Discussion on Mental Health and Esports with Chase Christensen

healthy gaming Apr 29, 2022
Discussion on Mental Health and Esports with Chase Christensen

Claire LaBeaux and Chase Christensen sit down to talk about mental health and esports

[00:00:03.550] - Claire LaBeaux

Well, I had an opportunity recently to meet Chase Christensen at a conference, and I was so impressed with his team and the way they competed. He has a unique perspective into esports and the benefits. So we're sitting down today just for a quick chat so that he can share some of his insights. I should introduce myself. My name is Claire LaBeaux, and I'm the director of communications at NASEF, the North America Scholastic Esports Federation. And we're a nonprofit that brings esports programs into schools. And our objective is not necessarily to have the kids game and play and be the best possible gamers, but to help them develop career pathways and interests and also to develop personally and create an environment in school that's inclusive and welcoming and where kids are learning how to be their best selves so that's a quick snapshot of NASEF and Chase, why don't you go ahead and just tell us your title, where you work a little bit about what you do.

[00:01:08.930] - Chase Christensen

Hi. My name is Chase Christensen. I'm a mental health therapist. I work for Palm Springs Unified School District. I work for a couple of middle schools and an elementary school, mainly providing mental health resources therapy specifically for the schools where there are identified needs. But I have taken on some other projects as well, and that's kind of why I'm here today.

[00:01:36.840] - Claire LaBeaux

Okay. So one of those projects is a middle school esports team, which I have the chance to see them compete at a conference recently, and they were so excited to be there. They're middle schoolers doing esports and being recognized as experts or top players. Right. Because they're invited to this conference of adults and they get to show off their stuff. So tell me what it's like for those middle schoolers to have an esports team at school?

[00:02:03.830] - Chase Christensen

Yeah. Well, it's definitely something that was going against the trend early on because we have definitely worked at getting it at the high school level, and it's something that's been accepted more at that level. But at the middle school level, it was kind of us breaking ground, trying to work through a lot of barriers just because it's something that wasn't really thought of as something that can be done at the middle school level. So getting through that was an interesting experience. And now that we've kind of laid that groundwork, we've seen it definitely blossom and grow into something where we have multiple different schools we can compete against. Even talking to schools outside of our district for competition to really help the middle school level get more recognition on the esports landscape.

[00:02:59.150] - Claire LaBeaux

How do kids feel about having an esports team? Well, first off, what titles do your students compete in?

[00:03:06.230] - Chase Christensen

Oh, yeah. So the games that we compete in right now are Super Smash Brothers, and the other game is League of Legends so those are both competitive. One is very team-based, whereas the other is more one on one situation. And we've also competed in Rocket League in the past. So those are the three that we've had the most experience with. But getting to your other question, how do the students feel being able to do this at the middle school level mainly really jazzed and pumped up about it. The demand and the response from the students when we first officially started running this in 2019 at the middle school level were very strong. We had more and more students show up every time we would do an open Invitational type of thing to see which students were interested. And we've been able to field a team every competitive year in both of the games that we focus on and had an extra interest on top of that to have kind of bench players, as it were, or extra people on the team to fill in if someone's not able to make a certain match. So just that level of drive from the students and that level of interest has been really surprising and pleasantly surprising so far.

[00:04:34.890] - Claire LaBeaux

That's great. And I had an experience talking to a parent at CUE at the conference that I met you where your team was playing, and she was saying thank you so much for offering this and having this happen because her daughter was with her and she said, my daughter plays traditional sports and that's where she connects. But my son hasn't really had a place to connect before and now all of a sudden he's gaming with these other kids at school and now he's building connections there. And she was so appreciative, it kind of took me aback, honestly, because we're definitely breaking some stereotypes right, by having esports in the schools. And so there's a learning curve sometimes for parents and administrators. But she was so grateful. And I'm just wondering what kind of benefits you have a unique lens because you are a mental health specialist. What kind of benefits do you see for kids in having a place like this where they can belong at school?

[00:05:35.990] - Chase Christensen

Yeah, it's a really good question and topic to bring up. I just really quickly want to say I've been a therapist for about 14 years, so I've been doing this for a while, seeing all different walks and how schools kind of tackle some of the behavioral issues that they have. And this isn't the end-all, be-all in ways to tackle behavioral and emotional issues, but I've really found benefit with some of the kids who maybe have poor social skills and have that struggle with connection but have this interest to really benefit from a program like this. Not just that they found something that they're interested in, but helping them out with feeling more confident in school, helping them feel like they have a sense of belonging, destigmatizing,  a huge destigmatization of some of these students because their interests might be more what someone would call focused interest, that they may not appear to fit in with some of the kids who are into traditional esports or, sorry, traditional sports. And this really helps destigmatize those kids to feel like they're part of a group and a sports team that fits what they're interested in. And there's nothing really that we can find that replicates that exact thing for those students with those heavily focused interests.

