The Edge

Building an Esports Program in Your School District

June 15, 2023 ISTE Season 2 Episode 5
Building an Esports Program in Your School District
The Edge
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The Edge
Building an Esports Program in Your School District
Jun 15, 2023 Season 2 Episode 5

In this episode, we talk with Julie Mavrogeorge, who is an eSports Trainer and Ambassador for Fresno Unified eSports League. Julie shares practical, “boots on the ground” advice for how to start an eSports movement in your school or district, and speaks to the future-ready potential for eSports-related careers.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we talk with Julie Mavrogeorge, who is an eSports Trainer and Ambassador for Fresno Unified eSports League. Julie shares practical, “boots on the ground” advice for how to start an eSports movement in your school or district, and speaks to the future-ready potential for eSports-related careers.

Georgia Terlaje: [00:00:00] It's Time for the Edge, A podcast from the Itsty community leaders. If you are an educator, administrator, or anyone in the field of education, this is a podcast for you. Over the next few episodes, you will hear stories of people who are doing the rewarding and at times hard work and education.

And these stories will be brought to you by I Community Leaders. Coming up today, we've got a great guest on the show. We'll discuss starting an eSports program in your school district. I'm one of your community leader hosts, Georgia Chila. I'm a TK five instructional coach, an educator of 34 years, and I'm here with my favorite partner in crime.


Jessica Pack: Yes. Thank you, Georgia. I'm Jessica Pack, a middle school teacher and an ISTY author. I'm really excited for today's episode because we are going to deep dive with a special guest. Julie Maor. , Julie was introduced to us by community leader [00:01:00] Laurel Aguilar Kock, who is also an Isti author. She's a university professor, an education consultant, and all around fabulous individual.

, Laurel brought Dr. Harrison to our podcast a few weeks ago to talk about neurodiverse students and eSports. And after our conversation with Laurel and Dr. Harrison, we kind of realized that we really wanted to hear the voice of someone who has built a robust eSports program from the ground up. So with no further ado, welcome to the Edge, Julie.

Julie Mavrogeorge: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me, Jessica, and Georgia. I really appreciate, , you having me and, , yeah. So little bit about me. I am, , currently in the career technical education department at Fresno Unified. I started out in it, , and then moved over to CTE as we started. Further developing our eSports program, which we started back in 20, , 18.[00:02:00] 

Georgia Terlaje: So, , kind of piggybacking off of it, how did you get started with eSports in your district? Like, what was that sort of origin story? 

Julie Mavrogeorge: So it actually, , started with our then, , our former cto, , Kurt Madden and, , A gentleman from our student engagements, , team, , Holland Locker, and they met and they started talking about, , gaming.

And Kurt had heard that eSports, , was a thing and they decided, you know what? Let's partner together and let's start this. So the very first, , semester was in the spring of 2018, and they had. , every single one of our high schools participate. So we have 14 high schools in our district. We're the third largest district in California.

We have 74,000 students. , and they had, , all 14 high schools participating, , with multiple teams. So we had about 150, give or take kids that [00:03:00] started, , that first season.

Jessica Pack: Well, I know that like eSports in general, it seems like it's something everybody is dipping their toes into, but, , there's not a ton of people who can really speak to sort of the long-term benefits of eSports and how that's really affecting students, , positively. So would you be able to speak to that a little 

Julie Mavrogeorge: bit first?

Absolutely. So from its induction initially, , they just, they thought, you know what? This is something we're gonna get a shot, we're gonna try out. , I didn't start. In 2018, I started in the district in the fall of 2018. , and I was in the IT department, so I was part of the team that helped kind of set up the, the tournament.

We, we are large enough that we host all of our tournaments in person. , and it kind of, eSports brings together all of my passions, which are mentoring, coaching, event planning, program development, all of those pieces. And so I immediately fell in love with it. [00:04:00] And , what we realized is that we were attracting students, , that had never participated in any, any other activity.

Not alone a sport, but not spelling bee or chess club or drama or anything. We were attracting kids that had never. Done anything affiliated with their school and, , a large, having talked to Matt Harrison last week, , you know, we attracted a large neuro diver, neuro divergent population of kids. , and we define neurodivergent students is those that struggle with, , anxiety and depression.

, kids that are, are dyslexic or have autism or adhd. , so it's a, a wider range than some, , , Maybe define neuro divergent as, and, , we are seeing that those kids are participating in, we're participating in our, in our high school, , league. And so we thought, you know what, this is, this is a terrific opportunity for us to reach an untapped population of kids and to help them along.

