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School Esports League).(Courtesy North America Scholastic Esports Federation)

“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” The raucous chants of students supporting their classmates echoed across the Esports Arena Orange County as players from rival high schools battled for the title of esports champion on April 28. Yes, esports: organized, multiplayer online video game competitions.

During the inaugural season, which ran from January to April, student teams met at their high schools and played over the internet. But the Orange County High School Esports League Finals took place in an esports arena, with teams on stage and parents and friends cheering them on.

Esports isn’t the “next big thing,” it’s the current big thing. Founded as a local league in Orange County, California, and now expanding across the country, the new North America Scholastic Esports Federation has creatively intertwined video games and education, putting schools in the unique position of encouraging students to consider video games a competitive team sport.

(Courtesy North America Scholastic Esports Federation)

This spring, hundreds of students from Orange County, California, joined their high schools’ on-campus esports clubs, with many members playing for fun and filling various club roles while others made up the clubs’ five-person competition team (some schools fielded more than one team).

“League of Legends” – an online battle arena video game developed by Riot Games – was chosen based on its popularity, appropriateness for a high school campus, and accessibility with minimal technology requirements. Other video games will be added in the future to appeal to more students.

Research demonstrates a strong alignment between competitive engagement and academic success. In a study of teens published by The MIT Press, “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out,” Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist who is a professor in residence at the Humanities Research Institute at UCI, found the most resilient, adaptive and effective learning involves individual interest as well as social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition. The broader the choice of extracurricular activities, the more likely we are to meet diverse students’ needs and interests and get them invested in school and their own learning.

This esports league doesn’t just give a quick nod to skills such as hand-eye coordination or team play; it has been carefully constructed with an academic framework incorporating science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), English Language Arts and social-emotional learning, as well as entrepreneurism and career technical education, or CTE.

Through the spring season, our research team at University of California—Irvine has carefully observed students, parents and coaches, and we’ve made some exciting discoveries. Already we have seen some students shift from a focus on their own individual glory to their team’s best interest, and from a reactionary stance toward their performance (“We lost and it stinks!”) to a proactive stance (“OK, that didn’t work. What can we do differently next time?”).

We’ve seen students in the clubs, on their own time, create websites for their teams and fill the pages with expository writing and promotional media. They’re digging into their gameplay data to figure out how to improve their skills and, in so doing, realizing that basic math and comparison metrics are critically useful for understanding gameplay in a whole new way. Students are learning how to manage their own emotions and attention, how to avoid “tilt” that clouds one’s judgement and deteriorates performance, how to win well and how to lose well.

Students at one school filmed and edited their own news clips for the school television station. At another, they did research and began hosting their own “lessons” to improve their game. At a third, students are learning how to replace the processors on the lab’s computers so their machines will run faster. Research findings from this first year already show that interest-driven learning in the context of esports can connect kids not only to social-emotional skills but to the standards-based content covered in class.

This fall, the federation will expand this valuable learning from an afterschool program to classroom curriculum. A second team of Orange County researchers and teachers has developed a four-year high school curriculum centered on esports. The 11th-grade English course is integrated with the marketing sector of the CTE standards and has been approved by the University of California as meeting the stringent education requirements of a college preparatory course.

A student who enrolls in this course will use esports marketing concepts to improve his or her English language, written and oral communication, and the mechanics of writing. While building on these skills, students will utilize the growing esports field as a vehicle to dive deep into the value and role of marketing both from an academic and career perspective, while acquiring critically important STEM competencies such as collaboration and problem-solving that are needed for success in the workplace.