A national esports effort aims to ‘change the trajectory’ for students

As it grows in popularity, many stakeholders and educators realize esports has great potential to help students connect classroom lessons with real-world possibilities

As a student, video gamer and flight instructor Hudson Davis was often bored in school. He found that many classes provided only a surface-level understanding of key topics—and he was doing a lot of self-directed learning outside of class to explore topics he was passionate about.

“School should do a better job of allowing students to dig into those subjects that interest them,” Davis said. “Many kids just don’t get the opportunity to do that.”

Davis’s experience isn’t unusual. Even before the pandemic, many students felt disengaged from school. The shift to remote learning through platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets has only intensified the problem, creating what Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, called an “unparalleled crisis for today’s teens.”

Too many kids now feel isolated, bored, and disconnected from their education, Evans explained. The New York Times reports that a recent survey of 3,300 high school students found nearly a third feel unhappy or depressed.

Hoping to “change the trajectory for kids,” Evans said, Project Tomorrow has teamed up with an organization called wethink to reengage students in their learning and teach them critical skills for success through an activity that many find highly compelling—competitive video game-playing.

The initiative, called Raise Your Hand, aims to bring wethink’s esports program to at least 500 schools nationwide by the end of May. The program includes a 12-week curriculum that uses esports as a platform for developing 15 critical skills in areas such as leadership, teamwork, communication, problem solving, and character.

“This new model takes into account how kids learn today,” Evans said. “We feel a strong sense of urgency to address the challenges that kids are facing.”

During a virtual Feb. 12 “Education Gala” event intended to raise awareness for the initiative, a lineup of nationally recognized speakers discussed these challenges—and how the skills that wethink’s curriculum teaches can help students overcome them.

“Unless students learn skills such as resilience and compassion, they’re going to be lost,” said actress and activist Chase Masterson. Masterson is the founder of the Pop Culture Hero Coalition, which has created its own curriculum for teaching social and emotional learning skills through the lens of pop culture heroes such as Black Panther and Harry Potter.

Gaming is a highly engaging environment in which students have to make rapid-fire decisions, said wethink founder Kat Salazar, noting: “It lends itself well to learning and applying these fundamental skills for success.”

According to Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up research, students agree that gaming helps them develop teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity skills. What’s more, 62 percent of students say games should be part of their school experience.

Gamer and influencer LaurenZSide, whose YouTube channel has more than 5 million followers, has tried out the wethink curriculum firsthand. She said she likes how it makes explicit the connection between the skills that students are using when they’re playing team-based games and the skills they’ll need to excel both in school and in life.

“They’re all super important skills,” she observed. “So many more people today understand esports and its value. The stigma that it used to have is going away.”

Besides Salazar, Masterson, LaurenZSide, and Davis, other speakers at the virtual gala included author Carrie Goldman, who is the curriculum director for the Pop Culture Hero Coalition; former Miss Nevada Lisa Song Sutton, an entrepreneur and candidate for U.S. Congress; Brian Cuban, an attorney and the younger brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban; musician MikelParis, a STOMP alumnus and creator of the live music stream “A Song a Day”; actor Mark Pellegrino and law professor Andrew Rossow, co-founders of the Guardian Project, which aims to prevent cyber bullying; and former professional boxer and esports event organizer Ali Mahvan. The event was hosted by Evans.

After extensive research, Project Tomorrow and wethink have prioritized support for students in six key regions, based on the high impact that COVID-19 school closures and health/economic security concerns have had on kids in these communities: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Oakland.

Project Tomorrow is identifying schools in these areas to host esports teams of students this fall. Each team will consist of three to six students who will compete against other teams at their school or teams at other schools playing the most popular video games, such as League of Legends. A wethink coach will provide virtual support for the team.

The program begins with a discussion of each of the 15 essential skills, what it means, and how it applies within gaming and the world at large. Then, students break into teams to play matches. Immediately after each match is over, the students are asked to rate themselves and their teammates on how well they applied these various skills within the game. This self-reflection process is very powerful, and it has a big effect on how students approach the game the next time they play—as well as other tasks they engage in.

Educators can request that their school be considered for participation here. Anyone who’s interested in donating to support the Raise Your Hand initiative can do so here.

Dennis Pierce