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Gaming’s Not Just for Kids: What Educators Need to Know About Esports

By Mike Washburn and Steve Isaacs     Aug 29, 2018

The International: DOTA 2 Championships, a huge esports competition, recently took place at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena.

League of Legends, DOTA 2, Heroes of the Storm and—of course—Fortnite.

You may recognize these as titles of popular video games, even if you aren’t strictly a “gamer.” The reality is that video games and the communities, organizations and players surrounding them have become big business—some worth potentially millions of dollars.

These aren’t just games anymore; they have emerged, along with other massive titles such as Overwatch, as a phenomenon it seems everyone is racing to catch up with. Playing these games competitively, known as esports, is on the verge of becoming not only a force in the business and entertainment world, but a factor in the classroom as schools start esports leagues and curriculum springs up around gaming culture. So what do educators need to know about it?

Gaming by the Numbers

Let’s start with the numbers, which are huge. Twitch, the leading game streaming platform, was purchased by Amazon in 2014 for $970 million dollars. Twenty-seven million people watched the League of Legends Championship in 2017—that’s more than Game 7 of the World Series (23.5 million) and the final game of the NBA Finals (18 million). And 71,000 people watch Ninja, a popular video game streamer, play games on Twitch every day. It’s not hard to see the draw for fans. It is virtually free to watch—all you need is an internet connection.

The shift to streaming and esports as the entertainment medium of choice for our students becomes clearer when you consider the demographics. Over 50 percent of baseball viewers are over the age of 55. It doesn’t get much better for the NFL or NBA either at 47 and and 37 respectively. Simply put, our kids are playing and, more importantly for these leagues, watching.

College and Universities all over the world are taking note as well. Currently, competitive esports are on the rise at both the high school and collegiate level with scholarships being offered to top esports players. It is important to keep in mind why this is happening. This is not an educational play—this is a business play. There is no “educational upside” to offering a football scholarship. Schools want the best football players so their stadium is full, they sell shirts and get high TV ratings—the exact same desire they have for esports players. It is not hard to envision a world where the next star college competitors are the Overwatch team members, or the NCAA Call of Duty Championship winners or the hot new Fortnite player Syracuse just landed.

The world is starting to acknowledge that competitive gaming is a multifaceted industry. It’s not just about liking video games. In order to be truly competitive, players must be highly skilled and devote incredible amounts of time and effort into practice. They must fine-tune their strategy and teamwork through expert coaching and stay sharp both mentally and physically. Esports could be just as much a valuable gateway into technology related jobs as teaching programming, robotics, graphic design and web design. Every student is different, and the pathway to their passions, is not the same. We’ve seen video games be the influence for thousands of the world’s most successful people (including one of your writers, who cites the game Civilization II as being formative in becoming an educator). Maybe esports is what captivates that hard to reach student. Maybe an educator uses it as a way to turn that passion into achievement.

It is clear that competitive gaming is not going anywhere and, in fact, might just be your students’ primary form of entertainment in the future, if it’s not already. What can you do to tap into this excitement and energy? Here are three easy ways to dig in:

Play Along

There is no better way to understand why this community is growing, and why it is so compelling your students, than playing games yourself. At the very least, a familiarity with these lets you have conversations with students to build rapport and relationships. Here are a few of the games we know your students are already playing.

League of Legends - As far as esports is concerned, LoL, as you may have seen it called, is the most established in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre. Competitive MOBA gaming, for the record is also, by far, the most lucrative of the esports genres. It is new, player-friendly and fun to play. There are virtually no barriers to entry. For PC and OSX, it is free to play and has a number of tutorials to get you familiar with the style. Like it? Try: Heroes of the Storm, DOTA 2 and Smite

Overwatch - While not the first competitive first-person shooting game, it is likely the most player friendly and, arguably, the most fun to play. Overwatch was created by Blizzard Entertainment—the brains behind World of Warcraft—which, more than anything, speaks to its level of quality and polish. Overwatch costs about $40-60 and is available on PC as well as consoles. Like it? Try: Call of Duty, Counterstrike Global Offensive (CSGO), Battlefield One

Hearthstone - Another game from Blizzard Entertainment, Hearthstone is a digital card game. These games strike the perfect balance between strategy and intensity, coupled with themes, styles and most importantly, communities that are, for the most part, kid-friendly. Competitive card games are a great way to get into esports. Hearthstone is available for PC as well as iOS and Android. Like it? Try: Magic the Gathering, The Elder Scrolls: Legends

World of Tanks - If you’re a history buff and a video game player (awesome combo by the way) this might be the esports avenue for you. World of Tanks places you on a battlefield in historically-accurate tanks from a number of nations you can choose from. The esports scene for this game has been around for years and, while not as financially lucrative as other games, is compelling nonetheless. World of Tanks is free to play and available on PC. Like it? Try: World of Warships, World of Warplanes

Fortnite - You knew we’d get to it eventually. Fortnite is part of a new genre of games known as Battle Royale. These games feature an ever shrinking playing field, bringing the competitors, sometimes up to 100 at a time, closer together to encourage combat and decide a victor, Hunger Games style. They are incredibly fun to watch and demand a level of skill and talent that can generate huge followings if you are good (see: Ninja and Summit1G). Fortnite Battle Royale is free to play and its platform options have grown to include even iOS and Switch. There’s no excuse for you not to play the biggest game on the planet right now. Like it? Try: Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.

Get Involved

There are a number of ways you can engage yourself in this new and growing community of educators talking about esports. A Twitter chat (#EsportsEDU) has emerged on Thursday nights at 7:30 pm ET to bring the community together to discuss aspects of esports in schools including getting started and striving for equity. A 24/7 Discord server was created to provide a space for active discussion around all aspects of esports and the curation of resources. And the North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) has expanded to support high schools in all United States Territories, Mexico and Canada after a successful pilot in Orange County, Calif., last year.

The NASEF provides resources to assist clubs, curriculum to tie esports into English language arts and STEM programs, coaching through a partnership with Connected Camps, and much more thanks to a number of generous sponsors. Other organizations, including the High School Esports League, are helping to organize leagues around a variety of esports titles for interscholastic competition.

Build a Gaming Culture

It’s not just about the player, or even the game. An esports culture provides opportunities for many students and supporting roles. If you’ve seen an esports competition, you are well aware that commentating (or shoutcasting in esports parlance) is an instrumental part of the experience. Students interested in being part of the esports community don’t have to be competitive players themselves, just like sports enthusiasts that want a role commentating don’t have to be top-notch players.

Likewise, there are roles in production as well. Esports events tend to be broadcast online and to those spectating in person. This takes a variety of skills to pull off including video production, sound engineering, video editing and live-streaming. Successful esports programs also require good marketing. This could involve managing a social media presence as well as focusing on brand (school) recognition and promoting events.

Other roles include statisticians, website developers/content creators, coaches and managers. And let’s not forget the fans! This brings us back to our original point—esports is very much a spectator event. As schools start to delve deeper into the world of esports the potential for building a community and school spirit around the presence of esports will become increasingly obvious.

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