While gaming might not sound like something that children should be doing at school, students are being given the opportunity to play competitive video games – all in the name of education.
Esports, the world of organised competitive video gaming (where teams and individual players play against each other online) has brought the likes of League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League and, of course, Fortnite into classrooms. From an extra-curricular activity through to a professional qualification, academic leaders are introducing esports to help prepare students for a digital future.
Esports is on track to exceed $200 billion in value by 2023, and so it’s not surprising to see it expanding within education. We are seeing a generation of young gamers in the classroom who have grown up online, cohorts of students who have their sights set on digital futures, and children who have found a passion for online gaming during lockdowns to fill the void left by the cancellation of traditional sports.
Tom Dore, Head of Education at the British Esports Association and Head of Education Focus Group at the Global Esports Federation says now is the time to embrace esports in schools. Why? Because team activities teach our children valuable skills – and esports is no exception.
“Esports is not in your bedroom playing on your own in the dark eating crisps; it’s teams of people playing against teams of people in a competitive environment,” he says.
“Through that you can develop all the same holistic character development skills that you would in any other school extra-curricular team activity such as traditional sport, music or drama. Teamwork, leadership, communication, problem-solving and strategic thinking can all be developed by playing esports as part of a team.”
To many parents, gaming is just a bit of fun with friends. However, the distinction between gaming and esports is an important one, as Wycliffe College Esports Co-ordinator and maths teacher Ian Russell explains:
“The difference between ‘gaming’ and playing in an esports team is the same as the difference between keepy-ups in your own back garden and 11-a-side football. Both are clearly enjoyable, and one is a valuable part of the practice and familiarity that you might need for the other. Esports teams focus on strategy, communication, adaptability and teamwork just as much as they focus on the mechanics of their actual game play.”
How are schools embracing esports?
With the recent expansion of esports into mainstream culture, we are seeing esports move into education. Examining board Pearson teamed up with the British Esports Association (BEA) to design the Esports BTEC Level 3 qualification in the UK in 2020 – the first qualification of its kind in the world. The course covers topics unique to esports, including shoutcasting and esports skills, strategies and analysis, through to broader and more transferable themes, such as entrepreneurship, events management, live-streamed broadcasting, video production and health and wellbeing.
For some students, it’s the qualification needed to make their passion a profession – or the pathway to a degree in esports currently offered at several UK universities including University of Staffordshire and University of Northampton. For others, it can be the opportunity to develop skills that they might not get through traditional education methods, such as teamwork, problem-solving and communication.
Tom Dore explains:
“We’re not teaching kids to be pro gamers, in the same way that if you take a BTEC in sport you’re not going to be a professional footballer; there will be a very small percentage of kids that go on to become professional sports people.
“What we’re doing is preparing them for careers in the esports industry, which is growing exponentially around the world, as well as digital and creative STEM-based industries that span the world. We’re teaching them transferable skills for any pathway they choose.”
There’s a small but growing number of state schools now offering the BTEC; in the UK, there are currently over 80 centres delivering the qualification (the majority are further education colleges), and 1,800 students studying it.
One example is Barnsley College, which enrols around 110 full-time esports learners. It’s invested in an esports arena, gaming rooms, editing suites, casting rooms, enterprise pods and boardrooms – all designed to provide a springboard for students who want to pursue careers in the gaming industry and other related sectors. As the school says, students can “truly get a feel for business expectations within the industry”.
We’re yet to see any UK independent schools offering the BTEC, although we can expect a small number to launch it within the next year.
BTECs mainly focus on transferable skills, industry skills and future skills, and Pearson was quick to work with the BEA to develop the first esports qualifications, seeing it as another opportunity to help prepare students for new and emerging careers.
A spokesman for Pearson explains:
“Currently Esports is the biggest growth sector within education, as well as being the biggest income generating industry globally. Striking whilst the iron is hot and capturing the engagement and motivation of young people, the BTEC in Esports focuses on offering learners the skills needed for the jobs of the future.
“The BTEC in Esports aligns to key employability skills within the industry and for all future careers, such as digital, strategic thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, analysis, communication, teamwork and organisation There are a growing number of universities that are offering full degree programmes in esports, with many growing opportunities to work within the esports industry in direct gaming organisations, right through to events, esports teams and sports brands/clubs with an esports focus.”
Worldwide there are currently around 2,000 learners studying the BTEC in Esports across England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the UAE, Spain, and the Dominican Republic; there are over 150 centres approved and ready to launch the BTEC in Spain, Argentina, Netherlands, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
GEMS FirstPoint School – The Villa is the first school in the UAE (and the Middle East) to offer BTEC qualifications in both Esports and Digital Game Design; esports is also offered as an extra-curricular activity for all year groups across the school, complete with internal competitions and leagues.
