Interview: Dr. Clint Kennedy, New Member of the WWSEF Board of Directors
With NASEF transitioning to become an independent entity operated by the World Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation (WWSEF) on January 1, 2021, we thought it would be a good idea to talk with one of the new members of the Board of Directors.
Dr. Clint Kennedy brings a wealth of education and esports experience to the team. As founder of the first state-sanctioned high school esports league, Clint has helped scholastic esports grow and thrive over the past decade.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
What drew you to NASEF?
My very first connection with NASEF happened prior to the official launch. I had created an esports program in southeastern Connecticut and was working with a group of students to create what became Connecticut Esports, the first state-sanctioned high school esports league.
One day I got a call from Tom Turner, who identified himself as the Director of STEM Curriculum in California at the Orange County Department of Education, and he said he found me and what we were doing online. He was interested in creating and starting an esports program that was similar in Orange County and wanted to know if I’d help him.
That started a wonderful friendship between the two of us. We’ve always shared information and tried to help each other out whenever possible. Tom then went on to be a key member of the group that started the Orange County High School Esports League, which eventually became NASEF.
Obviously, because I’ve continued my work in scholastic esports, I’ve stayed friendly with Tom and supported him from afar. I really respect the work he and the NASEF team have done over the years.
You’re bringing a wealth of education experience to NASEF; can you quickly walk us through that experience?
Before I started my journey working with startups in this space, I worked in three different public schools in a variety of positions for 18 years. My final position was as a public school administrator for New London Public Schools, which is an urban school district in southeastern Connecticut.
In this role, I was tasked with leading the design and development of a “horizontal curriculum” across the traditional subject areas, specifically around soft skills/21st century skills. We were trying to systematically integrate critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity standards across the traditional vertical domains of English, math, science, social studies, and so forth.
The first thing I did, I was trying to be a good progressive educational leader, was to pull together a group of about 20 student leaders to present the standards to them. I started by telling them I didn’t want this to be a new experience created only by adults that they may not find as relevant or engaging as it could be.
About five minutes into my pitch and conversation with them, two young men were still heads-down, we were in a computer lab at the time, and I told them to stop and please join the rest of the group. I pulled them aside afterward and they said:
“Dr. K, we’re sorry we were off task. We were playing this game and all of these ‘standards’ you were bringing up are in this game.”
I thought they were just trying to give me an excuse for not being on task. I asked them to sit down and play. I thought I was calling their bluff. I played my first game of League of Legends that day. I played Heimerdinger support and stole all the CS in the bot lane and we lost terribly, but I had an “Aha!” moment. I realized they were 100% right and there were examples in the game for all four of the main standards areas: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. I began to realize they could have structured educational experiences all while playing a game they were intrinsically motivated to play because they enjoyed playing it.
Those two young men really started me off on this journey. We did a call for students across all the schools who wanted to be part of an esports program, and I had 83 kids show up. I realized I was definitely on to something. We helped eight or nine other schools in eastern Connecticut who also wanted to participate in a high school league get started. We had a great start but the students and I wanted more.
Eventually, I hired 12 high school interns—paid in lunch and letters of recommendations upon completion—to create the bones of Connecticut Esports, which we pitched to Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the CIAC at the time (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference). After four meetings, she approved it and sanctioned it as an activity.
You have a Ph.D. in educational psychology, but many still don’t think of psychology when we talk about esports. Many people also don’t understand that esports has physical benefits as well. Can you explain?
For most people it’s easier to understand the cognitive benefits and skills that go into a game of esports versus the physical benefits. But look at the highest levels of esports athletes; these are young men and women who are paying attention to the mind, body, and soul as they are trying to perfect their craft and improve in a safe way.
As people are open to the idea of esports as a valuable activity for students to engage in, some of the cognitive connections are the first pieces to be identified while some of the physical and social/emotional benefits start to fall into place later.
Obviously, anything taken to an extreme is potentially not good, but that’s why I think organizations like NASEF are so beneficial where there are structures in place: coaches, general managers, and others with expertise in health and wellness can guide and support students so they understand the importance of a foundation of physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Your previous work at PlayVS and current work with Learn2Esport are very closely aligned with NASEF’s mission. How will taking a leadership role at WWSEF augment your work?
I valued my time at PlayVS because I got to take the experiences and knowledge I built over 18 years in public and private schools and look at it through the lens of a national esports organization. I was hired as the Director of Education; unfortunately, the majority of my work was focused on competition and business development. I think those are important for a startup, but I was always very interested in filling out the full complement of components that are critical to an esports program. Competition is, of course, the hook that brings students in, but educational experiences around career pathways and community building opportunities are just as important to focus on.
I like to say, “learn, play, connect.” It’s my shorthand for those three pieces (education, competition, community) that I think are important. Other organizations are providing opportunities and diving very deep with a traditional sports model applied to esports at the high school level centered around competition. I’m really interested and excited about the opportunity to work with the team at NASEF because I think they’re more focused on how all three components work together.
We see different education standards around the world, so how will you approach the challenge of adapting NASEF’s curriculum to the standards that are different in every country?
It’s a really important question because there are both subtle and also very explicit differences around the world. I think one of the key strategies that we will continue is the shared leadership model developed by NASEF.
You have opportunities that are coming from the top down, but you also have this wonderful incubator space at the club and affiliate level to experiment with the standards and competition types. Because it’s a learning community at NASEF, there are naturally built-in opportunities both from the top-down as well as the bottom-up. The NASEF affiliates and clubs are made up of some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable students and educatorsI have met in the esports community.
I think that as we continue to partner and create relationships with esports organizations around the world, much like NASEF has with the British Esports Association and others, that strategy of shared leadership and innovation will help solve the issue of nuance and explicit differences among standards.
That all being said, hiring organizations that provide career pathways for students coming out of high school are sending signals that they are less concerned with specific course content with which the students are graduating and more concerned with their soft skills, the 21st century skills: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity.
A few easy questions to finish the interview: What do you love most about video games and esports?
Two different questions in my mind. For video games, it’s the activity where I experience the concept of flow the most; where you’re in the zone and you’re relying just as much on your active decision-making skills as you are on intuition. It’s just a wonderful combination of those two, and I feel invigorated as I hit that feeling of flow as I’m playing specific video games. It’s wonderful.
For esports, I love the social and collaborative nature of it. I much prefer a social team game where I’m trying to figure out the best strategy and how to leverage my own strengths and weaknesses with my teammates’ strengths and weaknesses and how to synergize to be successful.
Sadly, as an older player in esports, I’m not always successful. I’m happy when I get close to that 50% win rate. But that’s what I like most about esports.
Final words as we begin the transition from North America to worldwide?
I am honored by the opportunity to be part of a leadership team to continue the wonderful work NASEF has accomplished to date. I think I have the skill set and experience to work with this new team that will join the foundational NASEF team, and we will hopefully meet our goals of providing more experiences to a larger group of schools and students around the world. Just as I did at the beginning with my two students in Connecticut, we will continue learning from students and educators to have that critical feedback loop to make this experience better for all.