Have you thought about starting an esports program in your high school, but don’t know where to begin? Have you pondered how much starting an esports program will cost and/or what technology you need to get a program started? You are not alone! Four years ago, I was given the task of creating a districtwide esports program and am now in my fourth year as the head of esports for Wichita Public Schools. Getting started included hours and hours of research to determine what technology would work best in our schools and how we could keep costs down to make sure the program was sustainable. We have learned a lot throughout this process, and I’m happy to pass on some of our lessons learned to help others get started.
Console vs. PC: One of the first things you’ll want to address is whether students will be gaming on computers or gaming consoles such as Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendos. Computers are going to be a larger investment, but you’ll get access to so many more games, along with a lot of free games. You’ll also want to consider what games your students really want to compete in. If your students are really wanting to play Super Smash Bros., for example, then Nintendo Switches would make sense. In Wichita, we started gaming on PCs, and then we slowly began to add consoles to the program to introduce more games. We initially decided to go with a PC model due to the large amount of free-to-play games. In addition, most college programs and pro teams have a PC model, and we wanted our students to have the opportunity to earn college scholarships. The other nice part about a PC model is the machines can be used for CAD software, video editing, computer graphics, and so many other things. A nice gaming computer will run those programs with ease making it great for a high school environment. A gaming PC is going to run anywhere from about $800-$2,500 depending on brand, amount of ram, graphics card, and amount of storage. Obviously, there are gaming machines much more expensive than $2,500, but for what is needed in a high school program you can find some good options in that $800-$2,500 range.
Laptop vs. PC: Another way you could get esports started in your school is with a gaming laptop model. Having the ability to easily transport the device, and potentially let gamers check them out, make gaming laptops a nice option for a school program. As our program has continued to grow, we have started adding gaming laptops. We went with HP Omen laptops, and this gives our students the option to compete anywhere. I have been very impressed with the graphics and performance of the HP Omens. There are many options for gaming laptops, HP, Dell, Acer, Razer, MSI, Asus, and Alienware to name a few. A hard-wired connection is always recommended whether on a laptop or PC. I foresee us transitioning our schools to a combination of both gaming desktops and laptops. We will use the desktops for competition and laptops for practice and competing off-site. Gaming laptops range roughly in the $800-$2,000 range.
Accessories: There are so many accessories in the gaming market (gaming controllers, gaming mice, keyboards, specialized controllers, headsets, etc.) that can really create a large cost to a school district. In our district, we started with standard PC mice and keyboards to keep costs down. We purchased headphones with a microphone as part of a package deal with our PCs. This was a great way to keep costs down on headsets. What we found out was a good portion of our competitive gamers already had their own keyboard, mouse, headphones, and controller. We did start out adding about five gaming controllers in each lab, but we want our students to learn how to game on mouse/keyboard, not just a controller. Similar to a baseball player bringing their own baseball glove, this is a way we were able to keep costs down by not buying controllers and special gaming mice and keyboards in the beginning. A lot of our schools have purchased sets of gaming keyboards/mice, and some even have received donations. We have now added a limited number of controllers at our schools for games such as Rocket League and Fortnite. Controllers range anywhere from $30-$250.
School Filters: One major thing to keep in mind before starting an esports program is making sure that you have a solid IT team on board as there will be a lot of setup in the beginning. What I’ve learned is that school filters are good at keeping things out; but with competitive gaming, there are many things that have to be opened up in order for the games to run properly and connect with other schools for competition. Many of the games require certain ports to be opened and websites to be whitelisted in a filter. In our district, we created an esports IT team, which has been integral in the success of our program.
Graphics Cards: This is a big decision you’ll have to make when choosing computers for your esports program. Graphics cards are not my area of expertise, but I was lucky enough to have a great team to help choose which model to go with. I recommend doing your homework on this one. Nvidia and AMD both make great gaming graphics cards. We have had huge success with the Nvidia GEFORCE RTX graphics cards. AMD has some excellent products as well, which we use in our laptops. There are so many different models out there that the card you go with can make a significant difference in the cost of your gaming computers. It can also make a big difference in the performance of the machine. The better the graphics card, the better the gaming experience, so this is an area to discuss with your computer vendor prior to purchasing.
RAM: Another aspect you’ll need to consider is the gigabytes of RAM you want in your computers, and this can also have a major impact on pricing. I have had good luck going with a machine that has 16 gigabytes of RAM. I think this is the lowest that I would go, but 16 or 32 gigabytes of RAM are the options that I would look at pricing when determining the machine for your esports program. I would steer clear of 8 gigabytes of RAM.
Gaming Desk/Chairs/Lighting: When creating an esports lab, I think it’s so important to add the full experience. If you’re going to invest in an esports program, you are going to want to create a space that the students can’t wait to get to. We have tried to accomplish this by building labs with gaming chairs and desks that match the school colors. We have used LED strip lighting to give the labs an almost arcade feel. Respawn makes some really nice gaming chairs in the $200-$300 range.
Storage: Another thing to consider when purchasing gaming PC’s or laptops is the amount of storage the machine has. The size of games have gotten really large over the years, and you want to make sure your machines have plenty of storage for optimal performance. Obviously, the more storage, the greater the cost, so this is another element you would want to price with your vendor. In our high schools, we decided to go with 1 terabyte of storage which has been more than sufficient. At our middle schools, we went with 500 gigabytes of storage because we have less games approved at the middle school level due to age ratings of the games. There is a significant difference in the price from 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte, but make sure and assess your games and growth model before opting for the smaller storage.
With all of the technology options available, it can be overwhelming when trying to start an esports program. Every esports program should be unique to the needs and goals of an individual school or district. One thing to remember is that your students are an excellent resource when building an esports program. Many of your serious gamers really are experts in the field and having that grassroots buy-in can have an immediate positive impact on your program. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions regarding technology in esports. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.