Digital Pioneers: The World of Esports

Through digital literacy skills, collaboration and teamwork, two intermediate schools in Ōtautahi Christchurch are equipping tamariki exciting new ways to dream of the future.

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At Wairarapa Cobham Intermediate in Ōtautahi Christchurch, a small group of students are crowded around a desk. We’re talking about Esports – the extracurricular activity they’ve been taking for the past year. When asked what they think they’re learning on the programme, they don’t hesitate.  

“Architecture, mostly. Also, a lot of teamwork.”  

Esports – short for electronic sports – is a form of competition using video games. While generally accessible to students at High School (with over 250 Secondary Schools currently partaking in Esports across the motu) a couple of passionate teachers in Ōtautahi Christchurch are determined to make Esports an option for their intermediate-age students. Over the last few years, they’ve been hard at work – engaging with various organisations and individuals across the city to take their internal programme to the next level.  

These teachers are part of a collective of schools in the North-West of Christchurch named Waimairi-iri Kāhui Ako. The collective formed in 2012, with the aim of moving away from individual institutions and services to enhance collaboration and innovation between the schools, and pool resources.   

Steve Morgan (Wairarapa Cobham Intermediate) and Haley Taylor (Breens Intermediate) are Digital Technology teachers leading the Esports programme for Waimairi-iri Kāhui Ako. In a sense, they are pioneers – tackling a raft of challenges so their students have the opportunity to enter the world of digital sports. It’s undeniably a passion project – but, as Steve puts it, “You see the benefits for the kids, and it’s worth it.”  

Wairarapa Cobham Intermediate Esports students

Haley and Steve first started their journey with Esports a few years ago. “We were talking about it, we had dabbled a bit in the classroom – and at some point we checked out a secondary school competition. We thought, let’s do it. Let’s make this happen for us.”  

How does it work?  

Esports is a relatively new – and rapidly growing – space for schools across Aotearoa. The aim is to provide an inclusive and protected pathway for students to compete, with a focus on physical, digital, and social wellbeing. 

“Esports gives students the opportunity to compete outside the traditional sporting choices,” says Steve. “There are lots of reasons for students choosing Esports. For some it’s their passion, or they just love the atmosphere. For others there may be physical or social barriers that prevent them from joining other sports. Kids with physical disabilities, kids who might be neurodivergent. It’s very accessible in that sense.”  

Breens Intermediate

In Esports, students generally work in teams to complete a challenge. The roles and opportunities are varied: as well as competing players, competitions also require game managers, ‘shoutcasters’ (who are essentially commentators), MCs, event organisers and a production crew working to either livestream or manage the events locally.  

We generally try to incorporate whatever they’re learning in school. So, in the past our focus has been ‘Kupe and the Giant Wheke’, and the kids built a giant wheke (octopus) in Minecraft.

“The challenges or themes can be absolutely anything. We generally try to incorporate whatever they’re learning in school. So, in the past our focus has been ‘Kupe and the Giant Wheke’, and the kids built a giant wheke (octopus) in Minecraft. Or we’ve also looked at Waka Hourua – the style of double-hulled waka that Kupe would have travelled to Aotearoa on. And this year we’re doing Red-Zone Recovery – asking the students to imagine and create a building for an empty plot,” says Haley.  

For Waimairi-iri Kāhui Ako, the programme is currently run as an extracurricular. Since its inception, Steve and Haley have progressed from in-school Minecraft competitions to competing at Kāhui Ako events, and from there, wider community events like the ‘Build Ōtautahi – Minecraft Build Challenge’ as part of the Innovation Expo 2023, held at Te Pae.  

“The Build Ōtautahi challenge was awesome,” says Haley. “It was the biggest event our kids had ever seen – 200 kids from 17 schools, all working in a giant Minecraft digital world based on the city of Ōtautahi. The challenge was to create sustainable buildings that could take the space of vacant lots left after the earthquake. In the buildup, we spent the term researching sustainable design, looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and basically reimagining what Christchurch could look like.”  

‘Build Ōtautahi – Minecraft Build Challenge’ at Innovation Expo 2023, held at Te Pae.  

“It was really cool,” says Benji*, one of the year 8 Cobham students who took part in the challenge. “The best part was at the end when you finish, and you get to see what all the other teams made. At the start you think your idea is the best, and then at the end you realise it was definitely not the best. It’s crazy what some people think of to make.”  