[00:07:03.330] - Chase Christensen

So it's been a privilege for me to see from my perspective as a therapist how we can reach specifically those kids and just the greater population of the students who have an interest and also have some emotional struggles. I have a couple of examples of that. I have a student that was screened to come in for me for therapeutic services, and he also happened prior to me knowing that he was going to be screened for these services to have an interest in joining the esports team. So when I saw him walk through my door with his mom, I said, oh, hey, you. I didn't know that was you with that first name. I just thought it was a coincidence that you're on our team, but it was him. And I talked to him and mom, and I said, I want it to be his decision if he's going to choose one or the other because, in my job, I can't really have what's called a dual relationship so I can be the therapist. I could be their esports coach, but I can't really be both because that's a conflict of interest. And this student with some coaxing, to mom said, I'm going to choose the esports team and we're going to see if things get better with the emotional struggles and everything.

[00:08:25.480] - Chase Christensen

And that student is now one of our starters. He's been a player-coach before. He's respected on campus. He's fit in with a good group of students. Mom doesn't have any complaints. And I'm not saying that's all esports, but I definitely think that he lived up to his end of the bargain in that scenario.

[00:08:48.390] - Claire LaBeaux

That's awesome. That's great to hear. Yeah, that's really cool. You mentioned something about having kids has that recognition in school that they've never had before. And I remember being on campus one time and talking to kids in an esports club, and they told me that they're winning the match the previous day was on the announcement, and they were so excited because that was like the pinnacle for them. And now all of a sudden their peers did kind of look at them like, wow, this is legit what you're doing. And I think that's so important for students. So, you have League of Legends and Smash Ultimate, how do you possibly coach those? Like, describe a little bit what coaching means in the school esports environment because those are two different titles.

[00:09:38.170] - Chase Christensen

Oh, yeah. Very different titles, very different focuses. To give you the one-word answer, it's challenging, but we have myself as a coach, I try to focus a little bit more on the League of Legends side. There are team aspects to that, and then I have another teacher who is also a coach as well, and he focuses a little bit more on Smash. We both do both, but it's nice to have that specialization. But just to answer your question of how that gets done, we have an interest in the games ourselves, and I think that when we show interest and enthusiasm, it also helps the students grow past the entertainment point to the challenge point of the esport because it's fun to go inside of a room and play a game for recreation and to have that be an aspect in your life to relax. But when these games are being played competitively, there is adrenaline. Just like in a regular sport, there is competition, there's drive, and there's talent. And to reach those parts of the game, you're going to have to push yourself. So when I'm interested in the game and I show them, hey, I can show you these skills or these tricks, then they push themselves.

[00:11:03.660] - Chase Christensen

And so it's kind of a feedback loop where it rewards itself as they push them, and I kind of show them new things. So specifically League of Legends is extremely team-based. And to win a match of League of Legends, you're basically going to have to communicate. You can be extremely talented and win without talking to anyone. But if you want to win consistently and have over 50% win rate, communication is key. There's communication all over the game with pinging areas of the map, and everyone converging on objectives and using their skills in tandem with each other to defeat the other team on the map. They call it the rift. So to be able to do that, there's just massive amounts of communication needed in that game. So I find that from my perspective of my job to be something that I'm drawn to when wanting to coach esports, that's cool.

[00:12:08.380] - Claire LaBeaux

And that's why I was thinking that a lot of the feedback that I get from coaches in different places is part of it is the game skills, but a lot of it is the teamwork skills. And that's so, for many kids who are competing, especially your students a little bit younger, this might be the first time they've had a coach teaching them about teamwork or how to respond to a game, how to not tilt right, not fly on the handle goes wrong. So, those are all applicable. And maybe that's a question for you. How do you see what kids are learning in their Esports club or team? How do you see that translating and benefiting them in the real world?

[00:12:50.260] - Chase Christensen

Yeah, well, just the first answer is there's a direct translation to the learning those competitive moments, the communication and then translating that to a sport in real life if they go to basketball or another competitive sport and they have that same communication from the coach about you need to push yourself doing this and that, just running these drills and practicing that they're already familiar with the benefit to that. So they practice it in the esports and they get good at it with the esports, hopefully, move on with it in the esports. But if they don't, then when they go and join a volleyball team or a basketball team or football team, they at the middle school level have already heard about the benefits of this communication, the benefits of the practice, and repetitions. And so the coaches don't need to continually drive that into them. They already know. But I'm sorry. The other part of your question again was could you restate it for me?