So [00:05:00] we then, , in the spring of 2020 when we, everybody sh everybody was shutting down on the pandemic, , I had. The privilege of meeting the gentleman who had created the Minecraft eSports world. His name is Steven Reed. And, , he and I got to talking and I'm like, this is, this is amazing. This is something that.

Because everyone loves Minecraft. I play Minecraft with my adult children still. , and so he and I, , sat down and said, okay, how, how can we roll this out? There was one other district in the world that was participating in it, and that was in South Africa, and they had started about six months before we did.

And I connected with them and we, , we decided to launch Minecraft eSports with our younger kids. And so now we had kind of the bookends with our high school students and our younger students, and as I was meeting with teachers, During the pandemic, you know, kids aren't turning their cameras on, they're not, , engaging.

They were just, you didn't know if the student was there or not. And it was very frustrating. And all of a sudden, teachers that were starting to use Minecraft, [00:06:00] not just eSports, but , but Minecraft in general, kids were turning on their cameras. They were engaging. They were starting to, , collaborate and work together and now interested in like actually showing up.

And so then we would just slowly say, you know what? You can teach with the eSports worlds, right? You can, you can have your students build on these platforms with, , a science, , lesson or, , a literacy lesson or a math lesson or whatever. And so we had that first year we ended up. Launching Minecraft eSports officially in the fall of 2020.

And we had over 250 elementary kids, 29 teachers on 26 of our sites that chose to participate. , and it just kind of exploded from there. And so now we're in middle school, so we have the entire K through 12 participating in eSports. , and over the last year and a half, we've decided to grow that from just.

Playing the sport into, , what we like to call the entire eSports [00:07:00] ecosystem. 

Georgia Terlaje: I love, and I want you to talk about the ecosystem in a minute, but I just wanna mention, cuz we've talked about this in the past, that the way, like the people in your district that just started it, like just jumped in, didn't really know, but like, what the heck, we're gonna give it a try.

And it sounds kind of like you did that with Minecraft as well, and I just wanna encourage people that. You don't have to know everything. You just have, you know, the, , the wherewithal to try to start it, and then you find people to be in your tribe to help you do this. And, , , it's great the way that it's built in your district.

That's, that's 

Julie Mavrogeorge: amazing. Yeah. It's, and, and the one thing I. Tell all of our teachers, teachers that are skeptical, a, for using a game, , in their classroom or a game even after school, that's, , that's, you know, on a computer, it's digital. There's not physical activity as far as getting up and moving around.

, what we realized is that. [00:08:00] There are a lot of students that, , that are out there right now that this is their safe space. And teachers right away started noticing that, , especially in our elementaries, they started noticing that, , kids that wouldn't even have conversations, , wouldn't engage in with each other, let alone with a teacher.

We're starting to. Come to life, so to speak, because, , a, a computer screen for some kids is a safe place and, , it doesn't require a lot of social, , interaction as far as like noticing social cues, , or. Or having to really, , interact in a physical way with, with a person, and that that is safe for some kids.

So once students started recognizing, I mean, I'm sorry. Once teachers started recognizing that students were engaging because as adults, I think. Prior to the pandemic, you know, we are, we, me measured [00:09:00] relationship or we measured, , engagement by how the students interacted with us, maybe physically, , or even emotionally, , with us in, in space.

But then when we went into the, the, the digital realm, so to speak, that all went away. And I know myself as a, as a, as a teacher of, I taught adults. It was really hard for me to teach adults. So to have, I can't imagine what it would be like for an adult to teach a child and, and not be able to have that interaction.

But once we gave them the platform of, of kind of an eSport, a game where a student is already interested cuz kids all over the world are playing. Video games all day, you know, or in the evenings, on the weekends. , and once we provided something that was a safe game like Minecraft or Rocket League or , league of Legends or you know, some of the games that are, that are safe for them to play.

And we provided [00:10:00] connection with teammates on a screen or and a coach or a mentor on a screen. Teacher's mindsets, mindsets started to change where they didn't have to know everything. All of a sudden they're realizing that if I just get kids in space, I can learn from kids. I just need to be the facilitator.

I don't need to be the one that is planning out these extensive lesson plans. I can, I can come up with some basic plans, , that meet the standards I'm required to meet, but that the students actually started teaching one another and engaging with one another and teaching the teachers. , and that is what I think is the most, , infectious part of eSports is that, The both students and teachers are learning from one another and the engagement between one another, although maybe not physical, can be just as valuable.

, and especially for students, again in that neuro divergent [00:11:00] population where now they can connect with some, someone in a safe place for them. 

Georgia Terlaje: And I think that's so important that what you mentioned is like teachers just need to take a leap of faith and don't have to know everything, and it's a scary thing.