The pushback 

Of course, labelling competitive video games as a sport is not without controversy. For people outside the Esports community, it’s easy to picture dark rooms, the oppressive hum of computers and an environment that generally fuels many of the negative stereotypes around gaming.  But as Steve and Haley are quick to point out, that’s really what the issue is – negative stereotypes; not grounded in the reality of what Esports can be.  

“It may not be the sport in the traditional sense of swinging a bat or a ball, but Esports has all the hallmarks of any other competitive sport.” Says Steve.  

“Players have to know their particular job and how to do it well, they have to read the game and adjust and adapt on the fly, they must be able to reflect and critically analyse their performance and then practise and train to improve in identified areas. And that’s before you even get started on the soft skills involved – it’s all about teamwork.”  

Haley agrees. “It’s amazing to watch them in action. They have to learn to collaborate, to compromise. If they encounter challenges within the game or have disagreements over their idea or vision – they have to work it out with each other in real time.” 

Breens Intermediate students with Digital Technologies teacher Haley Taylor

It’s also about creating pathways to a booming industry. New Zealand’s video game studios earned $434.4 million during 2022 and has been growing 26% on average over the last five years. It’s a globally connected industry, with 95% of the sector’s digital exports enjoying international audiences.   

Just like any other sport, kids with passion for it should have the opportunity to get involved and see where it takes them.

“These kids are gaming. It’s part of their world. Some of them might grow up to have amazing careers in the gaming industry. Just like any other sport, kids with passion for it should have the opportunity to get involved and see where it takes them. And with Esports they can learn how to play respectfully – with safe boundaries in place – along the way.”  

For most of the kids in Waimairi-iri Kāhui Ako, Esports is something they do alongside traditional sport – basketball, cricket and badminton seem to be crowd favourites.  

“We don’t encourage them to be inside, sitting on computers all day – obviously,” says Haley. “Esports is just a small part of their school day. But for some kids, this is the best experience they’ll have of being part of a team, working towards a common goal, learning to cope with loss and failure and all that essential stuff.” 

Is Esports a boys’ club?  

Esports is often regarded as a male-dominated space – and the gaming industry as a whole is widely criticised for breeding a culture of sexism. While it’s true in the sense that only 30% of professional video gamers worldwide identified as women in 2022, the tide is hopeful as 48% of participants of players identified as female in New Zealand in 2023 – the highest figure since the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association began their research.  

Breens Intermediate students

And back in Ōtautahi, the girls team look nothing short of bemused when the notion of Esports being a ‘boys club’ is pitched to them.  

“No way. Heaps of girls play.” Lana* tells me. “And when we went to the Innovation Expo, we got to go downstairs in the breaks and look around, and there were heaps of girls there. They were doing, like… drones, robotics, and all this other stuff.”  

Lana first started gaming with her brother at home. At school she picked up Esports, and it wasn’t long before she roped her friends in to form a girls team.  

“No way. Heaps of girls play.”

“At the start it was a few boys,” says Steve, “but now we have way more kids than we can facilitate. Everyone wants to come and do it. Partly it’s because you don’t actually have to be an expert gamer – you basically need one person that knows Minecraft, and the rest can pick it up along the way. Some don’t game at all, they take on one of the other roles – some of them just love to be shoutcasters and bring the hype.”  

Potential future pathways in the digital technology and gaming space also includes artists, programmers, producers, animators and game designers. Perhaps in the years to come, with this next generation of budding digital technology and gaming industry tamariki, we’ll also see the faces of senior leaders in game studios shift. 

So what did it take to set this up?  

To say Steve and Haley’s Esports programme has been a community effort is something of an understatement. Both teachers are quick to point out that there’s no way they could have got to where they are now without a lot of help along the way.  

“You have to be passionate. We’ve both spent a lot of personal time setting this up and have had a lot of support from others. It comes back to the equipment, building a safe network infrastructure for the kids to play on – the sheer time involved.”  

Breens Intermediate

One of those supporters is Wilj Dekkers, a teacher turned Digital Fluency Consultant and Educator who has supported the programme from the get-go. They first came across Wilj as a PLD facilitator, and quickly got talking about Esports. 

