How educators are diversifying esports

K-12 esports can also attract students with a diversity of interests

Esports diversity means English-language learners and students with special needs are less often left out of extracurricular activities.

In sprawling Dallas ISD, a newly created district-wide esports league is giving these students an equal chance to compete alongside their classmates on teams at about 65 schools.

“One of our esports coaches had students who were newcomers to the country, who had limited English and hadn’t been included in any activities—now, they’ve had the opportunity to be included,” says Sharla Hudspeth, Dallas ISD’s director of student activities.

“The same goes for our students with learning differences,” Hudspeth adds. “They’ve also been participating and are doing quite well.”

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Educators will likely have to recruit to achieve esports diversity.

At Tipton High School in Indiana, teacher and esports coach John Robertson says girls now account for about one-third of the players on his teams and about half the students in his after-school club.

“We did a ladies-only day so girls would not feel intimidated,” says Robertson, whose school is a part of the Tipton Community School Corporation. “We do what we can to make sure everyone realizes they’re welcome and invited to play esports.”

Esports diversity means standing up for teammates

Gerald Solomon admits that a significant level of toxicity pervades the online esports world, which continues to be dominated by white and Asian males.

An international program designed to improve relations in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and other areas of global conflict has guided Solomon’s charitable organization, the Samueli Foundation, in helping to develop an eight-week esports diversity curriculum.

Help from higher education

K-12 esports programs determined to diversify will also get some help from higher education. Hampton University in Virginia is developing the first esports degree program at a historically black college and university.

One of the university’s goals is to diversify esports certifying coaches for K-12 teams.

“If nobody is certifying coaches a lot of minorities could get left out,” says David C. Hughes, a Hampton instructor of sport management. “Our is purpose is for us to join the sports economy and participate with everybody else.”

“We wanted to figure out how we can create empathy and mutual respect amongst players—to teach them what it means to stand up for someone and how to respond to bad behavior online,” says Solomon, whose foundation is the primary backer of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, which offers the esports diversity program to schools as part of a free and wide-ranging K-12 esports curriculum.

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One esports diversity lesson focuses on the battle game Overwatch, which requires students to create cartoon-like characters with various attributes, strengths and weaknesses. They then write about what it’s like to be the character, who may be of a different race or gender than the student, and discuss their feelings with their classmates or teammates.

After that, they will write a similar piece about another student’s character.

“A white male may never fully understand what it’s like to be in the shoes of a black male or black female, but taking on different characteristics begins to create a sense of empathy, and can change how an individual thinks,” Solomon says.

K-12 esports can also attract students with a diversity of interests, such as kids who want to create team logos and “fandom art” or those who want to do play-by-play “shout-casting” for competitions, he adds.

“We’re not looking just for gamers,” Solomon says. “We’re looking for people who are casual players who may feel disengaged or disenfranchised who want to feel a sense of belonging.”

More popular than football?

A sure way to achieve esports diversity is to bring the activity to large, diverse districts, such as Dallas ISD and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The North America Scholastic Esports Federation helped Miami-Dade, the fourth largest district in the nation, launch academic and athletic esports programs at 10 high schools.

The district plans to expand esports to more buildings next in 2020-21. “While the competitive players in Miami-Dade tend to be still majority male, a lot of the school clubs are run by girls,” Solomon says.

In Pennsylvania, a coalition of organizations led by the youth-focused nonprofit Emerald Foundation is using state grants to achieve esports diversity. The coalition is now integrating esports into STEM-focused career and technical education programs in three underserved schools.

The foundation has opened an esports clubhouse at its headquarters, acquired grant funds to provide computer equipment to schools and provided stipends to team managers.

The nonprofit also is planning to put a mobile esports arena on the road in the back of a box truck so schools that can’t afford to build facilities can still host video-gaming events, says Terry Kraft, the organization’s chief esports strategist.

The CTE programs allow students to explore careers in all areas of esports, including event management, graphic design, and software and web development, Kraft says.

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A superintendent in one of the districts, the Columbia Borough School District, even reported to the foundation that more students tried out for esports than the football team.

“We’re seeing a diversity of students coming together for these clubs,” Kraft says. “It’s the captain of the football team, it’s a field hockey player, it’s somebody who’s on the margins, not engaged in anything else in school.”

Matt Zalaznick is DA’s senior writer.

Interested in esports? Keep up with LRP’s Academic Esports Conference and Expo.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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