Building an esports program? Answers to 7 key questions

Mike Dahle, the builder of one of the top scholastic esports associations in the country, talks startup needs, leadership, student culture, academic tie-ins and of course, playing.
Mike Dahle

Mike Dahle was teaching business education at Arrowhead Union High School in 2014 when one of his students gave an unexpected presentation in class. It was on The League of Legends World Championships.

It triggered some fond memories for Dahle, of being in seventh and eighth grade, playing video games Diablo II and StarCraft. He started doing some research and was floored at how much the esports space had evolved. He saw an opening for a tournament and asked his students if they’d be interested. They were.

At the time, there were only a handful of teams in the area even playing.

“I remember reaching out to principals or the athletic directors and saying, hey you guys have a team,” Dahle recalls. “They’re like, no we don’t. I’m like, you do. You have a team that’s competing on your school’s behalf. They’re like, no we don’t. OK, I guess I will go elsewhere then.”

Dahle marched out on his own, giving his kids a place to socialize and play in his class. There were Friday pizza nights, where kids would bring $5 to play. 60 of them would show up. They’d bring in TVs. One of them was underneath a printer desk. “There’d be four kids under a table so they could play whatever video game they wanted.”

But esports was so much more than that in his classroom. It was an education. Dahle brought in a curriculum piece and paired it with game time, securing approval through Project Lead the Way, which allowed students a chance to learn about game design and programming.

Competition arrived soon after. Dahle’s kids received an invitation to enter a tournament at Robert Morris University, along with three other Wisconsin schools. The setup didn’t go well from the start with multiple forfeits. But it worked out fine in the end for Dahle. He and the other schools decided to form a coalition. That group began what is now the Wisconsin High School Esports Association.

Dahle is now its president. The league has grown to 65 teams … and they are expecting around 100 or so to compete this year. It’s an amazing story, like most around esports.

In those years, Dahle has learned many lessons being around scholastic esports. We asked him to share some of his insight, experience and guidance in navigating and building a program from the ground up, both at the high school and college level:

What are the most important first steps in getting an esports program going?

Survey students to figure out where the interest is. It’s important to understand what the culture is like at your school to help dictate where to go. A lot of people entering esports, they see League of Legends, and it’s a huge player base. But that may not be the title to go with. You can’t force students to migrate esports titles. They play what they like to play. Figure out what’s passionate on your campus and let that be your driving force. It’s important because it’s going to identify what type of equipment that you’re going to need, what space and technology requirements that you’re going to need to have. Set goals and objectives and create a code of conduct for what your program is going to look like.

How are you going to define success of your program? For a high school, for me, it was to build an inclusive environment that welcomed all students, that didn’t deter anybody. It’s a place for anybody who loves to play video games can come and play video games. It builds that connection and community to the school and has a lot of positive impacts as students get involved in school life.

What about college programs?

Establish a culture. Students are there for academics. If they’re going to go pro, they would have already gone pro or been on the radar for pro teams. Define expectations as far as behavior, attitude and even time management. If I was a program director, there’s mandatory study hours, where you can come into the esports facility but you need to spend two to three hours that day studying and that’s an expectation.

I would be setting up morning workouts or something along those lines. Nothing super rigorous but just enough to keep your body in shape and your mind focused so when it comes to competition, you’re mentally there. Defining those expectations is really important in the beginning. It’s just like teaching. You can start the semester really, really strict and loosen up over time. But if you start too loose, you’re never going to corral the students into a strict environment after that.

Once that’s been established, what are some of the other things you need to start building?

For high school specifically, understand where they’re at as far as a competitive level. There are some players that like to play the game with their friends, and that’s what they’re there for. But if this is for fun, there still needs to be some sort of contract for accountability and responsibility to show up for match day. If they’re not really super competitive, maybe that team should be in JV. If they’re really competitive, host tryouts for positions.

I’d also identify other students who want to get involved beyond just the game. Do they want to do social media, graphic design? Do they want to hop on broadcasting or get into the production side? There are so many other opportunities beyond just the game. Figuring out how we can support those students as well in their interests, I think is really important.

What is the value of having that educational tie-in to with the esports program?

I think it’s huge. There’s so much more to esports than just becoming a pro gamer, or just playing the game itself. We can help create real-world skills in a classroom and use esports as the driving factor. In my spare time, I’ve actually started to outline a skeletal structure of esports curriculum that I would love to try to help get schools involved. The end goal is to put on a live event, whether that’s a huge event or just something like small within your school community.

How important is it to find that right instructor to start a program?

It’s pretty vital. I’ve actually identified three types:

  1. The zombie. They’re just a body in the room. They don’t actively engage with the student or take an interest in what they’re doing. They’re literally grading papers or writing lesson plans or just shopping on their computer. “The kids came to me and they wanted to do this. So I’m here in my room.” That doesn’t help us grow what we’re trying to do. That means students aren’t being held accountable. They’re not showing up to matches or checking their email to coordinate with other advisors. That really sets us back. Imagine if a football coach was like, go ahead you’ve got 60 minutes to play these guys. Good luck. You need somebody that’s engaged.
  2. The knight, or the champion. They have no background in any of these games, but they are there to promote and help students succeed in this space. They’re taking an interest and helping hold them accountable and working on behalf of students to make something positive happen for them. That’s the one I would really like to see everybody take on. At the very least be the champion or knight.
  3. The coach. They have in-depth game knowledge. We’re going to get to the point here soon where a lot more educators have a gaming background. They’ll actually have a background in some of these titles that they can actually coach. They can actually understand the finer mechanics of the game. They themselves can play. We have a teacher in Wausau who is a Rocket League coach at the tech college in his area because he himself was a high diamond or champ level player.

How important are having good student leaders?

I manage a Discord of about 900 teachers and students, and we have student moderators because they’re passionate about it. They’re active, they’re engaged with this community, and they’re also trying to help push and promote positive things, which is awesome to see.

For colleges, I’m often asked, what type of student are you going to go recruit? And I’ve told them, to be honest, I’m not going to go after the player with the highest rank or the most years of experience playing this game bemcause with that comes a lot of ego, a lot of toxicity, depending on the game. They don’t necessarily have leadership ability. They have the time and ability to sit and grind and get better. But that doesn’t mean that I want them to be my team captain or the one that’s receiving a partial scholarship. I want somebody that I can build a team around, because if they are a leader, they’re going to be able to pull those up around them.

I really don’t care if you’re grandmaster or challenger rank. I want somebody that I can build a team around. I’m trying to build a positive experience within the education system. I have no patience for toxicity or some of the egos that some of these students have developed online.

Should you be thinking big when just starting out?

You don’t have to have all the bells and whistles. You don’t need to invest in a million-dollar esports arena. Students just need a designated area that they can call their own. Marian University, right up the road from from us, they have five computers in a little side room. There’s nothing on the walls. They’re not $3,000 high-end rigs. They’re just HP computers that have a 980 GeForce graphics card. And that’s enough. That’s their connection to the community.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration and University Business. He is also the program chair for the Academic Esports Conference and Expo.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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