Matthew Tompkins, Principal/CEO at GEMS FirstPoint, says that the school is acting as any proactive and forward-thinking school should to respond to the needs of students – and to help them enter the world of work as “leaders from day one”.
“Gaming and gamification represent the future for many industries. Gaming is not just related to playing on the PlayStation or Xbox, it is also the future of shopping, architectural design and so much more,” explains Mr Tompkins.
“When you shop in the future, you will have clothes matched to you that suit your preferences, you will be able to see yourself in the clothes before you order them and just wait for the drone to drop them off. A lot of this technology will depend on skills developed by game designers and programmers.
“Yes, the best paid esports basketballer is paid more than the best paid NBA star. And, yes, esports may well be introduced at the 2030 Olympics, but this is just scratching the surface of the potential that gaming and programming skills can have on peoples’ careers in the future.”
Esports – a new extra-curricular activity?
While the number of schools offering a qualification in esports is still limited, many more schools are embracing esports as an extra-curricular activity. And, by setting up esports teams, leagues and clubs, schools are bringing the benefits of esports to a wide community of students.
Students are playing in Rocket League tournaments just as they would challenge each other on the rugby pitch – and it’s really changing attitudes towards having gaming as an extra-curricular activity. While UK independent schools may be ‘lagging behind’, they are more likely to bring in esports as another extra-curricular activity rather than an academic qualification.
Andrew Murfin, Deputy Head Co-Curricular at Bryanston School explains why:
“At Bryanston we embrace technology, and rather than see esports as an unwelcome hobby, we want to try to change the myths about it. With this in mind, we have welcomed esports and introduced it into our co-curricular provision.
“Esports encourage qualities such as critical and strategic thinking, not to mention collaborative teamwork. Offering esports as an ECA helps to teach our pupils the importance of healthy competition, as well identifying an obvious link to other areas of computer science such as programming or coding.
“All fitness enhances performance, both in reaction times and concentration levels. We aim to treat our esports team the same way we treat our top athletes and ultimately, we see it as an important vehicle for maximising our pupils’ future pathways.”
The British Esports Association (BEA) is taking the lead in bringing the worlds of education and esports together. It is encouraging schools to embrace esports’ competitive side as a recreational activity through weekly online gaming tournaments for students aged 12-plus across the UK.
Organised by the BEA, the British Esports Student Champs sees nearly 370 teams from 140 different UK schools compete during the academic year, the majority in the state sector. A very small number of independent schools have taken part including Millfield, Bede’s, Wycliffe College, Bryanston and Gordonstoun.
In his role at the BEA, Mr Dore says he is faced with the challenge of getting headteachers and senior leaders in education to look beyond looking at esports as ‘video gaming’ and instead see it as “a vehicle, the hook to help young people develop the digital creative skills that we know are critical in the world moving forward.”
Mr Dore has witnessed firsthand in his experience as a teacher at King Edward’s School, Bath how esports can reach students who would otherwise not be participating in a school activity.
“It’s an opportunity to engage a broader demographic of people; if children aren’t into traditional sport, music or drama, where are they getting the opportunity to represent their school? If they are into all things digital and gaming, and esports is what they excel at, an esports club at school could be their opportunity to gain recognition for their skills.”
International schools are also launching esports clubs and internal competitions, and what started out in many cases as student-run clubs are becoming organised leagues. For example, the first official Interschool Esports Tournament in the Middle East was launched in 2020 for students aged 6-18 years (with cash prices of up to £20,000).
The growth and rise of esports in education
The popularity of esports is driving investment in facilities within schools worldwide – and helping to facilitate the growth of esports as both a qualification and an extra-curricular activity.
One of the main barriers to esports in school is the cost of the IT equipment required. According to a 2022 survey by Dell Technologies and Intel, over half of the financial decision-makers in education said the equipment was “too expensive for schools to consider.”
However, Mr Dore argues, school needs to be “future-proofing their equipment to teach children future skills” anyway. It’s not about schools finding the funds for students to play video game but rather investing in the technology needed for teaching digital and computer science – and then being able to run extra-curricular clubs such as esports and Minecraft as an added bonus.
In the UK, the state-run Alva Academy has become a flagship school for esports in Scotland after opening a state-of-the-art esports suite. Alva’s music teacher Emma Liston was approached by students who, knowing she was a long-time gamer herself, wanted to start an extra-curricular esports club. What started out as a small lunchtime club playing Worms Armageddon has now become a thriving part of the school with several teams competing in the British Esports Student Champs.
