Starting a scholastic esports program can seem like a daunting task, but with some thoughtful planning, it can be a much easier and rewarding process. It’s important to remember that school programs can evolve from small beginnings. These tips will get you thinking about the direction you may want to take with your program, and some pitfalls to avoid as you begin your scholastic esports journey.
1- THINK STEAM, NOT ESPORTS. One of the most overlooked aspects of esports is the wide variety of directions that the field can lead into. Many schools initially take a narrow focus on just the gaming aspect of esports, not realizing that the value of an esports program often lies in the other skills and programs that esports can facilitate. The first question to ask when designing a program is simply, “What are we looking to accomplish with this program?” If designing a lab, think about what programs you’d like to offer in addition to esports (animation, coding, video production, streaming, etc.), and build around the future needs of your desired outcomes. This will ensure your school or district can expand when able and appropriate, and you haven’t limited yourself with initial purchases or choices.
2- LOOK AT AVAILABLE RESOURCES. Once you’ve determined what programs and skill sets you’d like to develop with your students, it’s time to take an honest look at your current resources. You need to factor in things like available budget, classroom space, current hardware, network specifications, and manpower. Do you already have a lab with infrastructure that you can start with? What kind of network bandwidth do you have? What personnel on the academic and IT sides do you have available? Other considerations include power and cooling requirements. Take a look at how many electrical circuits you have available in your space(s), and determine how many computers you can support with available electrical wiring. The same applies for cooling requirements. Make sure there is central air conditioning, or availability to add cooling to your space as gaming computers will add a lot of heat quickly. There are no right or wrong answers here, just an assessment of available resources. A critical look will help determine what you can do now, what you may need to acquire in the short and long terms, and what other long term resource goals may be worth pursuing.
3- ASSEMBLE AND/OR PURCHASE YOUR EQUIPMENT. Once you know the planned direction and scope of your program, and you know what resources you have available, it’s time to purchase the rest of what you need to get up and running, and put your space together. For an esports-capable PC, you’d be well advised to purchase PCs with Intel i7 or Ryzen 7 processors, 16 GB RAM, Nvidia 30XX or AMD RX6800 graphics cards, and 1TB SSD storage (or more). Esports titles require either Windows 10 or 11 operating systems. If your esports program is looking to expand to high end animation, CADD, or video editing, you’d benefit from Intel i9 or Ryzen 9 processors, 32 GB RAM, and more SSD space (depending on your network storage availability). Mechanical keyboards, gaming mice, headsets, and controllers are nice if you have room in your budget for those, but if not, a BYOD (bring your own device) policy allows students to use their preferred equipment when using the computers. On the network side, consider adding a QoS (Quality of Service) profile for your esports lab, which will direct bandwidth to certain computers or rooms as a priority over other less intensive network activities. Your IT department can assist you with that process.
4- DECIDE ON SOFTWARE AND MAKE A DISK IMAGE. Once you have hardware in place, it’s time to decide what software you want to include on your computers. The best advice here is to first decide on the appropriate software for your program. Consider which games and installers are appropriate for your needs (Epic Games Installer, Minecraft Launcher, OBS, etc.), and what other software you plan to run for courses (CADD, Maya, Adobe Cloud, etc.). Then, make a disk image that can be used to quickly restore any PC to its original software state. If you update this every semester or school year, you can simply update the image to account for any software updates or version changes for easy hard drive restoration. Once your disk image is made, you can image all of your machines manually, or push images through your network (the process of which is outside the scope of this article). At this point, you should have your hardware and software ready for faculty and student use.
5- SET UP OFF-SITE STORAGE. If you plan to use apps like OBS to record gameplay, you need to think about video storage, which can take up a lot of storage space quickly. If you have a NAS system (Network Attached Storage), find out how much storage you can use. You may need to record to an off-site storage service to allow space for students to continually record. A good solution might be to use Google Drive if you’re using Google for Education. In that case, you can mount a Google Drive to the PCs, easily linked through student Google accounts, and record to that drive. All recordings would be safely and securely stored, but make sure you have the bandwidth available for the number of computers you plan to simultaneously have recording off-site, and make sure to have any necessary privacy considerations in place for student data storage.
6- USE AN LMS TO BUILD COURSE CONTENT. As you build your esports program, consider how you plan to teach courses in future semesters and years. While there are a number of learning management systems available, Gameplan has one of the best interfaces for esports instruction, and includes an ever-expanding amount of esports content that can be used for classroom use or esports team coaching. Once a lesson is selected or customized, a teacher or coach can assign that content without having to start from scratch each time the lesson is used. Gameplan also has the ability to assign drills that can be completed with text, images, or video, including a VOD review tool that is groundbreaking in its abilities. Whatever platform you choose, take the time to plan for multiple years of instruction- save your work to avoid recreating material semester after semester!
7- SET PERMISSIONS WITH YOUR IT DEPT. As with everything, there is an appropriate time and place for gaming. Some games and software may be appropriate for an esports team, but not for in-class use. The same applies to certain software communication apps like Discord and media apps like Spotify, which would most likely be restricted during the school day, but allowed after school when an esports team is practicing or playing a match. Every network is different in its approach to security, so you need to meet with your IT team and discuss how restrictions can be made. As an example, some districts create network rules that restrict certain apps like Discord during school hours, but allow it as a communications platform during esports team practices and matches. Each school may have different needs or views on software use, so think about what makes the most sense for your situation, and check with your IT department on how to best set appropriate limitations on each application.
8- MAINTAIN A FLEXIBLE MINDSET. Nothing is more certain in the technology world than change. As you continue to build your program, realize that experience will be your best teacher, and you shouldn’t be afraid to fail forward. Many students may be interested in esports and tech in a way that allows them to take leadership roles, and their experience and ideas will be invaluable to developing your program. They know the games, they know the strategies, and they most likely know the tech. Let them shine in both class and team settings, and be willing to learn and adapt from their expertise when appropriate. You may want to include a few interested, trustworthy students in the esports program design process to ensure you’re on the right track with student interest. And remember that things will go wrong and tech bugs will need to be worked out, particularly in your first year of the program. Take those moments as learning opportunities to improve, and make notes for future reference on how to avoid the pitfalls you’ve encountered.
9- GOOD LUCK, HAVE FUN! Part of the allure of esports is the enjoyment that it brings to players. Amongst all the setup and tech, and all the curriculum and rules, remember that students are drawn to things that are fun. If you can create a program that delivers hard and soft skills development with a CTE focus, fosters a sense of identity and community, and lets kids enjoy their time in school, then you’re well on your way to building a solid scholastic esports program. Best of luck on your journey!