Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Scholastic Esports Programs: Taking Student Engagement to Another Level

Scholastic Esports Programs: Taking Student Engagement to Another Level

By David George

The center of the Robert Vela High School cafeteria was its usual crowded mass of tables and chairs, but for the tournament, it had been transformed. The tables were lined not with food trays but with consoles and computer monitors placed neatly amongst a jumble of cords. In each chair sat a competitor, their hands busy with either a keyboard or controller. Cheers erupted from one side of the room as one match ended and another began.

A table lined with trophies sat patiently across from the giant screen that Robert Williamson and his Eisenhower Elementary students were now fixated on. As a coach, Williamson knew that his student was talented, but the boy’s opponent was clearly getting the best of him. In the Super Smash Bros. game, the key to victory is controlling the middle of the map, and the Eisenhower star player was struggling to maintain his position. Understanding his predicament, his teammates were distraught.

“Coach,” they exclaimed. “He can’t get in there to attack him. He is going to lose.”

“Guys, don’t worry,” Williamson said. “He knows what he is doing. Just watch.”

Super Smash Bros. matches use a first-to-three-point system, and if the match reaches the time limit and the competitors are tied, it goes into sudden death mode, where one hit is all it takes to win.

Williamson had foreseen this issue and reminded his student of this tactic just before the tournament. If you find yourself outmatched, just do your best to survive and play for sudden death.

And that is exactly what he did. He ran from opponents, jumped over them, and blocked their attacks until the time clock expired. As his team held their breath, his character fired a single arrow across the screen. Cheers erupted from the crowd as the arrow found its mark and he secured the victory in dramatic fashion.

Not Playing Around

Robert Williamson teaches fifth grade at Eisenhower Elementary in Edinburg CISD. He is new to the district, but he has over a decade of classroom teaching experience. He has also coached football and basketball for most of his career, so he is well acquainted with extracurricular activities and what it takes for success. When Williamson first took the position in his new district, he had no idea he would be building an esports (or electronic sports) program from scratch.

“When I got the opportunity to coach an esports club, I got stars in my eyes,” Williamson says. “I told my wife that I’ve played games my whole life and coached for half of it, so it’s cool that both of those things get to come full circle.”

Esports clubs consists of individual players and teams that train and compete in organized gaming competitions either online, in person, or both.

Scholastic esports programs have been around for years in colleges across the country, but it wasn’t until recently that these clubs found their way into K–12 schools. And competitive gaming has grown in popularity over the last decade as Twitch and YouTube streamers broadcast games and tournaments to online spectators, fueling interest and participation in both recreational gaming and organized esports competitions.

Williamson sees many similarities between coaching basketball and teaching his players Super Smash Bros.

“We run drills and practice all different sorts of techniques that they might use,” Williamson said. “We even scout our competition for their strengths and weaknesses—like you would see in traditional sports.”

For Williamson’s players, it isn’t size or speed that determines their success. He explains that a combination of quick thinking and muscle memory makes you a good player. You don’t have to be physically gifted, so it helps even out the playing field for anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort to learn.

Bringing People Together

Naturally, gaming as a school-based activity has felt its share of pushback, but game-based learning and extracurricular activities have been shown to provide a wealth of benefits for students, including improved focus, self-esteem, and even academic performance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“It was kind of tough at the beginning to get parents on board with what we were offering because the whole idea was confusing for a lot of them,” Williamson says. “They have many questions about what exactly their child would be doing and why it could be beneficial. So we explained to the parents that it’s a competition that their child is already familiar with and they do not need to go buy expensive equipment to participate.”

Many students today recreationally play video games in their own homes and on their own time, and scholastic esport clubs aim to capture that interest and find ways to align it with education.

“For my players who haven’t really ever shown an interest in traditional sports or other extracurricular activities, it is really rewarding to connect with them through something they are passionate about,” Williamson says. “Esports can bring out the best in them, and you can see their behavior improve in this environment. It’s like they suddenly have all this focus and motivation—a side that we don’t always get to see as teachers.”

With all the potential benefits of scholastic esports, perhaps the most critical to its success is the fun factor. Games have always been incorporated into learning environments in one way or another, but Williamson explains that learning tends to be most effective when it is disguised as fun.

“When the Grand Champion, Hugo Contreras, was interviewed at the end of the tournament, they asked him what he likes most about esports, and he said it is playing after school against his friends,” Williamson says. “He confessed that he had the most fun at practice. You’re not going to get a football player to say that! I’m sorry. They hate practice. It was refreshing to see that and heartwarming to know that you can create so much joy with as little as a console and projector.”

Everybody Starts Somewhere

Scholastic esports is rapidly growing in K–12 education as a conduit for developing science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) skills while encouraging student engagement and fostering inclusion. Like any team sport, creating and maintaining a scholastic esports program requires a significant amount of planning and investment.

