The Battle of the Boroughs: A Win for Education and Esports

battle of the boroughs
(Image credit: Mashfiq Ahmed)

On June 12, hundreds of New York City students, educators, families, and esports enthusiasts converged on the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in Manhattan for the finals of the first annual Minecraft Education Battle of the Boroughs-Mayor’s Cup. The event was a culmination of a months-long competition in which 2,000 students battled in their individual boroughs to advance, using Minecraft to reimagine New York City with inclusive, future-ready city spaces. 

Competing face-to-face in teams of five, students tackled challenges facing the metropolitan area by designing such amazing features such as more inclusive community centers, environmentally friendly structures, safety improvements, and much more. Along the way, they got to showcase their critical thinking and collaboration skills, as well as explore the critical issues affecting them and their communities–all while enjoying the fun of esports. The top teams from each borough advanced to the finals.

“We developed some scenarios and tasks for the students to compete and their build challenges were all around sustainability and environmental conservatism,” says Randy Asher, Deputy CIO, School Planning, Modernization, and Partnerships, for NYC DOE. “And then as the kids did this, there was a cycle for research and then a period of time, but a live build and then a period where they had to present their work, which is also an important skill set and some of what we want to prepare them for an industry.” 

At the finals, the five borough champions competed in the junior and senior divisions as their classmates, families, and friends cheered them on. The day also included notable speakers and gamers, a vendor zone, college and career information, a DJ, and prizes.

The 2023 Battle of the Boroughs-Mayor’s Cup winners:

Senior Champions (Grade 6-12)
John Dewey High School in Brooklyn

battle of the boroughs

(Image credit: Mashfiq Ahmed)

The Block-Hampton team from John Dewey High School was one of the more experienced teams going into the event, having started as a Minecraft club during the pandemic. “Originally, I just made it as a way for kids to de-stress and relax,” says coach and chemistry teacher Mashfiq Ahmed. “After school, they would log in on Minecraft and socialize because they didn't really have that opportunity during remote learning.” From there, it grew into an esports program that also does charity fundraising, professional development, and even has presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

Despite that experience, participating in the Battle of the Boroughs final was surreal, says Ahmed. “I remember my kids walking into the Intrepid and seeing the stage and all the computers and the audience, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, this looks so professional!’”  

Even with the pressure of the live crowd, shoutcasters, and other competitors in the space, Block-Hampton rose to the occasion, displaying strong creativity and attention to detail. “What really blew me away in particular, and I think what blew the judges away too, was in their build they had this one little community center building, and they decorated the interiors with such detail and information about different cultures, which was one of the themes in the prompt,” says Ahmed. “They had chalkboards describing the different food and everything about these different cultures, and each floor represented a different continent–you had one for Europe, South America, Asia, etc.” 

The team also included accessibility features such as charging stations for electric bikes and a hydroponic fountain. “It was amazing,” says Ahmed, who acknowledges that he was very anxious awaiting the results. “And then they announce the winner and they say our Brooklyn Block-Hampton team and at that point . . . I think there's like footage of it all over Twitter of me just screaming and reacting and jumping in the air. And I ran to my team, who was all the way on the other side of the stage, and we started hugging, and they're crying and screaming and stuff. Like that was like one of the best moments of my life, witnessing that. It was just so memorable, with the loud music and all these people taking photos, somebody came up to us with a mic for interviews, and it really felt like we won the Super Bowl or something! All that was missing was just like confetti falling from the sky.”

Junior Champions (Grade K-5 Division)
58's Shining Stars
P.S. 58R Space Shuttle Columbia School in Staten Island

battle of the boroughs

(Image credit: Lori Ann O'Connor)

The all-female P.S. 58's Shining Stars, led for the day by assistant principal Lori Ann O'Connor who was standing in for coach Staci Balice, built a sustainable, accessible, resilient, and equitable world on a ferry that incorporated transportation that would not contribute to poor air quality. They used red stone to create power hubs for their world, and had electric buses, bike lanes, charging stations, walking paths, an area for service dogs, edible gardens, and a lot of trees and plants to filter air. They also incorporated water features to serve as air purification systems, while buildings and streetlights were powered by solar energy. 

Following their win, students met with elected officials, local media, and vendors, and went home with a trophy, certificates, Xboxes, customized game controllers, and other gifts. They also won LEGO kits and Microsoft gaming memberships for their school.

“It was a great day for P.S. 58 and our borough,” says O’Connor. “We are so proud of this winning team! They truly are shining stars.”

battle of the boroughs

(Image credit: Lori Ann O'Connor)

Building Partnerships 

The event came about as a result of a partnership between New York City Mayor Eric Adams, NYC Public Schools, Minecraft Education, and C40’s Reinventing Cities initiative. It also kicked off New York City’s inaugural Summer of Games festival, a series of gaming events to showcase the city’s growing gaming community and industry. 

Multiple divisions across the NYC Public Schools also had to collaborate to make the event happen. “I think the fact that it was a collaborative multi-divisional effort is also something that we want to celebrate,” says Asher. “Sometimes when there’s multiple divisions involved, that's a little hard to coordinate, but all the teams worked together really seamlessly. And that was a powerful piece of this.”

Asher also credits his vendor partners for stepping forward on the day of the event to provide computers, gaming chairs, displays, equipment, and more. “Whether it was the controller or a bag of merchandise or a chair or some token or whatever, that they were giving to the students is appreciated because there's no requirement to do that,” he says. “But it was a nice gesture and helped bring kids together and feel like they were a part of something.”

Building Learning and Career Opportunities 

In addition to the obvious focus on problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills, using esports and a competition such as this creates numerous opportunities for students to build skills in other areas. And Minecraft, in particular, can be a really powerful learning and teaching tool, says Asher. 

“It's the one we chose to work with because it's got such a flexibility among different grade levels and what students can learn using it,” he says. “So for us, it was really a good opportunity to really extend opportunities for more kids. And that's really what this is about. How do we give them a chance to compete in something that they might be doing anyway? Kids are passionate about this, but when you start working at a competitive level and start working with teammates, you learn a new technique to do something and you learn a new skill or you want somebody who found a more elegant solution to something you were trying to solve for. And that becomes iterative and it becomes a learning process.”

The learning opportunities weren’t restricted to the competitors. In addition to direct participation, students were involved as shoutcasters (esports announcers) and other support positions that can become career paths. 

“There are all of these industry pipelines that you can enter from so many different lenses,” says Asher. “You can be on the design side or the interface side, or you can be the guy behind the scenes coding, or you can be doing the game graphics.”

Students weren’t the only ones learning. “Originally I started this for the kids but I've learned so much from them through this experience,” says Ahmed. “I've learned to embrace game-based learning and edtech more in the classroom because of it. And it was really cool because Minecraft in particular, so many kids are familiar with it. And I always tell teachers who might be hesitant, you’ve got to leverage that student expertise, which is really powerful because they don't usually get that opportunity in the classroom. It gives them some agency and accountability and when you put them in those roles.”

At the end of the day, the event was a terrific success for all involved, even those students who didn’t walk away with the championship.

“Not everyone can win, but everyone can learn,” says Asher. “And that's kind of the joy of this. That's the kind of outcome we were hoping for.”

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.