Even before four sixth-grade students approached middle school administrators this fall to gauge interest in their school hosting an esports tournament, South Fayette school leaders were already working on a plan to bring organized, competitive video gaming to Lion Learners. The request by those middle school students confirmed what district administrators already believed – esports can foster teamwork, critical thinking, and inclusivity.
South Fayette Middle School Associate Principal Dr. Kevin Maurer is leading the district’s charge into the esports arena. Students who compete in video gaming are not in their rooms, isolated from others. Rather, esports fosters teamwork by bringing students with a passion for video games together in a supportive environment that builds STEAM-based skills and social-emotional attributes, according to the North America Scholastic Esports Foundation. Those attributes, including communication, collaboration, and problem-solving abilities, are what students need to thrive in school, careers, and life.
The work to bring esports to South Fayette began with Dr. Maurer; Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships Dr. Matthew Callison; and Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Dr. Chuck Herring touring esports labs in local school districts and at Robert Morris University. These visits along with a meeting with the Pittsburgh Knights esports team and a membership through Vanta Esports meant it would be “Game On” for an esports incubator project at South Fayette Middle School this school year.
Those four Lions who were interested in a school-sponsored esports tournament are now members of the eleven-player South Fayette Middle School esports team. During a 12-week season, the Lions compete against students from schools across the country in Rocket League and Super Smash Brothers in Vanta League play. The weekly matches are hosted in a middle school classroom that has been transformed into a makeshift esports lab, complete with gaming chairs, monitors, and lights. For now, students compete in the matches using their own gaming devices.
Dr. Maurer said the program has quickly created a community among the eleven participants who have skills and interests in gaming. The Lions wear their esports jerseys to schools on match days. The middle school’s screen printing club even made South Fayette Esports t-shirts.
“Esports provides a safe, structured environment where our students are players and teammates,” Dr. Maurer explained. “That’s what makes esports so special. It’s competitive, but it develops so much more than just skills in a game.”
Dr. Maurer, who also serves as the team’s coach, said he can already see the growth that has taken place in the first group of esports players.
“Students have varied skills in gaming, and we can meet them where they are, work on those, and develop them further,” Dr. Maurer said. “The unique part of the program is that I can focus on leadership, teamwork skills, overcoming challenges, and character development all while the students are gaming.”
Gaming also holds incredible post-secondary education and career potential. With more than 100 colleges and universities having their own esports teams including 23 in Pennsylvania, high school students who participate in esports are receiving large and sometimes full scholarships. And careers in gaming extend beyond e-athletes. Content creators are graphic designers; team managers are responsible for marketing, logistics, public relations, and talent acquisition; esports broadcasters work on and off camera; and talent agents represent a growing number of esports professionals.
District administrators hope to expand this incubator project both at the middle school and at South Fayette High School in the near future. Dr. Maurer also hopes to get into league play against local school districts to tap into those western Pennsylvania sports rivalries.