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CEO Interview: The Past, Present, and Future of Scholastic Esports

For today’s blog, we sat down with CEO Dan White to discuss the up-and-coming realm of scholastic esports. Read on for Dan’s thoughts on the present and future status of esports, how educational content fits into esports, and how games like RoboCo work to bridge the advantages of physical robotics with the strengths of digital games. 

What’s the current state of scholastic esports?

Schools still very much privilege physical sports. As quickly as esports are becoming popular, both in and out of school, there is definitely still some cultural lag, to put it mildly. If you pull a high school coach off the street and ask them whether or not their school should have an esports team in addition to their existing athletics teams, you’ll probably see some raised eyebrows. I bring up this initial caveat because everything I’m going to cover should be couched in the context that esports are definitely very exciting and fast-growing, but also a very nascent idea in scholastic realms. 

That said, schools all over the country are getting behind the idea that video games can and should be considered a legitimate extracurricular sporting activity, that esports should be considered a valid event for students to participate in. The initial pull into this space is due to existing commercial entertainment esports games, like Rocket League and League of Legends, among others. To the extent that scholastic esports is nascent in general, the proposition that the content that they play, or the field, if you will, has educational value, that is even more nascent. 

What impact are scholastic esports having today?

Regardless of whether or not the content is explicitly educational, I would argue that esports games all have intrinsic educational value. In fact, at Filament in general, we believe that most high-quality video games have educational benefits, even if it’s not the type of educational value that you typically pursue in a standard K-12 curriculum. A lot of that value lends itself toward higher thinking skills or soft skills, 21st-century skills like collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc.  

I’m very much a believer that teams participating in esports are deriving a lot of benefits from interacting both with the games themselves and thinking about the strategy involved, for example, in a game like League of Legends. Also, they are deriving utility from the interactions they have outside of the game, for example, the teamwork and communication required to play –  I see two layers of value here. 

That brings up the question “what changes when the content is explicitly educational?” For example, when the game you’re competing around is a math game or an engineering game like RoboCo – this is where it gets really interesting. You have all of the educational value of a group of learners collaborating as a team and all of the wonderful soft skills that can be developed there, but then on top of that, you have the innate educational value of the content they are engaging with and strategizing around. But, for example, if I’m a brilliant strategist in League of Legends, some amount of that thinking is valuable to me, but very little of it will translate directly to any real-world applications. 

Is there room for true educational content in the esports space? 

That’s why this idea of EDU Sports, or educational content at the center of the scholastic esports experience, is so powerful. A lot of what the players are doing and learning about in the process of participating as players will translate directly into real-world value. That’s of course the holy grail of everything we do at Filament, and for education at large: if a student is doing something in an academic context or an informal learning context, or even in just an entertainment context, it should also imbue them with skills that matter outside of a game-world and enhance their life in the real world. That’s what we’re after. 

Esports centered around educational game content, for example, RoboCo, has the potential to redefine what it means to participate in extracurricular sports. Because right now, if I join a high school football team, there are obviously lots of physical fitness benefits, there are obviously lots of benefits from a camaraderie and teamwork perspective, but it doesn’t necessarily place a strong emphasis on growing intellectually. With scholastic esports, you could participate in school athletics and have it become a powerful vehicle of intellectual growth. At some point, we’re going to see schools realize that this particular extracurricular activity can be leveraged to that effect. Because right now, schools want to offer extracurricular activities to students that are relevant and engaging to their at-home interests, one of which is multiplayer competitive video games. 

When schools start to realize, and this is what we’re trying to pioneer with RoboCo leagues and other digital robotics leagues, that they can have their cake and eat it too in this respect, I think we’ll see a lot of excitement around scholastic esports that involve games that have intentionally engineered educational value. 

