Middle School Esports Teams Offer SEL, Digital Citizenship Skills, Too

While some bemoan activities that require extra screen time during the pandemic, esports teams provide a myriad of lessons in an engaging way that students love.

The ESports team from Knollwood Middle School in Fair Haven, NJ. (Pictures taken before the pandemic.)
Photos courtesy Miles Harvey


While many bemoaned activities that required extra computer time during the pandemic, some educators see great value in the right kind of screen time. They are even proponents of more screen time during school hours, adding lessons about digital citizenship, social-emotional wellness, bullying, harassment, sexism, racism, bystander intervention, STEM, coding, video editing, communication, teamwork, and careers of the future, all in one. In a word, esports.

The James Monroe Middle School esports team
competes during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy Miles Harvey

“It's important to understand that when we talk about esports, it's really a gateway or a portal to teach kids what we want them to know using something that they love,” says Chris Aviles, Innovation Lab teacher at Knollwood Middle School in Fair Haven, NJ.

Aviles started what is believed to be the first middle school esports team in the country at his school in Fair Haven, NJ. His team played high school and college teams, since there was no competition in their age group. Before long, he had created a middle school league to give his students opponents their age and to offer a league for schools that wasn't run by a for-profit company. Garden State Esports (GSE) brought in teams from around the country. He didn’t do it because he thought middle schoolers, specifically, would benefit. He sees the benefit for all ages and wanted to give that to the students in his school. He quickly saw the impact.

“The biggest thing I saw was an excitement to belong,” Aviles says. “Many of my students did not have what I call home-school connection, meaning that after school, they just went home. They weren't involved in clubs, or plays, or sports, or anything like that. And that's a real shame, because we know that connection leads to better learning outcomes. And so, for more and more students, being a gamer is not just a personality trait, but also something they can be involved in at their schools.”

What better time to find a way to help kids without connection to feel involved, and find their people, than in middle school.

“Middle School is where everything falls apart,” says Kristy Custer, principal of Complete High School Maize in Kansas. Custer notes that students lose that single-class environment and teacher who makes sure everyone is included. At a time when kids are going through disruptive physical and emotional changes, they are also losing the social safety net that they had. “They get thrown to the wolves, so they retreat into video games, where they can be whatever they want online.”

Miles Harvey saw the possibility of esports for his students at James Monroe Middle School in Albuquerque, NM.

“It has more of a socio-emotional impact than any counseling session at lunch could,” says Harvey. He had been looking at gamifying learning and storytelling while studying for his doctorate and felt an esports team was a natural progression of that. Seventy students tried out for the team, and he took 17. There are varsity, junior varsity, and developmental teams.

Like Aviles, Harvey’s students were playing college teams when they began in the fall of 2019. Then he found GSE, and his team began playing other middle schoolers around the country. While he may have thought starting the team was a good idea, he had no idea how good it would be.

“All of a sudden, I realized that esports might be the biggest front for learning I have ever seen,” he says. “When you take a second to really look at it, you see all of the learning, the critical thinking, and the cooperation, the planning, and the filming and editing. Repeating the narration and the chat moderation. It takes 25 people to run my team, because I run it like a business: [Who's] making the infographics? Who's going to write that email? Who's going to talk to the next [opponent]? Who's making our calendar? Who's going to make the next TikTok post for our group? Oh, my gosh, it's just becoming its own factory for learning. And they have no idea. They might be the best, or some of the best in the country, but what they don't know is they're making jobs for themselves that don't even exist yet.”

For some, esports becomes the way to a college scholarship or even large, monetary prizes in professional tournaments. But others, just as with youth athletes who may take their passion and expertise and become coaches, trainers, or statisticians, these students may become video editors or game developers. By the time they are ready for the professional world, there will be new jobs that are unimaginable right now, and esports players will be ready for them.


When gaming becomes cocurricular

Custer wasn’t a believer in the educational value and social-emotional power of video games at first. She was, she says, the stereotypical mother, yelling at her sons to stop playing video games and come upstairs from the basement. But then teacher Michael Russell came to her high school, and when she mentioned the school’s teacher passion project program, he started talking about video games. He loves to play, but he also pushed the educational value of them.

“I needed to reconcile this somehow,” she says. “And the way that I knew how to reconcile things is to bring it into school.”

To get administrators to see the value, and perhaps agree to Russell’s idea for esports and gaming in school, it needed to be put into terms they understood.

“A bunch of kids playing basketball at the park is not academic until you bring it to school. Then all of a sudden, it’s cocurricular,” she says.

So she suggested that she and Russell write a high school curriculum around gaming.