When you haven't done that before, but the benefits seem to like so outweigh any of the oth the downside of not knowing everything and how cool that your students can teach you something that's empowering to a student. Oh, I taught my teacher how to do this because they didn't know that's. , empowering.

I'm sure a lot of these students, if they haven't done activities, they need some of that, , kind of currency for their own self-esteem. 

Julie Mavrogeorge: Absolutely. And that's one thing that we pull our teachers every year, right? Like, well, how are your students engaging? How is their communication improving? How is their collaboration and their teamwork, , their creativity, , their interaction with one another in the game setting, but also after.

Outside of just practice [00:12:00] or within that game setting. And every year we re they report just an increase an an overwhelming increase in improvement in morale and, and, and not just with the students, but also the teacher. Cuz the teacher gets excited when now all of a sudden they've, they have a new way of, of, of engaging that student and getting that student interested in topics maybe they didn't seem interested in before.

, and then also we also see an uptick in grades and attendance. So a lot of kids, particularly boys, are drawn towards eSports, but some of those boys have bad attendance for whatever reason. Now all of a sudden they're on a T and the rule is if you don't show up that day, you can't practice. Or if you don't show up that day, you can't play in the game.

Well, guess what? They're showing up to school and they're engaging in school. So their grades are also getting better because now they're participating. Cuz we all know that attendance equates to better [00:13:00] grades and now they're finding they're getting. More interested in what it is that they're learning.

, and they're showing up because now they have something to hold onto and something that they can take pride in and something they find value in as far as, , education that, because it's now, you know, I tell teachers sometimes, , you know, I think. We teach, we we're, we're in an era where we have to teach towards a test, right?

And, and that's difficult for students at times. Some students are not good test takers. , but when we find something that that student can engage in and something that that student is drawn to, and we use that, let's say, modality to teach them. Now they want to be there. So once we get students that are really, when we can find what they're, what engages them, right? What platform are that they are excited about learning on, , we can teach those different aspects of, , what they need to learn.

, and they're showing, [00:14:00] they'll show up and they'll, , They'll, be in their seats and they have an eagerness to learn, , as opposed to just, you know, the traditional way of teaching it. It's, it's opening up new avenues and new, new, , doorways really for students that have struggled in the past.

And, and we see that they're, they're struggling less and they're improving as they're moving through our program. , and now we're at about. From elementary, we are seeing where our fifth and sixth graders of three years ago are now in seventh and eighth grade. And, , so we're starting to see where it, the effect that having them in these programs is really having as they're moving, moving up.

And then hopefully here in the next year and a half, we, , we will actually have curriculum. We, we've purchased curriculum that we're getting in the process of being approved, , and getting implemented into, , Our high schools where we're creating pathways, , for eSports, , and more, not just in traditional, like just playing the game, but also in some of those other, , [00:15:00] eSports ecosystem things like we talked about, , or that I mentioned before.

, and we can go into those larger areas, , if you'd like as well to understand what kind of, what we're developing as a whole program here to develop the whole student. 

Jessica Pack: I'm really fascinated by just the aspect of like chronic absenteeism and how this can help mitigate that. Because I think every single PLC meeting or lead teacher meeting or focus group that I've sat in for the last year and a half, that's been an issue that everybody brings up and nobody really has like a solution for.

Cause you know, there are no silver bullets in education, but this sounds like a pretty gosh darn, you know, Great solution that could be part of the puzzle, , to, to fill that in for students. So what would you say for a teacher who's like, You know, starting from ground zero and just wants to get the ball rolling in that direction, where should they start if they're kind [00:16:00] of thinking of this in that context?

Julie Mavrogeorge: So it depends on what grade level they're teaching. Right. , and, and the support that you have from your site and from your administration and your district as a whole. So we were fortunate that we had help from top down. Our superintendent was on board right away, , and he wanted to roll it out district wide.

So, We had that going for us. Most teachers that I talk to, it's a single teacher in a classroom who says, Hey, I see the benefits, or I've heard about this and I want to start it. So if you're that teacher, , you, you don't need any super duper devices. , you can start with the Chromebook. , you could even start with kids' cell phones if you so chose depending on the game that you wanna play.

I am a huge proponent of Minecraft. Because I believe that it is, , honestly, the most, I wanna say comprehensive educational tool, tool that exists, , out there because there's, [00:17:00] there's not a single subject that you cannot teach in Minecraft. , they have lesson plans prepared already. , you can create your own lesson plans.

, you, you can create your own world. You can use worlds that have. Already in the library within Minecraft. , but for starting eSports, all of the worlds are also in Minecraft for eSports. , , there are digital literacy games like, , Sorry, my brain just crashed. There're digital literacy games like Venture Valley, , that teach like business and entrepreneurship.