“Steve and Haley had the idea – but they needed the gear to pull it off. We looked at their devices and what they had across the schools – then I put them in touch with Esports Ōtautahi and the Library Learning Centre. The Library had a bunch of old PC’s that were essentially going to be recycled, and I was in the fortunate position to have a contact at Council – so working with Danny McNeil from the Library Learning Team – we pitched to have those computers be donated to Esports Ōtautahi for schools to use.”  

“Unfortunately, that’s often what it comes down to. Logistics and equipment. The system has been built around the concept of ‘Bring Your Own Device’ – which is financially restrictive. We know there are schools out there that want to do it, but don’t have access to the tech required.”  

It’s been a community effort, with charities like Great Christchirch School’s Network stepping up to provide additional support, says Wilj.  Like Steve and Haley, Wilj is clear there is a fair bit of passion required from the individuals supporting Esports programmes for younger students. He laughs about the Te Pae event, where beforehand he and a group of volunteers stayed up all through the night to get ready for the Expo.  

But to Wilj, the benefits of Esports just make sense. “If it’s done in moderation and it’s constructive – it’s like any sport. And it helps these kids develop positive online behaviour – they learn to think about loss and failure in an online setting. They understand it’s a game.” 

Esports is great like that, as it’s all about working in team – not about being solo online. We talk lots about how to keep each other safe.

The idea of nurturing safe and positive online behaviour is top of mind for Steve and Haley too. “In our classes and lunch-time activities, we’re actively emphasising to the students how to talk to people online in appropriate ways, and discussing why it matters to only chat with people you know – it helps that we have them working online in groups rather than being alone. Esports is great like that, as it’s all about working in team – not about being solo online. We talk lots about how to keep each other safe.”  

Undoubtably, these are valuable skills for tamariki growing up in a digital world – and who will ultimately be entering a global workforce that looks vastly different from the one we know today. Understanding the basics of internet safety, recognising and evaluating trustworthy information and sharing content online are not just nice-to-haves, but are essentials for a world that spins on technology.  

Digital Technologies teacher Steve Morgan at Wairarapa Cobham Intermediate

Although – as Haley and Steve are quick to point out – these kids are already well ahead of the game. “Teachers probably struggle more with digital literacy than the kids do! They know more than us already. That’s why it’s so important for teachers and adults to continue to challenge themselves, push their skills and not be afraid to get immersed in the things kids do. If we want to support them, we need to get on their level and learn from them, too.”  

Any advice for those interested?  

For schools or teachers keen to dip their toes in the water, Haley and Steve have some great tips to share.  

“Start off at your own school. Figure out what will work best for your teams and build from there. Next, look for local competitions that allow players to get a feel for competing – as there is a big difference between playing against each other, and playing against other schools’ teams in competitions. There are events that run across the year within most communities.” 

In terms of equipment, there are several options out there. Steve and Haley started off with school Macbooks and iPads, but for those who want to step it up a notch, Steve and Haley suggest looking for charitable trusts and local council libraries who may be able to help out. In Christchurch, organisations like Esport Ōtautahi offer great information and advice on how to get up and running.  

When it comes to student care – like any other sport, players can over-train or over-play. Moderation is the key. Limited screen time is a must, along with engaging students in planning, and discussing their approach prior to and post playing.  

Wairarapa Cobham Intermediate student

“In some ways, the game itself is almost irrelevant,” says Steve. “It’s really about strategy, and collaboration – how to work together to achieve a common goal.”  

Where to from here?  

For Esports to be thriving at Intermediate level, there’s still a fair way to go. First and foremost, Haley tells me, the kids need a more diverse range of age-appropriate games. “Currently we have Minecraft and Rocket League – which are great – but beyond that it’s pretty sparse. The older students have a much wider range of games to choose from that are suited to their age level.”  

Wairarapa Cobham Intermediate Esports programme

“Our big vision would be to have competitive Esports running as an option for Summer and Winters sports for intermediate aged students across Kāhui Ako, and across Aotearoa,” adds Steve. “This would be hugely beneficial for students who want the opportunity to compete outside of the traditional sporting options. And we’d love for our kids to be able to have other schools to practise with!”  

And of course – there are always the E Blacks, the national team that represent New Zealand on the international Esports stage. 

“You never know,” Steve grins. “Our kids could have it in them.”  

Indeed, they could. And if there was a budding E Black among them, why shouldn’t there be a pathway to nurture their potential? 

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