When Pong debuted in 1972, few could have imagined how profoundly gaming would impact modern life — least of all in the academic world. Today esports is not only big business (with revenues predicted to surpass $1 billion this year), but it has also evolved into a powerful tool for students and teachers alike.

“Today, esports is big entertainment — it's more than just playing video games,” says Joshua Kell, CEO of Horizon AVL System Integration, a company that works with schools seeking to integrate esports programs into their curriculums. “One of the biggest benefits is team development. We're now giving students that typically may not be a part of traditional sports an opportunity to work together collaboratively, build strategies and feel a part of a team.”

Applicable benefits

One enthusiastic supporter of esports is computer hardware company Acer. “Participation in esports programs encourages critical thinking and leadership skills, and can lead to career pathways outside of being a gamer, like game design, shoutcasting, event management, network management and marketing,” says Nidhi Nayyar Tassone, commercial marketing manager at Acer America Corporation.

There are also tangible academic and financial benefits. There are now 125 college varsity esports programs in the United States, and more than $9 million in scholarship money.

The strategy

It’s little wonder that so many elementary and high schools want esports programs. But the challenges can be daunting. Kell and Tassone offer a five-step outline for schools and IT managers to follow.

1. Use best practices

“Some of the best practices include setting up guidelines around club participation for students similar to traditional sports (GPA, attendance, eligibility criteria to qualify for clubs or teams, behavioral guidelines, etc.),” says Tassone. “This ensures that an academic expectation is set for participation, just like any other sport.”

2. Start with a club

Clubs can be the seed for a formal program. “Somewhere along the line, football was just a club, a bunch of guys playing the game to enjoy it,” notes Kell, “You need to start with a club or a team, because without that, you can't build the curriculum around it.”

3. Have a roadmap

“The industry is ever-changing,” warns Kell. “Games are coming and going, and there are 10-15 different types of leagues. There are schools right next to each other that can't play each other. What does that do for scholarship opportunities? We have to think about esports in that broader sense.”

4. Think about standards

Kell also advises schools to think about their standards. “Right now, esports is the Wild West. In basketball or football, the field, the court has a set of dimensions — it’s not the same in esports. That's one of our initiatives with Acer and their Predator line, from a hardware standpoint. We've been working with Acer to develop this education commercialized product so schools can come in to a standardized machine.”

5. Get buy-in

Finally, Tassone stresses getting buy-in from above before moving forward. “The traditional rules of engagement do not apply to esports when it comes to procurement, student engagement, IT network management, etc.,” she says. “You need acceptance that this is a non-traditional format of student engagement and training.”

The payoff

The effort is increasingly worth it. “Technology is obviously not going away,” Kell observes. “Gaming developers are only adding more games and recruiting more and more people. In the next two or three years, you're going to see esports sanctioned in almost every state. You're dealing with an industry that's growing exponentially.” And with it, opportunities.