“My district is very into technology and looking for new educational tools that will help us be more successful,” Williamson says. “Every year, ECISD has something called the Innovate Conference, and with the help of all these different tech companies, ECISD staff provide resources for teachers to help them become more tech-savvy.”

As fate would have it, one of the presentations at the conference was on esports programs, and Williamson signed up to receive more information. The idea was fairly new to Edinburg CISD, as several elementary schools had just recently taken advantage of the program. They received funds to cover consoles and supplies to start clubs at their campus. On top of that, they needed an esport sponsor to spend those funds, coordinate the program, and act as a coach.

Williamson started the program with his own personal Nintendo Switch console and a projector from his home. With the help of a fellow teacher, he set them up on one wall of his classroom. It wasn’t everything he had envisioned, but he had to make do with what he had available to begin the year.

“I don’t know exactly how other school esports clubs got their start, but I know firsthand the struggle it can be for new esports sponsors building everything from the ground up,” says Williamson.

To Williamson’s knowledge, the 2022-23 school year was Edinburg CISD’s first elementary esports competition. The prior year, even with the middle school program up and running, they weren’t yet prepared. With everything just getting off the ground, schools needed time to purchase equipment and put teams together. But in March, Edinburg CISD held a district tournament in which over 30 schools competed.

Williamson says that Sylvia Faz, his principal at Eisenhower Elementary, assisted him in the district tournament because she cares about the program and the players.

“She noticed that a lot of these kids are not in UIL or other academic programs,” Williamson says. “And she is excited that they get this chance to be recognized and show off their skills. It’s really humbling to see someone care so much about the success of not only the program but also these kids.”

As the year progressed, Williamson received funding for the program and was able to acquire four more Nintendo Switch consoles, a couple of televisions, and another projector.

“The club meets in my classroom, and we have been very blessed with what the district supplies,” Williamson says. “I try to provide structure to their practice with one goal in mind: I want them to learn and improve with every game. And even though they are having fun and doing what they love, they are constantly learning, and I think that is the secret to our success.”

A Winning Culture

The Edinburg CISD esports tournament comprised over 30 local elementary schools, and Williamson’s club was allowed to enter up to 20 students. This broke down into 10 students competing in Super Smash Bros. with two alternates and two teams of four for Mario Kart. The Super Smash Bros. competition had individuals vying for first- through sixth-place trophies, but for the Super Mario Kart competition, Williamson had to set up a relay team for the Grand Prix game mode, which consists of four races. Each player would run a single race, and their combined scores would determine which school was declared the winner.

“Our secret to success in this event was having a solid strategy going in,” Williamson says. “In Mario Kart, the races get progressively more difficult, so the first race is always the easiest, and the last race is always the most difficult. I chose students to fill each leg of the competition based on their skill to match the difficulty curve and give us the best chance to win.”

After the qualifying round with all 31 schools, only the top eight clubs moved on to compete in the final round to determine the winner. So again, Williamson had to adjust the team’s strategy to maximize their chances.

“Even though we are commonly referred to as esports sponsors, we can and should be coaches for our squads,” Williamson says. “Just like traditional sports coaches, our players rely on our knowledge of the game and the rules of the tournament to build a winning strategy and make sure our players perform at their best.”

And his players did just that. His second grade Mario Kart team won the first-place trophy, and his third through fifth grade squad took second—losing by a single point. His Super Smash Bros. players did equally well, with one player winning a third-place overall finish and another becoming the Grand Champion.

Williamson was surprised by a comment he received from one of the coaches at the tournament: “You really seem to be into this.”

“It struck me as odd because I was thinking, ‘How are you not?’” Williamson says. “This is awesome. The kids are playing games and cheering each other on. I get it; it’s a Saturday. I’ve been a teacher for 10 years, and Saturdays are sacred. But this is great.”

Williamson emphasizes that after-school programs are extremely important for both students and for teachers. Although he coached football, basketball, and track, Williamson never played those sports in school and was never a star athlete. He says that he is a living testament that it doesn’t take an expert or someone who has played their whole life to get the job done. It just takes someone who is willing to work with the kids and to give them those opportunities to be successful at something outside the normal curriculum.

“My hope is that teachers reading this will consider volunteering the next time their principal asks if anyone would like to start a club,” Williamson says. “And then they can experience for themselves how rewarding esports can be for not only their students but also for themselves.” Just before the tournament, Williamson prepared his players by asking them to take a deep breath and remember to have fun.

“You’ve put in the practice, and you guys deserve to be here,” Williamson said to his team. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose because you are getting the chance to play video games with your friends. In my book, you’ve already won!”