“I love curriculum; I write curriculum,” she says. “That’s easy for me. ... Superintendents, principals, and tech directors can see, ‘OK now I understand the value. This is academic. It looks like what a teacher would teach. I totally understand this is a tool we can use to reach these kids.”

With help from a partnership with the High School Esports League, they released their Gaming Concepts curriculum free online during the 2018-19 school year. It has been downloaded more than 200,000 times in more than 40 countries since, according to Custer. Earlier this academic year they decided to write a middle school version, but after doing some research, they realized there wasn’t a need. Middle school educators were already pulling from the high school curriculum and making it fit their classes and students.

“Teachers are just brilliant,” says Custer. “If we have a good teacher, they’re going to be able to make them age-appropriate.”

Instead, they are working on Gaming Concepts 2.0, an extension of the current curriculum that is more project-based learning and goes deeper on subjects like citizenship, health and nutrition, public speaking, and careers within esports. In the same way they have with the first curriculum, middle school teachers can take pieces of it or the entire curriculum and modify it to be age-appropriate. It can be used in a wide variety of already established classes or schools can create Gaming Concepts classes.


Engagement during the pandemic

Over the last year, students have lived through COVID, an economic and employment crisis, and social unrest. Most have lost their day-to-day routine and interactions. For months, most school athletic teams couldn’t play. But with the right equipment and internet access—which was provided in a lot of places for distance learning—esports went on and, again, proved to be more than just a game.

“There's this added layer that goes into this virtual community that has really brought people together in a time when really would seem difficult,” says Harvey. “At a time when the kids who do not want to show their face on the camera (for class) are all live-streaming their matches with the face cam. What does that say about the culture of where we're at? It's not that kids don't want cameras. It's that they don't see the point. When they see a point, these kids are willing to show everything they have got to make sure you know that they're representing their school.”

The pandemic disruption also created another issue for schools. While chronic absenteeism is an problem almost everywhere, no matter the situation, remote learning allowed kids to disappear for all intents and purposes. Without even sporadic contact, educators and administrators struggled to find students who didn’t log in to class. Schools across the country have created ways to reach out and find them and create solutions for obstacles. In some places, part of the answer was esports.

“They're using this class now as a hook to get kids even just connected to just even find out where they're at,” says Custer.

While studies have shown that playing on an esports team improves attendance and grades, Aviles doesn't recommend schools make esports eligibility dependent on showing up consistently or having a certain GPA. Only some schools are able to do that successfully. In some districts, just getting certain kids into school for two hours to play games is a victory, no matter their grades. When the students are in the building, they can feel involved and make connections, and teachers can check in with them. The mandatory grades or attendance requirements are areas where Aviles says there is an equity gap in esports that goes beyond the obvious need for specific equipment or internet. 

"Digital citizenship on steroids"

At a time when divisive language seems to be at an all-time high, esports is teaching these players how to interact, defuse situations, be allies to everyone. Though gaming has reputation for being an affluent, cis, white, male space, that narrative doesn’t tell the real story, says Aviles. Girls play (although they may not be as likely to call themselves gamers), LGBTQIA+ kids play; kids of color play, lower-income students play. Gaming can be a toxic place for many of those players, but on a team, they are learning how to handle it and respond in real time to real situations. It’s different than role-playing hypotheticals in health class.

Members of MIles Harvey's esports team in New Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Miles Harvey

“It really starts to train students on how to behave on the internet, how to recognize inappropriate behavior,” says Russell. “There’s so much communication in gaming, even typing, so if you see someone typing out something inappropriate in a game, hopefully our kids in the middle school are learning to correct that behavior or, worst case, not make it worse. Where toxicity gets really bad is when people inflame it. Hopefully, we’re at least teaching kids to restrain themselves from furthering that.”

Aviles goes one step further.

“We do things like bystander intervention training,” says Aviles. “It's one thing to tell kids ‘Here's what a safe space looks like and here's how we act in a safe space.’ It's another thing to empower kids to say, ‘Okay, well here comes this kid, and he's disrespecting our female players, he's being racist. How do we empower kids to stand up to those types of people whether they're their friends or not?”

Before kids can call out someone for being misogynistic, racist, or homophobic, they must be able to identify it. It is invaluable to be able to break down the toxic conversations or social media posts at the middle school level.

“They don't understand a lot,” Aviles says. “A lot of the kids will share things or they'll repeat things. I spend a lot of time unpacking memes. They don't realize what they're sharing, what they're saying is racist, misogynistic, or homophobic. So that's part of the value of esports. It's digital citizenship on steroids.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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