, rocket League is a, is soccer with cars, , Minecraft or build battles, but there's also player versus player that you can do within there. , knockout city is dodge ball. , and then of course there's Nintendo titles. That Mario Carter or Super Smash Pros, those are all safe games for kids. So I would say choose a game that you know your kids are interested in.

That's step one. Pull your kids, find out what they wanna do. , next. If you have funds available to you within your classroom, [00:18:00] utilize those funds to, if, if your kids say, I wanna play Super Smash Rose, then buy a switch if you can, or, or leverage your, your, , , your school site to help purchase a switch, , for you.

If not, you can use Chromebooks to play Minecraft. You can use, , HP laptops or regular laptop or Lenovo or any, you know, central computer to play most games. Some require a little bit more or a little heavier on graphics and might need a little bit, , better computer, but you don't need that. , So I usually tell people, just try Minecraft.

If you have a Minecraft license within your district, it's free for you to use. , so just start there. , usually I suggest that they start with a club after school, like cuz that's safe. It doesn't interfere with curriculum. So you can start with as few as you know, you need. Pretty much an even number of kids.

So you could have four kids, two on each team, or you know, , the, what you'll find is that you'll end up having 20 or 30 in your classroom if you say you're gonna have a Minecraft club. , and [00:19:00] then you just split the kids in two teams and you come up with ideas for them to build. The worlds are available on mon on the, the library for Minecraft.

You just load one up, you have the kids join and you say Build a Magic Tree house. You will be amazed at the type of magic tree house that your kids will build. Like when I, when I came up with builds for our first year, I kept 'em kind of simple cuz I didn't wanna overwhelm them. They all came back and said, Ms.

Maro, they're way too easy. We need more difficult builds. And these were third, fourth, and fifth and some sixth graders at the time. , and so just say, just start there. , just start in your own class, , after school. , and then if you want to do a, a more official eSports program, right, you need to talk to your administration.

If it's districtwide, you know, you'll, you might have to have board approval, , especially if you're going to pay your teachers and you want to pay them like you would. For, , a traditional sport or athletic team. , [00:20:00] but you just, you, what I say is find that champion at each site. You know, whatever.

There's, we all know those teachers, those teachers that, you know, just have a passion for whatever it is. Like, I can almost guarantee you, you will find a teacher who's like, okay, this is really cool. I see how kids are, are in, you know, How, how inviting this is for kids and how they're interacting with it.

, and I, I especially, again, going back to you'll have kids that have never participated in anything at all. , and, and you'll draw kids that. You would never imagine would be interested, right? Like they'll, they'll come in and they'll sit down and they'll start playing. And if you have a say, I, you know, I always say, sit, come up with, , or, or tap into your athletics department for like that code of conduct and kind of the rules for engagement.

We'll say for, you know, what your GPA needs to be or what your attendance needs to be or that type of thing. , For [00:21:00] participation in extracurricular activities and then just implement that as part of what you would do for your club. , and before you know it, you're gonna, like I said, you'll have 20, 30 kids and you know, you might have four or five teams just as your school, and you can set up a little mini tournament.

It can be done online, it can be done in person, you know, in your class or in a, you know, if you have a bigger group, you could do it in your cafeteria. , and the kids just get so excited about being involved in. Something that they're, like I said, they're already interested in. 

Georgia Terlaje: Right. Like you're, you're speaking their language.

Like you were talking about how that gets kids to come to school and everything. We're speaking their language and that's exciting. That's, that's your poll to come do maybe the hard things that you're really not interested in because I get to do eSports, you know, after school. I love that. , I wanted you to talk a little bit more.

You had mentioned like the ecosystem and just kind of like the future of eSports. , could you speak about 

Julie Mavrogeorge: that a bit? Sure I would. That is where my heart lies. My heart [00:22:00] actually lies in two places with the neuro divergent students who have never had the opportunity to really participate in anything and then also growing that ecosystem that we talk about.

So this last weekend I was able to attend Dream Hack in San Diego, which if, if. You're unfamiliar with what that is? It's an eSports tournament. This, , this season it was the Rocket League Championship series, so it was the winter series. , and it was just so much fun because. You have again, students who, you know, have maybe grown up playing games and now they're on a stage, like literally it was like a rock concert.

, and I say often that eSports is, is much more like a rock concert than it is a sport because it has shout casters. , or commentators as they might be known in a sport, it has streamers, people who are streaming it on the video screens within the arena. It [00:23:00] has broadcasters, those that are streaming it for other people to see outside of the arena.

