Updated: Oct 6
It’s easy to feel isolated in today’s world. We’re more connected than ever thanks to our social media, phones, and video games. Yet, we are seeing more and more students lacking social connections. It’s never been easier to eat lunch by yourself; you can just pull out your phone and scroll. Let’s reflect on some of the terrible events that have taken place in the last few weeks. Could events like these have been avoided if these young men had felt a stronger connection to their communities?
Many school districts have observed declining participation in athletic events and other school activities over the last decade. How can schools reengage them?
A solution for many of these young people may be esports.
Many of the students who have participated in my esports program had nowhere else where they felt like they belonged. Below are two examples of students who felt a strong connection to the school community thanks to esports.
Editor’s Note: The names of all individuals and minor details have been altered or intentionally kept vague to protect the identities of the students and families involved.
Wednesday morning. My alarm goes off at 6:02 am like it always does, playing the Kokiri Forest theme from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I swipe off the alarm and get up for my morning glass of water. I open my phone, and I am greeted with a discord notification from a student (“Ethan”) in my Esports program that was sent at 12:16 am.
Hey I need you to know that I’m worried about Billy. There was a time when he would do all of his work and had straight “A”s. But I’ve seen a sharp decline recently. In case you didn’t know, his parents are divorced and he doesn’t have a very good relationship with either of them. We have talked about stuff and he has mentioned how he just wants his ____ in particular to like care about or like worry about him. We were working the same shift at ______ and we were just screwing around. I grab his wrist and pull him not very hard. And the reaction from him goes something like this, “Ow! That really hurts” and I got really confused because I didn’t grab him that hard. Then everything clicked in my head, he had been wearing a long sleeve shirt, and his wrists are hurting. I ask him about it in a very serious tone, something along the lines of “Billy… what’s up, can you pull up your sleeves for a second” and he gives a [sic] super half hearted excuses “I don’t wanna, my watch looks bad” so I persist and he goes (pardon my language) “can you seriously fuck off right now” and then he goes back to being his normal bubbly quirky self. He never wore a long sleeved shirt before this and I can see him being depressed. I’ve only told you, ____, and _____ about this. I wouldn’t get his parents involved, unless you think it’s best, due to their terrible relationship. Also I don’t think talking to counselors would help, but again it’s up to you, I don’t really know what to do and you are the only teacher besides maybe his ___ teacher that he trusts. If you need to talk more I’m free ___ hour. Thanks.
At 6:09 am, I sent back a reply thanking the student for coming to me and affirming that he was a great friend. I shared that this was bigger than him and me alone. Although I would do as much as I could personally, legally, I was required to report this information. I then sent screenshots of the message to the student’s principal, counselor, and school psychologist.
Billy was pulled into the Student Services office for a wellness evaluation during first period, and by lunch he was on his way to receive the help he needed. The Student Services team later tried to credit me with saving this student’s life–but they were wrong. Ethan saved his friend’s life.
Why did Ethan choose to come to me?
Sure, I had him in class. But I’d also known him for the past few years through our esports program. Through organized gaming at school, we’d build a personal relationship.
Tuesday morning. My alarm still goes off at 6:02 am (still the Kokiri Forest theme). I swipe the alarm off and go for the glass of water that helps me start the day. I check my phone and see a discord notification sent at 11:43 pm the night before by “Gary.”
Hey Mr. Doolin, I’ve been having a few trouble conversations with Jared recently, and I’m concerned about him. He’s told me about a few worrying thoughts of his, so I wanted to tell you about it, to see if we could get him some help.
By 6:07 am, I’d replied thanking this young man for coming to me, affirming that he was a good friend, and sharing that I would seek some help on his behalf.
I again sent the screenshots to the appropriate members of the Student Services team. The student in question was pulled into the Student Services office for a wellness evaluation during first period, and fortunately was in a much better place. But, he was still given a plan to get some help managing his thoughts and feelings.
Why did Gary choose to come to me?
Sure, I had him in class. And, I’d also known him for the past few years through our esports program. We also had built up a strong personal relationship through gaming over the years.
So what’s the message? That I’m an amazing teacher and esports coach?
It pains me to say this, but I am not confident that Ethan had any other adult in the building that he trusted enough with this news. Fortunately, Gary was also heavily involved in one of the performing arts, and I feel that he would have trusted his director with this information, too.
But what about Ethan and Billy? What would have happened if we did not have our esports program? It is well documented that having a single, trusting relationship with an adult in school can massively decrease a student’s risk of suicide.
Fifty percent of students in my esports program did not participate in any traditional sports or school activities (sample size: 2 years, over 50 students each year). Ninety percent of teens play video games. Offering an esports program and/or a gaming class can bring these missing students back to your school–back under your umbrella–where you can form those trusting relationships. And, most importantly, be the adult that kids come to when they or their friends need help.
Neal spent eight years teaching all levels of mathematics from Intervention Algebra through AP Calculus BC as well as General Physics in Overland Park, KS. Neal founded his school’s esports program in 2018 and was the head coach for three years. Neal was fortunate to be selected as his school’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, 2019 Master Teacher of the Year, and for a 2020 University of Kansas Wolfe Family Teaching Award. Neal is now the Director of the Platform Success department for Generation Esports and serves as the secretary for the High School Esports League Board of Directors.