Esports: A Phenomenon Enters the Mainstream—and ELT

Wondering how the new experimental card will upend the Overwatch meta? Can anything stop G2’s dominance of LoL’s Summoner’s Rift? Have no idea what any of this means? It’s esports—and it’s becoming the next big thing.

Welcome to another edition of the TESOL games and learning blog! This month, we’ll explore the world of esports, unpacking what it is and what it could mean for your classroom.

What Is Esports?

Esports is video gaming formalized into competition similar to traditional sporting events. Esports teams compete inside of video games with the rules of that competition having been established by a governing body. These governing bodies are often established and managed by the publishers of video games, such as Tespa, controlled by Activision-Blizzard, or College League of Legends, managed by Riot Games.

Those new to esports often assume the games played are digital forms of traditional sports. Games such as the Madden series, or NBA 2K do have active esports communities, but the scope of esports is much broader and involves digital card games like Hearthstone, real-time strategy games such as StarCraft, and multiplayer online battle arenas like Dota 2.

These competitions frequently involve teams from around the world competing in tournaments with massive prize pools. The Dota 2 championship The International 2019 prize pool topped US$34 million dollars. These prize pools are bolstered through corporate sponsorships for teams such as Honda partnering with esports powerhouse Team Liquid and luxury brand Louis Vuitton creating custom clothes for characters in the game League of Legends. Since the early days of informal competitions hosted in basements and gaming stores, esports have bloomed into big business.

What’s the Background of Esports?

Esports have always been a part of the gaming cultural landscape, with informal events organized by players around their favorite games. The rise of broadband Internet in Korea in the early 2000s fostered an early esports scene, which formalized with the creation of the e-Sports Association. The association cemented Korea’s role as the home of esports and provided a direction for its growth. It also anchored esports as a truly international activity that attracts players from around the world to compete with, and against, each other.

The rise in online games and Internet infrastructure of the 2010s further pushed esports growth as more games moved online and competitive play was able to be streamed through websites such as YouTube, Twitch, and Mixer. These streaming websites provided esports the infrastructure it needed to reach mainstream audiences with video game celebrities like Fortnite player Ninja landing exclusivity deals in the millions of U.S. dollars.

Are Esports in Education?

Esports research firm Newzoo predicts that the industry grew to over US$1 billion in 2019, and with that growth comes a burgeoning new media industry with jobs as diverse as esports event organizer; esports management, game design, and development; broadcasting; and journalism.

High schools and universities are responding to this industry growth by investing into esports facilities to aid in student retention and student engagement. Many of these universities are now offering scholarships to players and coaches, creating opportunities for students to attend a U.S. university and play video games.

These collegiate and professional teams can often be highly diverse, with English serving as the matrix language for esports events. Champion Team Liquid in the 2017 Dota 2 made history for winning The International with a team roster of five separate nationalities: Finnish, Jordanian, Bulgarian, Lebanese, and German. In esports, this diversity is frequently the norm, with players of all backgrounds and cultures coming together to compete in the games they love.

ESL/EFL educators can leverage student interest in esports to foster motivation to learn English by finding room in course assignments for students to discuss and share their love of esports. Students can submit audio/video journals where they teach a specific aspect of a game like Hearthstone or League of Legends. During tournaments, such as the current Overwatch League, students can practice writing news stories about the teams they follow or create strategies guides to teach new players how to play. The possibilities to incorporate esports into the classroom are many—if we dive into what students love by letting them teach us.

Until next month, play more games!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn
Jeff Kuhn serves a split appointment at OHIO University, working for the Office of Instructional Innovation and in the Games Research and Immersive Design (Grid) Lab. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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