Elsewhere in the UK, Queen Mary’s College in Basingstoke opened a new esports facility in May 2021 to deliver its BTEC qualification from, complete with a yoga room to cover the mental health and wellbeing aspect of the BTEC.
In the further education sector, the University of Warwick became the first Russell Group university to open its own esports centre in 2021. And, building on the success of its projects with schools and colleges, the BEA is developing the UK’s first National Esports Performance Campus (NEPC) in Sunderland. Due to open in summer 2022, the campus will have “dedicated esports classrooms” as well as streaming booths to practice casting and an arena space.
Chester King, chief executive officer at BEA, said:
“The UK is Europe’s second biggest video game market and ranked sixth globally – this speaks to the potential of esports which will capitalise on gaming’s popularity, with talented competitors emerging and a growing audience keen to spectate and enjoy esports as a leisure activity. This is a market that we know will explode in the UK and we want to support its growth.
“The campus will be an inspirational site, a place for players and coaches to work, learn and develop.”
Moving overseas, international school groups see the potential of gaming for their students. In Dubai, GEMS has partnered with Lenovo ( the world’s largest PC vendor) to open gaming zones at GEMS Modern Academy and GEMS FirstPoint School.
The centres are equipped with Legion PCs and monitors for gaming immersion, performance ThinkStation workstations for seamless designing and programming, and Yoga Tab tablets. They offer students access to esports venue software and ggCircuit, a platform engaging more than 2.1 million players and around 700 esports centres globally.
Nargish Khambatta, Principal, GEMS Modern Academy and Vice President – Education, GEMS Education says:
“Over the years, we have witnessed a paradigm shift in learning and teaching. Gaming, for example, which was seen largely as a recreational hobby, is now an enviable skill and is being considered preparatory ground for a full-time career in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
“Research suggests that students who are interested in gaming and esports have a higher tendency to be academic achievers and are interested in high-paying STEM fields valued by employers. We are excited to be one of the first educational institutions in the region to leverage the Lenovo Esports programme, and explore how gaming can be used to nurture talent, expertise and future readiness in innovative and academically stimulating ways.”
In Singapore, XCL World Academy has opened a dedicated esports facility, The Garage, to host its esports programme where students will learn skills such as game design and development, league organisation, broadcasting, streaming, and shoutcasting. The Garage is dominated by a full-wall LED display, and is equipped with 24 high performance gaming stations, two racing simulator rigs, two flight simulator rigs, and four virtual reality headsets, making it the hub for the school’s student-led esports clubs.
Brian Rogove, Group Chief Executive Officer of XCL Education explains:
“At XCL World Academy (XWA), our mission is to prepare children for the jobs of tomorrow. Aside from just encouraging students to think about their futures early and trying to prepare them with the necessary future-ready skills needed to thrive, it is important to provide occasional glimpses of what tomorrow could look like. This ensures that they are aware of changes, familiar with new trends, well informed to make decisions on their futures, agile enough to adapt to future disruptions, and brave enough to challenge established norms.
“For this reason, the Esports programme at XCL World Academy was conceived. It serves as an example, a prototype, and hopefully a repeatable model of how to stay ahead of the jobs and industries of tomorrow.”
Why is esports in schools a good thing?
One of the key challenges for schools is to overcome the stigma attached to esports, the scepticism of how video games are perceived by some. The amount of screen time that esports requires has to be one of the sport’s biggest negatives – and parents who are concerned about the risks of screen time must now be convinced that “training time” in the gaming chair is justified. But is it?
More than half of 13 to 18-year-olds (55%) in the UK believe gaming is a viable career path and want schools to add it to the curriculum and create their own extra-curricular esports competitions, according to a 2021 survey by HyperX in 2021.
With the popularity of gaming YouTubers and esports on the rise, it’s not really a surprise that many children would see these roles within this booming media industry as their dream jobs. The top esports players in the world can earn upwards of millions of pounds, after all. But for parents (and anyone else) who may be discovering esports for the first time, it can be seen as an unhealthy hobby, a waste of time – and certainly not an ‘acceptable’ career path for a child to follow.
Schools have to ensure that safeguarding measures are in place to keep young people safe online; the BEA has played its part by developing a parents guide to esports with the NSPCC. And anyone involved with esports will agree that there has to balance and moderation – no-one is encouraging children to play for four or five hours every evening; it has to be part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
As Tom Dore at the BEA says, “This isn’t about competing with traditional sport. We know it’s not a sport, it’s a competitive activity.” The key message from all those hosting esports in schools is that this competitive activity can grow STEM interests and develop valuable life skills.
