Teaching Q&A

K-12 Esports Are Blowing Up. This CEO Wants to Take Them Offline.

By Benjamin Herold — June 24, 2019 4 min read
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Competitive esports are on the rise in K-12, with tech companies scrambling to tap into young people’s immense appetite for gaming by establishing school-based leagues and competitions.

Kerwin Rent, however, sees more than a just a business opportunity.

“So many kids are STEM kids. They just don’t know it yet,” said Rent, the founder of Indianapolis-based EliteGaming LIVE, during a presentation at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, being held here.

The company’s numbers are still relatively modest—about 4,100 students in 39 schools in Indianapolis, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., are currently on EliteGamingLIVE’s platform. By comparison, the High School Esports League counts more than 15,000 players in 800 schools nationwide.

But Rent says his competitors are missing esports’ true potential.

First, Rent wants to make sure students get the benefits of competitive team sports, including coaching and sportsmanship development. That’s why EGL doesn’t happen online, he said. All students compete in face-to-face, head-to-head competitions hosted inside participating schools. The company provides all necessary equipment; schools are asked to provide a coach and a physical space.

And EGL isn’t just about gaming. To advance during semester-long seasonal competitions, participants can’t just flex their skills in Madden, NBA2K, or Supersmash Brothers. They also have to complete online learning modules that provide introductions and overviews of the academic pathways needed to get into video-game-related career fields such as audio engineering and virtual reality. Information on what each student completes is shared with parents and school administrators.

The idea is to create constructive pathways for students who often aren’t active participants in the life of their schools, Rent said during his pitch to about 150 educators.

“Everyone’s guessing when it comes to engaging these types of kids,” he said. “This gets schools way closer to identifying their acute interests.”

Following is a transcript of my own conversation with Rent at ISTE, edited for length and clarity.

What are the biggest misconceptions K-12 administrators have about esports?

They think they’re all online. They have this vision of kids playing with headphones in an uncontrolled environment. That’s why EliteGamingLIVE is a bit different. Every game, every match is in person. You get to see your competitors. There’s more opportunity for adults to aid and guide students. That’s the only way students are going to learn how to adapt to social experiences, the only way they’re going to learn how to deal with losing.

How would you describe the state of the K-12 esports market?

There’s a ton of opportunity. But if you focus on just the gaming, you’re missing the biggest opportunity of this entire thing. These are kids that are hungry to be educated, but they don’t even know what they’re interested in. Anybody can make a competitive league and sign up tons of kids. The long-lasting aspect of it is educating kids on careers and getting those kids in a pipeline.

How do EGL’s learning modules work?

Right now, it’s about 90 percent online. Initially we developed them all in house, but now we work with tech professionals who are doing this stuff in real life, and we also have partnerships with universities that have helped us build our curriculum.

Why did you decide to add those modules to the competitive gaming?

After seeing the numbers of kids we were getting involved and how long those students stayed focused on our events, our initial schools said, “Hey, is there any way we can implement an educational component?”

What’s the gender breakdown of your 4,100 student participants?

Mostly boys. I think that’s a marketing thing, and as esports continues to evolve, female gamers will start to catch up.

How do you make money?

The cost per school varies by territory, but it’s usually around $4,000 to $4,500. Some schools bring in the PTA or parents to help cover that.

You’re very focused on making sure this is real competitive sports, not just an after-school club or class activity. Why is that so important?

Most school leaders initially do not get that. But we want kids playing against each other, sitting next to each other, meeting new people. We’ve had kids in wheelchairs, kids with learning disabilities, playing next to football players. They’re next to people they would never interact with in the day to day of school.

What’s one big thing you want administrators to know about K-12 esports?

Over 70 percent of your kids are already playing video games. You can leverage that. You just have to package it in a way that kids understand. You’ve got this huge opportunity to move the needle.

Photo of Kerwin Rent by Benjamin Herold for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.