[00:13:55.250] - Claire LaBeaux

Sure. So you talked about translating those skills from esports to other Esports, and then how about taking those skills from Esports and then how do those benefit these students, for example, in the classroom or just getting along with others in your neighborhood or that kind of thing?

[00:14:10.750] - Chase Christensen

Yeah. First of all, I think that the social skills aspect can't be overstated. We have students that in a traditional environment struggle with rooting for someone else, focusing on others than themselves, and just kind of that teamwork level of communication. And because we have two different teams, we have a Smash team and we have a League team. If one makes it to a Championship, but the other doesn't. We have a built-in crowd where the people are cheering the other ones on and taking interest in something other than themselves. It's like we're taking interest in the Smash team because they moved on to the next round of the playoffs or the higher level of competition and we can cheer them on. So that aspect of teamwork and not just something that's self-fulfilling, like, oh, well, I'm just cheering for my guys because we're doing good. It's a nice environment to have the teams support each other. It's almost like a JV team and a varsity team, each supporting the other at a high school level. So that feel has been nice. But I mean, other skills, definitely the confidence to get through the classes know that they can achieve a difficult class instead of saying, hey, well, I have a low grade in my study skills class or my Avid class, so I'm just not that good of a student.

[00:15:43.170] - Chase Christensen

It can help with confidence, too. Yeah. I wasn't doing that great on the team. I was one of the bench players. I wasn't a starter. I worked my way up. And just like that, I can achieve in this class, too. It's not going to be easy. No one's going to hand it to me, but I can see it as a challenge rather than see it as an obstacle or a mountain that I can't overcome.

[00:16:07.050] - Claire LaBeaux

That's really cool. I'd imagine that the teamwork aspect is helpful, too. I know a lot of especially high school classes and assignments now are project-based and you're working with other kids on a project, and if you haven't ever been on a team before, that's hard to do. So it seems like those skills might translate also as you get into some of those school projects and learning how to work with others.

[00:16:33.030] - Chase Christensen

Yeah. The other coach, his class is more STEM and more tech-focused and they do lots of things like, hey, you have to figure out all the circuits on this board to make this light go on. And they do it as team projects. And absolutely, in a class like that, I would say 80% of their assignments are team-based assignments and projects and forcing them to communicate more. It's only a benefit for the kids who've gone through the esports because they were familiar with this more team-oriented approach and they feel comfortable rather than feeling like, hey, this person didn't do this part of the assignment and that person didn't do that part. They can communicate more at the beginning like, hey, I'll take on this role because we definitely do the same thing in esports.

[00:17:25.710] - Claire LaBeaux

Yeah, I've heard it described in different I've heard it described as Stem skills or soft skills. Communication, collaboration perseverance teamwork. Those are all things that are developed through esports and that's kind of eye-opening for a lot of people. They don't realize that. I think a lot of people still have the vision of kind of the old school, like kids sitting alone in the basement and they don't realize this is entirely different. Let's talk for a second about doing something in a school environment that's beneficial, too. What are your thoughts on that? And again, looking at this from your perspective and your job and your training, what are the benefits of participating in training not just at home, but in a school setting as well?

[00:18:13.650] - Chase Christensen

Yeah. Well, just to really quickly kind of touch on it, again, it gives a team-based feel at the school. We happen to be lucky enough to walk home with a trophy during the season. One of our competitive esports for League Legends and the people on the campus, as you said, there was an announcement on the overhead. We brought home a trophy in a banner. And the school I work at is a charter school. So we don't get a whole lot of trophies just due to the population size. So in the trophy case, it's one of the few trophies that's in there is one of the esports ones. So. That school setting benefit was really apparent. There were people cheering the students in as they walked in after the bus dropped them off. That's so cool. Yeah, it was a really awesome moment. We took some pictures with the lander, with the kids, had them sign it. You talk about something that helps them feel included and be a part of the mainstream. That was it right there. But just having Esports clubs on campus, I think is just a beacon for some of the kids that may not be considered for other electives and other after-school activities.

[00:19:32.280] - Chase Christensen

So for that level of school engagement, I can see the benefit of having something like this across the other middle schools, the ones that haven't considered it yet. From my perspective as a therapist, I see some correlation between some of the students that I work with social skills issues and some of the kids who want to be interested in Esports and then seeing the benefits from my job without breaking types of confidentiality. I see some of the students that may have been identified in the past that I have worked with and gone through a session with, and maybe they've worked on some things, but they're not at their top-tier social skills yet. And seeing those students go through the program afterward, go through some Esports afterward, and feel more at ease socially. If I could just put it into one sentence, like they just feel more at ease socially to engage with other students, strangers here on campus, and their friends, that's awesome.