Nargish Khambatta (GEMS Modern Academy and GEMS Education) has witnessed how esports as a co-curricular activity for students with an interest in game-based technology has enabled them to assimilate and retain new skills and information – “almost without noticing.”
“Technical skills such as coding, designing and developing content using Unity and Unreal will equip our students for an industry that is growing exponentially. With the advent of the Metaverse, how we educate children and prepare teachers must also advance to meet these new opportunities.
“Tech knowhow is not the only benefits of having esports in school. Soft skills such as game journalism, time management, critical thinking, problem solving, team work, resilience, grit, etc. are also skills that develop organically.”
While not every child who games will end up as a pro, there are other career paths within gaming such as game design, sound engineering, marketing and voice acting to consider. Wycliffe College Esports Co-ordinator and maths teacher Ian Russell explains that, as well as being a genuine career, esports can offer students a wide range of very real employment opportunities.
“Like any industry, esports has a whole host of different career opportunities beyond ‘competitor’. Esports events need marketing, technicians, coaches, journalists etc. and whilst the industry is still young (around 10-15 years’ old) the number of opportunities is growing fast.
“There are likely many young people who are more familiar with esports stars than their tennis or rugby counterparts (I think football probably still wins out!), and esports has just been announced as taking part in a pilot in Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games.”
“Not everyone wants to play the game. Our team includes an analyst, another student designed the team jersey, and another edits together the highlight reel of their game. Shoutcasting (commentating on the game), is hugely popular, and there are students streaming their matches through platforms like You Tube and Twitter. These roles are an integral part of esports, and students don’t get to play these roles in sports like rugby or football.”
The top professional esports players and teams, which are earning six figure salaries, need physical trainers, nutrionists, psychologist and sleep coaches – in the same way that professional sports teams do. Lindsey Eckhouse, Director of Licensing, Ecommerce & esports at McLaren Racing explains further from an employers’ perspective.
“People do become professional esports players, often at a pretty young age, but esports is more than just players. Just as our drivers can’t race without their team, esports players can’t play without theirs – that means publicists, physiotherapists, nutritionists, chefs. We must embrace more ways for children – of all abilities, needs and backgrounds – to learn, and those ways should reflect the future career landscape.”
Parents with children who play esports are seeing the benefits of games like Rocket League, Formula One, and FIFA in helping to build a child’s confidence, problem-solving skills and leadership abilities. According to the 2022 survey by Dell Technologies and Intel, more than three in five parents believe esports can play a positive role in school; however, less than a third are happy for their child to have a career in esports. 48% of parents said esports should be added to the school/college curriculum but they would prefer it to be an extra-curricular activity.
Last year, esports was added to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Skills list in recognition of its educational value. Ruth Marvel, CEO of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, explains:
“The DofE is all about reflecting young people’s changing interests and needs and giving them the skills and confidence to make the most of whatever life throws at them. Esports lets them do that in a structured, inclusive and safe way, while also being a lot of fun – which is why we recently added it as an activity they can do for their DofE.”
Esports is also seen as inclusive; there are not the physical requirements of traditional sports (other than fast reflexes) and, although it may still be a male-dominated world, the BEA says that the interest in esports for females is rising. As Camilla Maurice, Curriculum Manager at MidKent College (which offers the BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma in Esports), says: “Esports offers a new way to engage students who can’t or don’t want to participate in physical sports.”
Wycliffe College’s Ian Russell adds:
“Esports often have a very low barrier of entry, and therefore a much wider range of people can find enjoyment and their own place within a team – and this is particularly pertinent for anyone who feels as if the traditional sporting pathways have left them behind. Esports players experience higher confidence, improved decision making, increased concentration and a higher level of positive mental health and wellbeing.”
So, while you may not relish the idea of your child spending more time in front of a video game, you may want to keep an open mind. What may start as a typical teenage request to play more Minecraft, Fortnite or Roblox, could develop into something more.
We let Emma Rossi-Naito, a Grade 7 student at XCL World Academy in Singapore who has experienced the benefits of esports firsthand, have the last word…
“I joined the school’s esports club because I wanted to play video games, meet new people and try out professional gaming PCs, which are much better than my laptop. Later on, I realised that there is much more to gaming than just playing. I can learn coding and develop my own games one day.
“Because of the Esports club, I realised that I could build anything I wanted, not only in the game. It helps to nurture creativity and develop design skills. Not long ago, I created a vending machine from cardboard and plastic and also made a sword from cardboard and tape. The club allowed me to meet new friends, develop critical thinking, collaboration and coaching skills.
“Not long ago, one of my friends wanted to join a Minecraft competition, but she didn’t know how to play the game. To help her enter the competition, I taught her how to play the game, and she became one of the winners! This made me feel proud.”