Thinking back to earlier iterations of scholastic esports, “Dimension M” brought math to schools by dividing classes into two teams, and in it, players would run around in a full 3D world and solve math equations while competing with one another in a timed, synchronous, multiplayer space. Say what you will about the core mechanic around which the game was built, which was solving math equations – a lot of kids seemed to be really jazzed about competitive play around an educational topic. At Filament, one of the areas we explore are the different archetypes of players, and there are some players who have a higher affinity for competition, and other players who have a higher affinity for collaboration – so we try to design games to be as inclusive as possible to both groups. 

“Dimension M” was a case study in what happens when you introduce competitive-based play around an educational topic, in this case, grade-school mathematics, and the reception was, as far as I know, mostly positive. There have been a couple of other examples of games that have taken that path, usually, for whatever reason, around the same grade level and around the same subject area, math, but there was definitely early precedent for this being a successful way to engage a significant percentage of students around topics that teachers have historically struggled to engage students with. This, however, did not become a well-established tool for educators. It was a cool idea that showed promise, but never really took hold. I don’t think any time soon we’re going to see competitive multiplayer games around academic subjects being used widely in the classroom, but I think that this rise of afterschool scholastic esports is now the new logical home for the same concept that “Dimension M” and other games like them were exploring in the first place.

The exciting thing about the shift to afterschool means we have “permissions to play” as it were, so we have a lot more latitude to investigate subject areas that are underserved during the K-12 curricular period. That allows us to explore infinite topics that are worth teaching that don’t get serviced in school, for a variety of reasons. Educational game companies like Filament have a real opportunity here to consider content that is otherwise challenging to implement in formal academic environments and schedules, like robotics. 

What are the challenges involved in implementing scholastic esports to realize these advantages?

Scholastic gaming has the potential to suffer from the same inequity issues as other extracurricular activities that have nontrivial material costs. In this case, we’re trading helmets and pads from high-end computers. But this is another opportunity to advocate for scholastic content in sports themselves because games like RoboCo and other EDU sports games often have relatively modest system requirements compared to their entertainment-oriented counterparts. 

Am I advocating for your afterschool esports club to forgo nice gaming computers and relegate themselves to lower-end educational content? No. I’m advocating for this Trojan-horse-style tactic for increasing the educational value of the time students spend engaging with scholastic esports. I think it would be a bad thing to abandon that methodology, because we should start with meeting students exactly where they are, and that is playing games like League of Legends and Rocket League. Yes, there are equity issues when it comes to the costs of high-end gaming PCs. 

To the extent that scholastic esports are more equitable, physical afterschool sports require that students are physically co-located. I don’t think we’re going to see virtual football anytime soon until VR gets really good! Whereas with scholastic esports, there’s no reason why students have to be physically co-located. They can all participate, whether we’re still in the midst of this pandemic, or if some students live far away from their schools and it’s not practical for them to be in-person for every meeting. 

There’s a huge swath of students throughout the history of academics that have been underserved by athletic programs. A lot of people who have a lot of valid interests, abilities, and skills aren’t interested in or aren’t able to participate in athletic programs. Long-standing extracurricular activities like mathlete clubs, choir, chess clubs, etc. – these groups tend to attract a very particular demographic within schools and academic settings, and to the extent that they do that, they exclude a whole bunch of other demographics who are looking for someplace to find a sense of community and a sense of belonging after school is over. For a long time, certainly for my entire academic experience, the affinity space of gaming was pretty much 100% excluded. With the advent of scholastic esports, there are a whole bunch of people who are now finding extracurricular communities that for generations have been underserved. 

How do you see a game like RoboCo fitting into the scholastic esports ecosystem?

