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How Esports Taps the Power of Near-Peer Mentorship

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(Image credit: Unsplash: Jeshoots)

Who: Katie Salen is professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California at Irvine, a member of the Connected Learning Lab, as well as Chief Designer and co-founder of Connected Camps, an online learning platform powered by youth gaming experts. 

What makes summer camp so appealing and memorable for kids? Fun activities and creative or wacky contests are usually central, but the counselors are even more important. Youth love to be led by near-peers who are relatable, fun, empathetic, and challenging.

Esports is proving to be a perfect venue to provide lasting impacts through near-peer coaching and mentorship. Let’s look a little deeper using Connected Camps and NASEF, the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, as an example. The two nonprofits partner to provide coaches to high school esports teams. The coaches are enthusiastic about esports and technology, and they come from top university programs in computer science, game development, economics, sports performance, and design. They’re trained to connect their esports skills and interests to larger-scale personal development work with players. This includes emphasizing the importance of communication, stress-busting, and relationship skills during practice and competitions.  

Finding Shared Interests 

Competitive esports is relatively new, and few parents of today’s kids grew up in the esports world. Coaches can provide valuable support and structure here. They help impressionable tweens and teens learn principles of online safety, positive player behavior, and healthy participation. This also includes safety basics such as carefully choosing who you play with (a benefit of organized leagues such as NASEF with its required code of conduct), not sharing personal data with people you don’t know, and following community codes of conduct.

Students learn how to be good citizens as coaches help them develop team skills, including collaboration and interpersonal communication. They learn to keep emotions in check when they make a bad play or their team loses. They also learn how to acknowledge and celebrate the play of their teammates, or even that of opposing players. This isn’t just better for the team, it also helps the individual become more resilient and focused on being a leader.  

Shared interests are the foundation of these mentoring relationships. Whether it’s laughing together over a popular new meme or speaking the same language about strategies and heroes in a video game, rapport and trust can be built quickly. I worked with colleagues at the Connected Learning Alliance to evaluate findings on young people’s learning as it relates to their relationships and interests. 

The Connected Learning Alliance published this report, which includes: 

Affinity networks open unique avenues for young people to find their people—peers and mentors who share an identity or interest. These networks are tailored to bonding around a specific interest… Learning is transformative and resilient as youth connect with mentors in the context of shared activities and meaningful projects. Supportive relationships and peers and mentors are particularly important in programs serving youth who do not have strong supports for their interests at home, and who are pursuing rapidly changing fields in areas such as digital media and technology. 

Making Direct Connections 

As high schoolers connect with their college-age coaches to learn about esports techniques and strategies, they also gain insight into the future. They can query someone who is just ahead of them about university coursework and the college experience, such as athletic participation, dorm life, and free time. The coach earns trust by helping the student improve gaming skills, then is able to provide meaningful advice in an authentic way. 

Emily Leckie is an esports coach for high school teams through Connected Camps. She says that the first step to coaching or teaching, even in esports, is to find out what’s important to the players. Her role is to impart values such as teamwork, trust, and communication to the youth, but she sets the foundation in what matters to the kids. 

An important aspect of her work with students involves goal-setting. “Understanding what my players want helps provide focus,” Leckie says. “When asked, their responses are usually fairly vague (‘I want to improve’), or specific but with no clear path forward (‘I want to win the tournament’).” She suggests helping players break things into manageable steps to increase the likelihood of success. Here’s more of her advice on helping students with goal-setting as an esports player.  

Building Partnerships and Programs 

UC Irvine has a powerhouse collegiate esports program, and it was the first public college in the country to offer scholarships to esports players. A team from UC Irvine and NASEF worked together to develop an Esports Ambassador program that connects students for near-peer mentoring relationships. 

“The primary thing schools need to focus on is the student experience, both for the college students and the high school students,” says Tyler Ciciarelli, who heads up the program. “Everything can be a learning moment as ambassadors share a commonality of esports and gaming with younger students.”

Here are Ciciarelli’s tips for building quality mentoring connections in an esports program:

  • Make sure all expectations are communicated clearly between the college and the high school. Small things in a college setting could have a large impact at the high school level. 
  • Determine what kind of events the college students or ambassadors will run. For example, livestreams can provide help on a single topic, Discord Hangouts can hold a combination of discussion and gaming. 
  • Set specific times and days for mentors to play games with students. It builds rapport similar to other "big sister/brother" programs in which the two might go toss a football or eat together. 
  • Some of the best programming involves a discussion session of 45 minutes to an hour, then playing a few games of something afterward (while the ambassadors keep the conversations going without students really realizing it). Many games allow people to easily talk while playing; utilize those to have fun while keeping the insightful conversations going. 
  • As with any program involving minors, be sure to train mentors on basic safety policies. Cover appropriate usage of Discord, messaging, and other apps. Be aware of student settings when recording or livestreaming events so that no personally identifiable information is displayed. 
  • Ambassadors/mentors should be fingerprinted or Livescanned. Set policies regarding whether mentors can go to the school or meet students in person. 
  •  Check out Anykey for esports-centric training on diversity and inclusion. 

Partnerships between high schools and colleges can also be leveraged to establish mentoring around career pathways and exploration, research shows. For example, near-peer mentors can be motivators for mentees by helping them to envision what their life could be like if they applied themselves, according to Forbes. Students who work with near-peer mentors are more likely to “value and persist through academic difficulty” and feel more motivated overall, as documented in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Here’s one example of how this is working: the Pennsylvania Scholastic Esports League (PSEL) is the NASEF affiliate for Pennsylvania and is led by Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU). Harrisburg University (HU) and the CCIU have a long-standing relationship collaborating on a variety of student learning projects. Over the last several months, PSEL and HU have developed an exciting partnership that enables both organizations to provide additional opportunities to students and educators.

The HU Storm, Harrisburg University’s varsity esports team, is a two-time National Esports Champion. A mentoring program has been developed that combines PSEL’s knowledge of esports and career readiness at the high school level with HU’s experienced support of college esports teams and programs. Through this growing partnership an Esports Career Day was staged last December, with more than 200 students, educators, and parents joining the event. Attendees heard from professors and students at HU, who shared what it is like to compete at the college level and take classes in the esports management bachelor's program. The high school students in attendance enjoyed getting to hear the student perspective and learn about the internship opportunities and experiences available through esports.

For educators who are considering bringing esports programs to their schools, our experience shows that support from college students as near-peer mentors can be key to a successful program. Their coaching can help build more than game skills, it can provide a foundation for meaningful growth in the process.

Katie Salen is a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California at Irvine, a member of the Connected Learning Lab, as well as Chief Designer and co-founder of Connected Camps, an online learning platform powered by youth gaming experts. She is founding Executive Director of Institute of Play and led the design of Quest to Learn, an innovative New York City public school, which opened in 2009. Salen is co-author of Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning (NYU Press), Rules of Play, The Game Design Reader, Quest to Learn: Growing a School for Digital Kids, and editor of The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, all from MIT Press. She has worked as a game designer for more than 15 years.