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Business and Tech Education

How Esports Creates Opportunities for Underrepresented Students

Anastasia A. Staten

Executive Director, ESA Foundation

At the Entertainment Software (ESA) Foundation, we know the power of video games extends far beyond entertainment. Making games, for example, is more than just creating cool effects. It’s a collaborative, painstaking effort produced by a team of highly-trained professionals.

For similar reasons, playing games isn’t just about the thrill of competition. In fact, the multimillion-dollar, worldwide phenomenon known as esports has the potential to be a powerful educational and career tool, especially for those in historically underrepresented communities.

The necessary skills

First, it’s important to recognize how much STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — goes into not only making video games but playing them as well. Multiplayer games have become extremely sophisticated, offering a range of levels, obstacles, and challenges players must navigate in order to stay in a game, let alone win.

Most important, as is the case in STEM courses and fields, esports players have to think critically and problem-solve, and the deeper their knowledge of STEM subjects — which help to solve “mysteries” — the more tools they have with which to work.

Esports also serve as a great teaching tool. Being a member of any successful sports team demands teamwork, honed communication skills, effective strategizing, and empathy through supporting fellow team members.

Last year at Knollwood School in Fair Haven, New Jersey, teacher Chris Aviles created one of the first middle school esports teams in the United States. It’s made up of students who have played against college teams — an arrangement Aviles has also turned into a mentorship opportunity, where the collegiate players answer questions about college life and career paths after the competition ends.

Video games meet academia

At the high school level, esports has been gaining momentum for several years now, with entire districts creating programs that benefit the kinds of students we support, those who find a sense of purpose and community in video games. And as the professional esports industry approaches the $1 billion mark, colleges are racing to provide top-notch high school players with scholarships.

In 2016, just seven colleges had esports teams. Today, more than 130 have followed suit, offering roughly $15 million in scholarships. This is like a door being flung open, creating new opportunities for game-playing female and minority students who are often passionate about STEM-related subjects, and now have another means to access higher education. 

This is vitally important considering that, when it comes to 21st-century job skills, the United States hasn’t kept pace with the developed world in STEM categories. Part of the reason is that most women and minority students are not choosing STEM-related paths.

African American and Hispanic students account for just 12 and 17 percent, respectively, of STEM college graduates, and women are outnumbered by men 2 to 1. The ESA Foundation is helping to change this equation on the game-making side by awarding 35 scholarships per year to underrepresented students intent on pursuing a career in game design.

Taking action

Now we want to support those playing the games. It’s not enough to just talk about the positive aspects of esports. We’re also responsible for nurturing young talent and creating a diverse and positive community.

That’s why, starting in January, the ESA Foundation will begin offering an esports scholarship for women and minority players seeking four-year degrees. Applicants must demonstrate high academic standards, hold membership on an esports team at an accredited college or university, and, via a highlight reel, display their playing skills, both as individuals and members of teams.

Since its inception, the ESA Foundation has constantly searched for new ways to empower underrepresented youth. Esports, as big and important as it is to the students we serve, can now thrill in more ways than one.

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