How to build diversity, equity, and inclusion with scholastic esports

Educators realize scholastic esports is about more than competition--it's about building connections and embracing all who want to participate

The inclusion of scholastic esports in academic programs is yielding strong and widespread results in the youth of today. Research demonstrates that strong communities are developing, with deep engagement from students who are involved in scholastic esports, particularly students that normally don’t become involved with school activities. Because of that draw, scholastic esports is in a pivotal position to help build diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at schools all around the country.

Organizations play an important role in fostering DEI among students. NASEF’s core values include diversity and respect, and its club members must adhere to the Code of Conduct to participate in tournaments and challenges. Likewise, HSEL competitors agree to abide by behavior standards in community events. 

From the beginning of NASEF’s curriculum in southern California to the 10 magnet schools in Miami-Dade Florida that piloted the curriculum with their students, we have seen a marked improvement among students with respect to DEI. NASEF is now seeing students all across the country and even the world are joining esports clubs and opening up new avenues for themselves.

Photo provided by Mark Godinez

Mark Godinez, AP Computer Science Teacher at South Dade Senior High School in Florida, has focused on creating a better environment in his esports classroom to get more young women and those who identify as non-binary to participate. One of the major ways he’s helped improve the DEI of his scholastic esports program is by recognizing that these programs are about more than gaming. He uses other interests, like fan art, to get more of his students involved in the program, then introduces students to other concepts within the gaming space or gives them leadership roles when creating esports tournaments in their local community.

“Our goal is to open the eyes of our students and myself so we can see the connection,” Mark said about the overall goal of his program. “I used to say explore, but I got rid of that word. Exploring is great, but we really want to build connections for the younger students so they say, ‘I love doing this and this is where it connects,’ so we can start focusing on careers they can pursue when they get older.”

Photo provided by Mark Godinez

At the broader level, we go to the state of Texas where Bradford Harris, Coordinator of Digital Innovation for Aldine ISD in Houston, Texas and Director of Learning for TEXSEF, is working on improving DEI for all the programs in the state.

Bradford and the team begin with a basic assumption for establishing scholastic esports and DEI at each school. From there, they work with each individual school or district and tailor a plan to fit that.

“With esports, we know there is no cookie-cutter approach to it all,” Bradford commented. “There may be one district or campus that says we need to do it as an after-school program and another district that can do it as a class during the day. We approach it so it fits their needs, not our needs.”

Photo provided by TEXSEF

This acknowledgment is critical when it comes to building out esports programs that foster DEI. Everyone—students, teachers, administrators—will react differently to scholastic esports programs as they spin up. Adjusting them to fit the specific needs of each individual situation allows them to grow more organically and function without arbitrary guidelines that could hamstring them.

Photo provided by Randall Deich – Two Students Participate in a Coaching Session

Once your programs are up and running, you’ll likely need to get some help to fill out your own deficiencies. When you do this, look for people who aren’t like you to help out. If you bring in speakers from local companies, make sure those speakers are diverse; this will show your varied students that they, too, can achieve those jobs and become mentors for others.

However, you need to make sure you aren’t succumbing to tokenism interviews and talks. Too often, women and people of color will only be asked to talk about being a woman or person of color in the space. For them, it’s extremely tiring to talk about the same thing over and over when they have so much more to discuss. In addition, when they are forced to speak for an entire group, they won’t be able to talk about themselves and therefore they are lost in the conversation. Simply ask them to talk about the cool projects they’ve worked on for those companies—the diversity aspect will be communicated by their participation and sharing about what they love.

Photo Provided by Randall Deich – Students Practicing Super Smash Bros.

Also in Texas, NASEF Scholastic Fellow Lindy Meiser is doing incredible work with an under-served community using 3D printing. She helps incarcerated youth develop much-needed skills that will allow them to find jobs when they are released.

“For me, [esports/gaming] is a conduit to show them that this is not game over—that you do get to restart anytime you want to in life,” Lindy told us. Incredibly, her program has helped many youth to restart their lives with jobs at local manufacturing plants, and many also pursue college with the help of her scholarships. Her work is a shining example of how to establish equity in a historically under-served and forgotten community. You can read more about her work here.

Another simple way to help foster DEI at schools is to make sure your media is diverse. Too many programs will say they are diverse, and yet when you look at the photos they choose to represent themselves, they’re homogenous. While many may just take what they can get when it comes to media for their website, it’s an equally important aspect to pay attention to. When prospective students look at your website, they want to see people like them there, or, at the very least, a diverse group of students. If you’re looking for a good example of media that promotes DEI, Shenandoah Esports does an excellent job.

“We are proud of the diverse esports program we have built for all students at Shenandoah University,” said Joey Gawyrsiak, Director and Associate Professor of Esports at Shenandoah University. “It is evident from our online presence and community that we value an inclusive program and have created an environment where all students from all backgrounds feel welcome. While we are happy with the diverse makeup of the program and have been nominated for awards because of our diversity, we recognize that there is still a long way to go for Shenandoah and all of esports to be a welcome and equitable space for all current and future students.“

Scholastic esports naturally impacts DEI because it brings in students who aren’t normally in standard school programs like stick and ball sports or music programs. Teachers and parents have testified that they see students who are normally alone at breaks flourish in these scholastic esports programs, often coming out of their shells and really connecting with other students and teachers.

Photo provided by Randall Deich

Even more to the point, while activities like band or sports require you to play, it’s not a requirement when it comes to scholastic esports. 

In fact, there are many ways for a student to participate and connect in scholastic esports that don’t even involve playing video games. Whether it be creating art, hosting, directing, IT, or marketing, each area allows students to become leaders and develop their skills.

As students participate in those scholastic esports opportunities, they build a solid foundation for future endeavors with a work portfolio that is beneficial for college applications or job prospects. That experience in the digital space, especially one as fast-moving as esports, demonstrates high-value experience to future employers who may not understand the digital space. Fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion through  scholastic esports programs opens the door to future opportunities to all youth, impacting not just their school experience but the trajectory of their careers and lives. 

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