Esports — video gaming organized into amateur and professional seasons of play and capstone tournaments — has exploded in popularity over the last several years. A report from Newzoo predicts that casual audiences will grow to some 307 million viewers by 2021, while Deloitte found that industry investment grew 837% between 2017 and 2018. Generation Z is the gaming generation, with 91% of children between ages 2 and 17 enjoying video games in some form.
Given the huge popularity of video games, the rise of esports should not be surprising. Many schools are now embracing esports, as students form clubs and begin to participate in organized leagues. A growing number of universities even offer esports as a varsity program on par with traditional college sports — including scholarships to play.
Do esports have a place in schools? Many parents and educators are skeptical, but there’s growing advocacy for esports as a positive social program and a healthy component of a well-rounded STEM education. Let’s look at the research.
Concerns About Video Games And Screen Time
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced new recommendations about screen time for children, suggesting limiting screen time for children under age 5 to an hour a day and carefully monitoring screen time for children age 6 and up. The AAP cited concerns about adequate sleep, physical activity, good mental health and strong familial relationships among the reasons behind these recommendations.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) also reports specific drawbacks to video gaming for children and adolescents. These include the following:
• Video game addiction.
• Increased aggression.
• Increased risk of seizures.
• Repetitive stress injuries.
• Obesity and illness.
To be clear, the NCBI also notes that true addiction to video games is very rare and that seizures appear to be more common in people who are predisposed to them in the first place, as in those with epilepsy.
Parents and teachers also raise concerns about the daily struggle to find a healthy balance between video game time and homework, family meals and other activities. It doesn’t take a scientific study to show that it can be a challenge to get a kid to turn off Minecraft and come to the dinner table without grumbling.
The Benefits Of Esports For Students
Many of the concerns about healthy screen time use arise from a lack of balance rather than evidence that video games are harmful in and of themselves. In fact, there are also many benefits to structured esports programs, including the following:
• Improved self-esteem.
• Better hand-eye coordination.
• Improved visual-spatial reasoning.
• Improved eyesight (with protective lenses).
• Meaningful social interaction for students who would otherwise be playing at home.
• Improved graduation rates and learning outcomes through participation in extracurricular activities.
• Scholarship and travel opportunities.
How Esports Support STEM Learning
The surface connection between video gaming and STEM subjects is easy to see, but just putting technology to use doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. If it did, America’s students would be STEM wizards by now. For esports to provide real support for STEM, club leaders and educators must be thoughtful about how they organize their programs.
Fortunately, there’s new evidence that shows a well-planned esports program can indeed support STEM learning in a variety of ways. In particular, it encourages:
• Teamwork for problem-solving: Teammates quickly learn to treat losses as opportunities to solve problems and improve performance, turning to a growth mindset rather than embracing the idea that success is about innate talent.
• Scientific methodology: As players work to figure out a game, their thinking becomes more systematic as they develop and test hypotheses to improve play.
• Using data and evidence: Esports players gather data on timing and probability to plan faster speed runs, maximize the odds of finding in-game bonuses and generally fine-tune performance based on hard evidence.
• Technological proficiency: Students use more than just game controllers and consoles. They also film players, edit sound and video, publish tutorials, connect online, and develop programs to manage their meetings, data and more.
• Educational equity: For students who lack the resources to play video games at home, school-sponsored esports programs can level the playing field and help provide access to technology in meaningful ways.
• Educational inclusion: Likewise, the fun of gaming encourages more students to join in STEM-based activities — outreach that is especially important for groups that are typically underrepresented in STEM, such as female students, students with disabilities and students of color.
Resources For Doing Esports Right
When organized well and designed as a cross-curricular activity for a wide range of students, esports has the potential to bring students together, enhance learning and mitigate technological inequities for students with fewer resources. There are several organizations working to bring robust esports programs to schools everywhere by offering curriculum, support and community:
• High School Esports League: The largest high school esports league in the United States, HSEL offers a full curriculum and established organization to join an eight-week season of play and tournament schedule. Its mission is to bring esports to all schools and elevate the activity to the level of traditional varsity sports.
• Varsity Esports Foundation: VEF is a nonprofit that promotes esports and strives to build a healthy community of gamers. VEF offers a curriculum for schools and is committed to initiatives that support diversity, inclusion, positive mental health and STEM learning for all. The foundation also provides financial support for struggling schools to increase equitable access to gaming technology.
• Carrot Group: Carrot’s mission is to increase student engagement in STEM fields, and the group offers a full esports program to support that mission. In addition to organized tournaments, Carrot also offers a career pathway program designed to get students interested in the behind-the-games work of coding, programming and game design.
Structured esports offerings have the potential to build inclusive, pro-social environments that can facilitate sound educational outcomes in an exciting way. Pairing esports with STEM education can help students reach their full potential.