How to Build an Esports Community

esports community
(Image credit: Future)

Esports provides a perfect opportunity for students to build community and friendships, play, and learn in a hybrid model or even completely virtually. 

Community, at its core, is focused on social identity and is where a person develops a sense of who they are based on their membership and affiliations with others, said Tunisha Singleton, professor of psychology at Fielding Graduate University, during Tech & Learning’s recent Leveling Up: Esports & Education Conference & Expo. 

“It's very much clear tribalism at its finest, us-versus-them at its core,” said Singleton. “With the evolution of media and technology, it's crucial for us as educators and tech leaders in this space to adopt this belief that technology shouldn't be used as a replacement of human connection. Rather, it should be intended to boost it, and should be complimenting it with convenient fun and original ways for us to engage with one another.”

With that also comes the responsibility of making sure that any esports community is accessible to those who are ordinarily marginalized, said Singleton, and that there is some level of media literacy and digital ethics, and that is also rebranded in a way that's positive and indicative of the learning and connective opportunities that are provided for it.

Singleton and other educators involved in esports discussed the key aspects of creating a safe, diverse, and inclusive gaming community.

Watch the full session here 

Key Takeaways

Defining an esports community. When it comes to defining community, Rudy Blanco, Director of Entrepreneurship and Gaming Programs for The DreamYard Project in New York City, recalled a conversation with a LGBTQ+ youth caucus group. “We asked, ‘What is our community like?’ and it was like, ‘Y'all are my chosen fam right now,’ and that’s what community was at that moment for that group,” said Blanco. He further defined a community as a group who agree to a relationship in which they can all explore new things, grow together, and support one another. An esports community can also set general guidelines but ultimately needs to be aware of how race, gender, and sexual identity will impact the way rules need to be shifted.

When first creating an esports community, it’s important that everyone agree to a certain set of standards, said Samantha Anton, COO of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). “You know, is there something that we can refer to and say, ‘Hey you doing this is not okay because we've told everyone this and we've given this opportunity for you to learn more about why we do this,’” said Anton. “And then you can also evolve your guidelines so that it makes sense for your community.”

By establishing a set of standards and sharing it with everyone, students and teachers can know what the standards are, and also have a mechanism to report any incidents. “It's not that bad things won't happen,” said Anton. “It's how we respond to those things and move forward that's really important. And if you don't provide a place where people can let you know what's going on, then you're kind of just turning a blind eye to your community on how you can really be making sure that they are comfortable with how things are going.”

Teaching defense. As important as it is to build safe esports communities, it’s also important to empower kids to defend esports spaces, said Chris Aviles, a teacher at Fair Haven School District in New Jersey and founder of Garden State Esports. “We need students to understand what those safe spaces should look like and then what to do when they encounter somebody who's trying to poison that space,” said Aviles. “They need to be empowered and feel brave enough to stand up to them because it's one thing for me to give some PowerPoint presentation about safe, inclusive spaces but it's completely something different when somebody actually says something ignorant.” Those skills can help in defending other competitors who may be victims and serve students in life beyond school. 

Proactive steps. NASEF offers a code of conduct, which is a good starting point for anyone looking to establish standards of what conduct is appropriate and inappropriate. “And then it's really in how you enforce it,” Anton said. “You can't just create these standards for a safe space and say that you’re done. You need to be responsive and invested in it, and constantly changing what needs to be changed.”

Keeping the code of conduct visible and malleable is important, as is having a restorative justice piece, said Aviles. “When something happens, I work with the kids to understand how they hurt somebody,” said Aviles. “And then the big question is, ‘How are you going to make this right?’” Restorative justice practices that exist in traditional education also work well in the esports space.

Giving students the authority of ‘If you see something, say something’ and the ability to protect victims is critical in building an esports community, said Singleton, and part of the process is inclusion. “Not everyone can relate to being female,” she said. “That's why you have to have bipartisan and other marginalized communities get involved at the development level so that everyone can start to understand what's a threat and what is a trigger.” 

“We started experiencing the most change when we started taking esports participants in ninth grade and even middle school, and teaching them our social-emotional values,” said Blanco. Dream Yard focuses on how to moderate these kinds of discussions, how to identify moments of triggers, how to alleviate certain issues, and how to resolve conflict through social justice. “When their viewers are telling them, ‘Oh that was messed up,’ or when the community is telling them ‘Yo, check yourself,’ we've done our job.”

Gaming girls and representation. With the majority of esports participants male, there’s a lot of work to be done to make tournaments a positive, inclusive coed environment, said Anton. “Everything that we need to be doing should be with diversity in mind.” 

Developing a safe coed gaming space needs to be a proactive process, said Aviles, who talked about reaching out to a girl who enjoyed gaming and had two brothers who were already participating in his program. After the girl had a positive experience her first year, she recruited other girls to play the following year. As competitive esports is a relatively new phenomena, patience is key. “It can oftentimes be frustrating and we have to give ourselves time to let those safe space seeds grow,” said Aviles. “Once girls see somebody breaking the barrier, if you will, then they will come.”

That kind of female representation can’t be underestimated, said Singleton. “It has to be intentional, so you can see that others have done, like, ‘Oh snap, okay, I can do it. I too can be a part of this, it might be fun for me as well.’ So it's just about changing that culture, and we have to invite people who ordinarily have just been looking into the space. It's now part of the responsibility of being in this space.” 

“If you are not seen doing this, you can't see yourself doing this,” agreed Blanco. “You can't put yourself in here, no matter how much the media is talking about Ninja, or how esports competitions are making it big time now.” Recently, Dream Yard has started working with young women who are interested in streaming and want to learn the entrepreneurship of gameplay. 

Getting started. “I don't think anyone can really start an esports community just by themselves,” said Anton, who recommends first taking stock of the resources available and your strengths and weaknesses, and then communicate and work with those students and teachers who are passionate about esports. 

If you’re launching any sort of esport program, be sure to check out trustworthy organizations such as NASEF and other school districts, said Aviles. “Not everybody has the best intentions of students in mind,” he said.

Focusing on your values to create a community and an esports environment that reflects that is critical, said Singleton. “How do you actually support diversity and inclusion, what are you doing--show me the receipts!” she said. “This is a great opportunity to now get creative and reimagining and producing curriculum in a space that is way more immersive and impactful and something that can be translated offline as well.” 

Also consider getting started with students who are passionate about tech besides competing, said Blanco. “Esports is so much more than just the game piece,” he said, adding that there are opportunities for camera people, reporters, casters, and other game-related jobs. “Let students come to that on their own and I think that that's the best place to start. Find a way to connect your passion with gaming to their passion, and then just follow it.”

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.