Enriching Esports: Four Years Of Research Findings On NASEF
By Prof. Constance Steinkuehler, University of California, Irvine

Over the last decade, competitive videogame play or “esports” has emerged as one of the fastest growing spectator and participatory sports for young people on a global scale. Viewership of top esports title competitions now surpasses that of traditional sports, with the viewing audience of World Championship events such as League of Legends now dwarfing the size of viewing audiences for more traditional sports, particularly among youth. With this rise in popularity, so too have the number of university and high school varsity and junior varsity programs risen.

Across the United States, youth esports programs are also on the rise, becoming the latest opportunity to engage students in school-affiliated league competition and, in some cases, club activity. Most youth esports programs are school permitted but out-of-classroom or offsite, leveraging students’ interest in esports as a means to connect socially but not as a means for teaching and learning or for more targeted development of career-oriented or social emotional skills. While youth programs overwhelmingly tout the potential benefits, intellectual or otherwise, of such programs, to date relatively little is known about their actual empirical outcomes.

This presentation describes a novel esports program for youth with academic, career and social-emotional learning built into its design and the student outcomes that result for this "enriched esports approach. Launched in 2017 in California and now expanded across both North America (United States, Canada and Mexico) and, increasingly, countries in Asia and Europe, the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) takes a very different approach, using esports as a trojan horse for connected learning (Ito et al, 2013) – learning that connects students’ personal interests with academic, career, and civic achievement as well as with a network of mentors and peers that can support and amplify that learning and build relationships between young people and the broader community as a means for affiliation, recognition, and opportunity.

Here, I describe the research rationale of the NASEF program, its club structure and explicit goals, and then empirically detail findings from four years of research on student outcomes as a result of the program. Qualitative and quantitative findings across four years of investigation highlight student gains across domains including STEM, communication, social-emotional learning, 21st century skills, and relationships with school and with adults and mentors are highlighted. Here, I discuss the growing evidence for academically enriched esports programs and contextualize the apparent effectiveness of enriched esports in the broader frame of reference of game-based learning, interest-driven learning, and authentic practice in education.

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