You have the event planners and the program management. They all have, , nutritionists and athletic trainers that help to keep their, their body and their posture well and having them, , , you know, do exercises to keep their bodies and their hands from cramping for playing for so many for so long. , at the tournament there, they had an entire setup, , within a, , four screen L C D.

22 foot L c d monitors that were suspended from the ceiling, , like you would see at a professional basketball game. Well, that's not there all the time, right? So you have to have people who know how to run that L c D board and put 'em together and put up the scaffolding and the lights, and run the audio and be that audio engineer or that sound engineer.

, but also know how to run the lights to be able to, , have the most, I wanna say the, the crowd experience, right?[00:24:00] , and so that's what we are building towards in our, , in, in our district is we are currently working with our, , arts median entertainment teachers. So kids, , within the graphic design classes are helping to create, , logos, , For the t-shirts and transition, , and overlay objects.

The video production students are filming the events and creating those transitions and overlays for the, the, , broadcast and the stream. So those are, those are the little like, kind of segue pieces where for Rocket League you might see a car kind of rush in and then, , spin around and, and take off like.

During that pause in between the stream, so we have our video protection kids working on that as well as filming the events and creating B-roll, following their teams around and creating documentaries. , we have our photography students who are, you know, taking pictures to be able to, that we can use.

On our websites and our social media, , [00:25:00] we are working with our business management teachers so that our students are, because eSports is a huge business. , there's content creators, there's social media, so there's like in any career that you can kind of imagine, , the same jobs exist within eSports.

And because eSports is new and it's exciting, the amount of jobs that are available. , at any given time, like are, are just out. It's outlandish how many are out there? I mean, it's outrageous. It's when I look at LinkedIn or Hit marker, hit marker is kind of the, the job. Like Monster is for traditional jobs, hit marker is for eSports.

Every day there's a, a, at least 20 or 30 more jobs that are posted from, whether it's individual professional teams or , game developers or , arenas that are hiring for staff. , there's, there's just a, a, an array of jobs that are available [00:26:00] and, , it's un it's just untapped right now. And so we're trying to grow our students to fill those careers as they continue to pop up.

Georgia Terlaje: That's so exciting. , just all the way around. So what, what a great place for you to be with all of these new things happening and careers for students and all those things. We're, , do you have anything else you wanna add before we wrap up today?

Julie Mavrogeorge: Tons of things, but That's okay. , no, honestly. , , what I like to say is if, if you've even considered, like remotely considered running an eSports team, , just do it. Jump in and do it. It's not nearly as difficult as you think it would be, especially as an educator because your students already know it.

They're already doing it. , what you need to do is just be that facilitator, provide the room. Really what most of our coaches are, , [00:27:00] because we rotate our games, so not, you know, coaches aren't. Professionals or they're not, , versed in every single game that we choose. They are the mentor, they're the coach.

The, it's more of being a personal coach and a mentor to the students and opening your classroom and building those relationships and being that positive adult influence in their life. That's really what I see with a lot of our kids and a lot of our coaches. It's not the the technical knowledge that you have of the game that exists.

You can find that on YouTube or with, , you know, some of the curriculum that's out there. You just need to be that champion and, and be that adult, that safe adult for kids that they so desperately need right now. Well, thank 

Georgia Terlaje: you so much for joining us today, and as we wind things up, where can listeners connect with you, , if they wanna continue this conversation?

Julie Mavrogeorge: Oh, absolutely. So I'm on LinkedIn, , Julie, , Maro, Julie Mare on LinkedIn, , or [00:28:00] on Twitter. My. Gamer tag is J OG Mav. , so you can find me on on Twitter as well. , I'm on Facebook but not as much. I spend most of my time on LinkedIn cuz that's where I find most value, , in connecting with other eSports professionals.

, Yeah, and I'd be happy to, you know, help connect, , people to, I'm, I'm kind of a connector, so I love connecting people to resources and networking. And if I don't have, you know, what you need, I likely know someone that I can connect you to, to help you get, , started even in your area, , wherever it is that you are.

Jessica Pack: That is such a great offer for listeners to take you up on. Thank you so much, Julie, for joining us here on the Edge today. This just about wraps up our episode and we hope that you learned something new, or at least were given some food for thought. My name is Jessica and you can find me at PAC 2 0 8 on Twitter and Instagram.

Georgia Terlaje: And I'm [00:29:00] Georgia. And you can find me at Georgia turla on Twitter, and you can find Jessica and I both on storytelling Saves the 

Jessica Pack: On behalf of everyone at Ty's the Edge podcast, remember to keep exploring your passion, creativity, and taking risks, all things that can bring you to the edge.