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How the National Esports Association Is Helping Students “Play With a Purpose”

Photo: Courtesy of Shawn Gray, National Esports Association

Lori Bajorek

President, National Esports Association (NEA)

Esports is among the fastest growing industries in the world, as competitive gaming is more than just a hobby, according to Lori Bajorek, president of the National Esports Association (NEA). She sees it as a catalyst for the development of life skills through an online community of inclusiveness and diversity.

“To me, esports is more than a game — it is a pathway to success for our digitized youth,” she said. “Play is learning to a child; it’s organic learning. At the National Esports Association, our mantra is, ‘Play with a purpose.’ So, in essence, I have made play my life’s work.’”

Bajorek has watched the magic of esports unfurl and evolve from a front-row seat. When her son was in kindergarten, she began building a structure around foundational youth activities and formed an afterschool program to cultivate his love for Legos. A few years later, when he became engrossed in Minecraft, she teamed up with Minecraft Education to develop programs and run camps to encourage growth through the game. 

“I loved the concept of how the students were utilizing spatial manipulation and computers at such a young age,” she said. 

As her son grew, so, too, did her involvement in gaming programs, as the move into esports happened organically.

“I started seeing this amazing evolution in using gamification in the classroom and working with partners, such as Microsoft and Minecraft,” Bajorek said. “The challenge, at the time, was a lack of unified infrastructure. We needed to build that pathway to success for esports.”

Formalizing gaming

By founding the non-profit NEA, she could help bring more formality to the gaming pursuit. When she became its president in April 2019, she navigated the esports climate to gauge what gamers and educational institutions needed. A key focus of the NEA is to help schools establish the foundation to get their esports programs off the ground. This often begins with a basic consultation, to learn which games the students want to play and balance that with what school regulations will allow. 

Harrisburg University is one of only a handful of universities across the U.S. to offer an Esports Management, Production and Performance bachelor’s degree program.

“Then we talk about the sports lab,” Bajorek said. “‘Are you playing in your cafeteria? Are you converting your computer lab for this purpose? What games are you actually going to use? Do you have someone who is coaching?’ It’s really developing it all from the ground up.” 

To help accomplish this, the NEA works with a number of technology companies to help develop the labs and infrastructure, where the players and education are at the forefront.

“How do you create that esports structure for teaching healthy gaming habits?” she asked. “How do you integrate gaming into the classroom, and how do you utilize it for the digitized youth of today to become the future leaders of tomorrow?” 

Accessible for all

The National Esports Association works to ensure its programs are accessible to all, without the barrier of a pay-to-play model. Creating the infrastructure for “play for all” is imperative in order to have a truly diverse and inclusive platform. And when all can play, we can engage our youth in an impactful way that stimulates learning.

“Sure, a decade ago, business colleagues and parents of my students all questioned me about the power of gaming, using video games to advance education and creating a community through esports,” Bajorek said. “Ya know what? They don’t ask any more, because they’ve seen the success with their own eyes.”

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