and reach students who often find little reason to buy-in at school. The programs also have a positive impact on chronic absenteeism.

“We know students who are engaged in school activities are more likely to come to school and more likely to be successful in school,” says Kristy Custer, principal of Complete High School Maize in Kansas, and co-author of a course on high school gaming. Her school’s team has a better than 96 percent attendance rate. “Esports fill a gap for many students who aren't traditional athletes and aren't into fine arts or other more common extracurricular activities.”

That is true with my own team. Among my students, 74 percent had never participated in a team sport, and more than half don’t currently participate in any other school clubs or activities. Esports also provide these kids with leadership opportunities.

“Esports programs give those students the opportunity to step into leadership roles that they may have previously felt uncomfortable with,” says Robert Hein, a former high school English teacher who is completing a dissertation on collegiate esports and learning. “Likewise, esports programs could give students the chance to become teachers.”

Compared to more traditional extracurricular activities where coaches or teachers direct and instruct, esports programs cede much of that power and responsibility to students, Hein adds.

“After all, the students are generally the experts of these games,” he says. “They have a lot to teach one another and the faculty advisers.”

That makes it possible for advisors to take on an esports program without personal gaming experience. A successful program just takes organizational skills and the ability to facilitate.

Esports programs also allow for teaching technology skills with real-world applications and give students “the opportunity to engage with a variety of technological tools in new ways,” says Hein.

Editing highlight videos, conducting “VoD reviews” where a team analyzes recorded video of a previous match, modding, which is modifying the gaming environment], and live-streaming gameplay have long been important practices in esports culture, according to Hein.

“It is only natural that students would eventually want to try their own hand at these practices as well,” he says.

These skills also lend themselves to entrepreneurial opportunities for the players.

Esports programs are ripe with possibilities to develop project-based learning (PBL) opportunities with authentic products for authentic audiences. The self-directed nature of esports also provides teaching opportunities on goal setting, using technology to track and achieve goals, and developing personal learning networks and customizing learning environments as a means of improving gaming skills.

Esports players can also access millions of dollars in college scholarships. According to the National Association of College Esports, approximately $15 million in esports scholarships is available. Most are partial tuition, with an average award of around $4,800, though some universities are now offering full rides.

Our esports team officially started with the fall season this year. Serving as the advisor has been incredibly rewarding. I love working with this group of teens and am looking forward to growing the program—including the development of a credit-bearing gaming concepts course.

Now, a year after that student first asked me about esports, I unexpectedly find myself a passionate esports team advisor and advocate.

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