Video games aren’t traditionally associated with academic or professional achievement. In fact, if we believe the stereotype, the average teenage gamer is more interested in bashing the “A” button on their Xbox than getting straight A’s in class.
However, this stereotype is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The rise of esports (electronic sports), or competitive video gaming, has propelled some of the world’s most talented gamers to a level of success previously reserved for athletes like football players or tennis stars. And with competitive gaming now seen by many as a legitimate sport, educational institutions are starting to see how esports can be as important as a school football team, rowing team, or chess club.
Here we look at the ways in which esports can benefit education, from improved attendance to the development of essential problem-solving skills.
The Rise of Esports
Competitive video gaming has existed almost as long as video game technology itself. In the 1980s, for example, masters of the game Space Invaders would compete in national competitions with thousands of participants.
However, since the turn of the millennium and the development of ultra-fast internet and multi-player games, esports have grown exponentially. Today, with the global esports market worth an estimated $1.72 billion, the most talented gamers can become professionals and compete against each other in front of huge audiences to win equally huge prizes. In 2021, a world championship tournament for the battle royale game Free Fire attracted an online audience of 5.41 million viewers and handed out a prize pool of $2 million.
Just like traditional sports, esports can become an important part of school and university life. In 2009, a handful of colleges formed the first varsity esports clubs in the United States, laying the foundations for today’s larger college esports landscape. The National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE), a nonprofit membership association aimed at developing esports infrastructure in the collegiate space, counts over 240 member schools and 5,000 student-athletes.
How Esports Can Benefit Education
Most people now accept that video games won’t stunt a young person’s intellect. In fact, education and video games can go hand in hand: thoughtful, challenging games can build metacognition, literacy skills, and an understanding of physics, among other benefits. Furthermore, treating gaming as a sport — something to be done competitively as a team — brings a whole host of other educational benefits.
The marriage of esports and education typically takes place in the extracurricular sphere, which is good news for gamers, as extracurricular activities can have a hugely positive impact on student achievement. Research shows that participation in clubs and societies boosts attendance, improves academic performance in reading and math, and increases the likelihood of a student going on to higher education.
For students who find themselves distanced from traditional extracurricular activities such as sports, performing arts, and the student newspaper, esports can fill a void. And there can be more to the team than just playing games: professional esports teams typically have coaches, technicians, videographers, marketers, and event organizers, and students can try their hand at any of these roles to maximize the success of their team.
“These students get all the benefits of being part of a team, including opportunities to develop their collaboration and teamwork and social skills,” explains Tod Johnston, Senior Education Content Manager at Sphero. “They have opportunities to learn about accountability, how to prepare for competitions, and how to deal with stress. These are all soft skills that are valued in higher education, career, and life.”
Ambitious gamers can aim for more than just high scores, too. NACE has reported $16 million in eSports scholarships and aid handed out to college-level esports athletes. Just like a promising young gymnast or basketball player, a highly talented esports athlete may find a college willing to cover or subsidize their higher education, opening up a world of opportunities for them.
There are now some 200 universities that give out scholarships to gamers including notable schools like Cornell, University of California-Irvine, and Ohio State for various games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Super Smash Brothers. Arcadia University in Pennsylvania gives out some of the heftiest scholarships each year, $25,000 to 5-10 students.
Integrating Esports into a Curriculum
Although esports are by and large an extracurricular activity, educators might also consider bringing elements of esports into the classroom. 90% of teens aged 13–17 play video games on a computer, game console, or cellphone, so there should be a very gentle learning curve for most students.
“By bringing video games into the classroom, teachers can naturally boost engagement,” says Tod. “And not all games are first-person POV or battle royale style games. Some of the most popular games are strategy or puzzle-style games. Students can learn concepts while playing video games, not just have fun.”
One advantage of bringing esports into the classroom is that teachers can include students who might wish to take part in gaming activities but don’t feel confident or included enough to join an extracurricular club. This might involve addressing gender imbalances: although women make up almost half of all gamers, 71% of women surveyed by esports organization Galaxy Racer say they aren’t represented enough in esports.
Furthermore, teachers can come up with tasks for students that don’t involve just playing games. For example, students could make a report on how a particular video game has been designed or come up with the logo and branding for an esports team as part of an art project.
That said, teachers should consider the limitations of esports in the classroom, such as the risks of too much screen time. “All students, even esports athletes, need to establish healthy technology usage habits,” explains Tod. “But esports teams can be part of the solution by bringing these topics and conversations into the mainstream. Teams can establish practice and competition routines and ensure that students develop balanced habits.”