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The Winning Strategy for K-12 Education

October 20, 2023

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Written by Alan Sitomer

As the co-founder of the US Academic Esports League, I’ve been asked, “So what is the difference between an academic esports league and a ‘regular’ esports league?”

Because I am an educator, to me, the difference is immense and if you come out of the classroom yourself, you can usually spot it right away.

First, let’s tip our hat to the idea that esports has gained immense popularity across the globe in the past decade and that its ascent in schools, while astonishing, is really only just beginning. What we’ve seen with this growth is that two distinct branches of esports have emerged: regular esports and academic esports. While both involve competitive video gaming, they differ in their objectives, focus, and the value they place on learning and positive student outcomes. 

Before I go forward, however, I want to admit that I am a huge fan of regular esports and in no way feel that using the term “regular” is a pejorative. Yet, the teacher in me knows that if a school is only offering “regular” esports to its students, there’s gobs of valuable educational opportunities being unnecessarily left on the table. I am talking about unrealized learning that these kids need!

Regular esports can be defined as participating in competitive video gaming leagues and tournaments whereby the competitions focus primarily on entertainment, who won (and lost), and financial gain through sponsorships and prizes. Nothing wrong with that. Kids play hockey, baseball and football for many of the same reasons and as a sports fan, I certainly see the value.

Academic esports, however, recognizes that in a K12 setting, entertainment and competition sit at the intersection of learning and personal growth among students. Thus, academic esports intentionally and overtly coalesces the joy of gaming with the benefits of student development. In the world of K12, shouldn’t the mission of why schools exist in the first place (i.e. to teach kids valuable skills, both hard and soft) be at the forefront of its programming? 

We live in a world changed by technology. Regular esports uses that technology to facilitate the games. Academic esports understands that teaching kids to wield the technology, to build the technology, to use the technology as a vehicle for college and career readiness is smartly playing chess when regular esports is playing checkers. A football helmet is used to play football and there’s little more use a football helmet holds. But the technology that is used to power games is the same technology powering the internet, health tech, fintech, artificial intelligence and so on. Gaming, in academic esports, becomes a gateway.  

In regular esports, people argue that the kids learn teamwork, communication and problem solving simply by playing the games. To some extent, that’s true. Collateral learning does take place. (i.e. Kids eat their vegetables because they’re smushed in with the sweets). In academic esports, however, these critical skills are overtly taught. Being on a team does not necessarily teach you teamwork; having someone teach you teamwork is what teaches you teamwork. Unfortunately, the proponents of regular esports misperceive - probably because they are not coming from an educational background - that learning happens by causality. Said another way, watching tv does not make you a great tv writer; learning how to write for television is what will make you a great tv writer. The same is true for any endeavor. If schools want to produce kids who demonstrate high character, respect diversity and own the skills to step into lucrative careers, they are going to have to teach the students these skills. These capabilities won’t just “magically develop”. This is why academic esports is the right path for K12 education. Learning and fun can be inextricably tied together but the learning must be valued.

Academic esports is a mindset. One that befits K12 schools. 

I. Educational Objectives

Regular Esports
  • In regular esports, the main objective is to win tournaments, achieve high rankings, and gain recognition within the gaming community. While players may develop skills related to teamwork and communication, the primary focus is on achieving success in the gaming world, often at the expense of other educational pursuits.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports prioritize educational objectives above all else. These programs aim to enhance students' cognitive and social skills, emphasizing teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, and digital literacy. Academic esports also encourage students to pursue careers in related fields, such as game design, technology, and esports management, by offering educational pathways and scholarships.

II. Curriculum Integration

Regular Esports
  • Regular esports operate independently from the school curriculum. Students who participate in regular esports often do so in their spare time, which can lead to conflicts between gaming and schoolwork. In some cases, excessive gaming can even negatively impact academic performance.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports are integrated into the school curriculum, ensuring that students' gaming activities align with their educational responsibilities. These programs incorporate gaming into coursework, allowing students to apply concepts from various subjects to the games they play. For example, students might analyze data, create strategies, or study game design principles as part of their academic esports experience.

III. Learning Opportunities

Regular Esports
  • While regular esports may offer some opportunities for skill development, these are primarily limited to in-game mechanics, reflexes, and game-specific strategies. The emphasis on winning can overshadow opportunities for broader skill acquisition.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports create a rich learning environment. They encourage students to develop skills that extend beyond gaming, such as communication, teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving. Moreover, academic esports provide a platform for students to explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts and careers, as gaming often involves elements of technology and data analysis.

IV. Social and Emotional Development

Regular Esports
  • In regular esports, social and emotional development can vary greatly depending on the individual's experiences and interactions within the gaming community. While some players may develop teamwork and communication skills, others may face toxicity and harassment.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports prioritize positive social and emotional development. They emphasize the importance of sportsmanship, respect, and collaboration among players. Additionally, academic esports often involve mentorship programs, where older students or professionals guide younger players, fostering a sense of community and support.

V. Equity and Inclusivity

Regular Esports
  • Regular esports can be exclusive and often require expensive gaming equipment and a high level of skill to compete at the highest levels. This exclusivity can create barriers for students from diverse backgrounds.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports aim to be inclusive and equitable. Schools often provide access to gaming equipment and resources for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Additionally, academic esports programs promote diversity and gender inclusion, actively encouraging girls and underrepresented groups to participate.

VI. Evaluation and Assessment

Regular Esports
  • Evaluation in regular esports is primarily based on performance metrics within the game, such as win-loss records, rankings, and individual achievements. There is little emphasis on assessing educational growth or character development.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports programs use a holistic approach to evaluation. They assess students not only on their gaming performance but also on their growth in critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. Teachers and coaches provide feedback and track progress in both academic and esports-related areas.

VII. Future Opportunities

Regular Esports
  • Participation in regular esports may lead to a professional gaming career or opportunities in the entertainment industry. However, the potential for long-term success can be limited, and the skills acquired may not always translate into other career paths.
Academic Esports
  • Academic esports open doors to a broader range of opportunities. Students can pursue careers in gaming-related fields, such as game design, esports management, or technology development. Additionally, the skills acquired in academic esports can be applied to various academic and professional contexts.

VIII. Conclusion

In conclusion, the difference between academic esports and regular esports in K-12 education lies in their objectives, integration with the curriculum, emphasis on learning, and impact on students' overall development. While regular esports prioritize competition and entertainment, academic esports place a strong emphasis on education, promoting the growth of cognitive, social, and emotional skills. By valuing learning and providing inclusive opportunities, academic esports not only prepare students for future careers but also enrich their educational journey within the K-12 system. As the popularity of esports continues to grow, academic esports offer a promising avenue for harnessing the potential of gaming to benefit students and society as a whole.


Alan Sitomer

Alan is Mastery Coding's CEO and a California Teacher of the year award winner who has written 22 books. He left the classroom and started this company because he sees the opportunity for students to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty through obtaining jobs in emerging technologies.

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