[00:20:41.040] - Claire LaBeaux

I'm just thinking as a parent, how much that would mean when you see your kids struggling, your heart is just how can I help? How can I make a difference? So it's really cool. Again, it's just so unexpected that it's Esports that can help do that. I love that

[00:20:58.180] - Chase Christensen

Yeah. I think one of the interesting things is that we tend to stereotype Esports as to it's going to attract one type of student, one type of gender, and being able to break some of those boundaries. We have a consistent female presence in our Smash team and in the competition that we had at the Q conference, we had one of our female players play on the team as well. So on both sides, actually the other side, I noticed that yeah. They were also had female representations. So, things like that really help as well because I think parents, teachers, and administration might stereotype in their heads of what they expect the population they see to be interested in Esports. And the reality, right.

[00:21:50.710] - Claire LaBeaux

Yeah. I saw someone had bookmarks that they were handing out at the conference and it said Esports, the E is for everyone. And I was like that. I love that. That's so cool. We actually have a little section on our website that say Esports is for everyone and try to focus on that. There are a lot of girls who love to game and it's great to provide a safe, inclusive place for them and not just girls for everyone. I love that, I guess. Last question. Do you have any advice again, kind of combining your role as a coach and a mental health therapist just for families whose kids are interested in Esports? This is going to turn into two questions or schools that are interested in adopting a program. What are your thoughts on that?

[00:22:43.420] - Chase Christensen

Yeah, good question. For the parents and for the students that have potential interest and may also be looking at behavioral or emotional struggles. I think that esports can be a pretty good catalyst for that student, that client, if I would use the word client, if they were someone that I've worked with to have like a lynchpin spot where they can say, hey, I'm going to go on this path or this path and giving the student or client that agency to say I'm going to choose Esports and mom, I can or dad both. I can show you that I can gain some skills in it, maybe work on my behavior as well, have some positive emotions associated with being part of this team and turn some stuff around in the home and in school. And the worst-case scenario is maybe they need down the road to reevaluate and say, hey, this wasn't the thing, this wasn't the club to join or the sports team to join. That helped me turn my behavior around. So let's go the alternate path. But I've had that conversation with a small handful of students with the parents as well, and the student usually went the path of wanting to go down the Esports and try and knock on wood.

[00:24:15.110] - Chase Christensen

So far, that's been something that's been beneficial for those kids, and it may change in the future, and I expect that as a therapist, those things happen. But for now, it was beneficial. And then for the schools at the middle school level and definitely above, I'd be trying to be open to the idea of finding those ways to be inclusive to students who you feel lack social skills, who don't fit in some of those traditional environments that you guys already have on campus. I think if you go towards your staff and ask, hey, who would have an interest in this, I think you'd be surprised if the staff members who have an interest in Esports and gaming and are able to correlate the benefit between that and the students at the school that could benefit from it, that may not have any other clubs or sports that they do feel like they want to be a part of. The interesting thing is and Mr. Gordon, we already saw students who we thought would be good for the esports before we put out any flyers because some of those students came up in the tech classes and talked to Mr. Gordon or some of them came up to me and said, hey, I don't feel like I have a spot that fits on campus for me. So I don't think it's going to be hard for the administrative staff to find those teachers who already know some of those students who would have an interest. So I think it's going to be a bit of a barrier that you guys might be thinking about. They might be able to be broken down quicker than you're expecting.

[00:26:03.270] - Claire LaBeaux

I think we hear time and again from people who are starting new programs at schools. We put out an announcement that we're going to start an esports club and we expected 25 kids and we had 150 show up or something like that. And people from all different interests kids from all different interests are drawn to esports for various reasons. And so how great to be able to find one area where they can coalesce and maybe meet kids who they didn't connect with before, but now they can connect because they're in a similar environment. And that's definitely been our experience and I would just add also from NASEF's perspective, our objective is to help those clubs thrive and help those students thrive. And so we provide as many resources as we can. We're a nonprofit. We provide everything that we can free to help these clubs get going and help these students succeed and thrive. That's part of why I'm talking to you today is so that we have more tools and more information for people who are new to esports and trying to figure out if it's good, how do we implement that kind of thing?

[00:27:08.430] - Claire LaBeaux

So, Chase, I really appreciate talking to you today, and thanks for your time and your insight, good luck and have fun with your teams for sure.

[00:27:18.660] - Chase Christensen

Of course. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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