Any topic, whether it’s a topic that’s serviced during curricular K-12 – such as math, science, etc. – there’s space for all of those topics to also be explored in a scholastic esports setting. But I’m particularly excited about topics that don’t get any airtime during the school day, and robotics is one of those. Robotics and engineering naturally lend themselves to this format because there’s already this really long-established and deep cultural tradition around sport-like competition in the world of robotics. That’s thanks to the progenitor of robotics as sport, and that is FIRST® Robotics. Over three decades ago, FIRST founder Dean Kamen said individuals who excel at math and science, and engineering should be celebrated as much as individuals who excel at physical sports. Based on that idea, he founded FIRST Robotics and since then, millions and millions of students have been competing across three decades, coming together and building robots to solve challenges and competing at regional, state, and national levels. They had a tremendous amount of success, not only in recruiting kids into this philosophy of robotics as sport, but the program has an incredible track record of success among alumni that graduate from FIRST and FIRST® Global. They have an incredibly high rate of job placement among STEM careers. They’ve proven that it works and that the recruitment rates are a lot better than they are for traditional afterschool sports. Not a lot of high school basketball players or football players go on to be professionals. But almost everyone who participates in a FIRST program can go on to be a pro if they want to. That’s incredible. 

With RoboCo, we’re merging the space between this already well-established and super efficacious culture around robotics as sport that takes place in a physical space and translating that into the digital world. Now we’re exploring to what extent it overlaps with the world of esports at large, and scholastic esports in specific. That is the question that we are actively exploring right now in collaboration with FIRST Robotics and with FIRST Global. There are a lot of things that translate over, but we are also reinventing some rules as well. We want to leverage the strengths of physical robotics without sacrificing the inherent strengths that come with digital robotics. Things like the fact that we can create robotics challenges that take place anywhere, like on Mars. We can create robotics challenges that offer the player unlimited parts. We can create robotics challenges that people can participate in regardless of their geographic location or their school affiliation. We can create challenges that re-create real-world robotics applications, which is a differentiator from the more traditional style of robotics competitions – players can compete in a simulated warehouse environment or a simulated shop environment. We can successfully hold robotics competition seasons amidst the pandemic. Currently, we are in the middle of the inaugural season of a FIRST Global competition which involves nearly 75 countries around the world. Normally, anyone who wanted to participate in that kind of challenge would have to get on a plane and fly halfway across the globe. We’re now able to offer that experience without any of that logistic hassle. There’s this huge list of affordances for digital versus physical, and of course, what we’re trying to figure out ultimately is how do we leverage the strengths of the digital media, the game format, in such a way that we broaden access to this highly efficacious affinity space of robotics as sport. Fundamentally, our goals are the same as they have ever been for FIRST Robotics and FIRST Global, and that is to give youth experiences with authentic engineering challenges that allow them to explore their own interests and skills in STEM disciplines, with an eye toward potentially pursuing those things on a professional basis. 

What does the future hold for scholastic esports?

You can look towards the entertainment esports space to get a sense of where all of this is headed. In my mind, if you step back from esports in specific and just look across the field at how sporting is changing in general, it’s very slow, but it’s definitely changing. You go back twenty years and no one was talking about esports, now they’re quite popular, you go back 50 years and baseball was the great American pastime, and now, we can’t figure out how to get people to go to baseball games! Esports are on the other end of the spectrum – it’s still a niche or even avant-garde at this point, but it’s rapidly growing and it is definitely here to stay. If you zoom out and look at things from a generational perspective, you’ll see that certain sports are gradually on the decline, some are holding steady, some are getting a little bit of market share and are doing so slowly, maybe getting close to their peak – at some point, everything comes and goes. 

With esports, the question is, what market share is it replacing? I do think that over time, esports is going to become a bigger and bigger part of the global sports portfolio, and as that happens, it stands to logic that scholastic esports are going to grow and benefit from that as well. The more excited people are in general about football, the more high schoolers are going to sign up to play football – the same thing is true for esports. I have no doubt in my mind that esports will continue to have a healthy rate of growth in the decades to come. The cool thing is that it’s going to evolve in really unpredictable ways because it’s not subject to the same boundaries or terms and conditions that physical sports are. The pace that physical sports evolve is glacially slow compared to esports, where the field can be redefined constantly, the rules of engagement can be redefined constantly, etc., and it will be in dialogue with both players and the fanbase that these changes happen. I don’t know what that future looks like – I just know that it’s going to evolve far more rapidly than it has for physical sports. 

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