Interview: Kevin Brown, Esports Program Specialist

Kevin Brown, Esports Program Specialist, joins us for this interview to share some of his insight into the plans for NASEF. As part of the leadership team, Kevin brings his own experience with educational departments and creating esports-based curriculum to the NASEF organization.

He is a strong proponent of the club system NASEF has implemented so far and wants to see it grow even more in the coming years as the demand for scholastic esports from students rises.

How did you first get involved in scholastic esports?

This is a journey that began back in late 2017. I was working at the Orange County Department of Education as a career technical education teacher, my specialty being sales and service and hospitality. I had 20 plus years in hotels/restaurants fields and had gone back to work in education after many years out of it.

I was approached as a curriculum writer to help write an English course with a career tech education flair. I asked why I had been approached for this assignment and was told me because “We know you’re a gamer and we want you to write this through an esports lens.” I threw my phone at the screen and “rage quit”, as we say when playing online. I thought the project  leads were out of their minds; they wanted me to write something for what I called “thumb monkeys” (the stereotypical gamers we all envision as isolated, socially inept young males) and I wasn’t going to do that, supporting a wastrel effort.

As project leads explained their “madness” to me, they showed the esports ecosystem infographic they had just developed. In an instant, I understood where they wanted to go with this, and I ate my own words. I realized this was not just advocating kids play games and let them do it ad nauseam; I understood there was a plan, a purpose behind this, one grounded in scholasticism and work-based learning.

So I wrote - after my philosophical epiphany about the approach to student engagement using esports as an educational hook, I understood the purpose and long-term goal of scholastically-based gaming. I headed the team that wrote the curriculum as requested; there were initially four classes—four years, freshman through senior English (which I wrote given my hotel hospitality background).

The more I wrote curricula, not just those first four English classes, the more I was in. So when a job offer came up for the position I now hold, I applied and beat out 26 other people for it. I was and am the right mix of someone who understands the scholastic value of esports, who is a parent of kids who play, and who can see what is happening and how effective its methods and outcomes truly are. It’s been one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had.

That’s a great introduction. Since you were there from the ground up, how have you seen esports transform education in Orange County?

In the state of California, you can look at the California State Educational Dashboard to see how every county / city is doing at meeting the state’s math, science, and English language skills goals, along with a few other important metrics. As a state, we’re really not measuring up - we’re barely holding at the middle of the chart. Most of the metrics line up in the yellow (meeting state expectations).

The only metrics that are consistently growing year over year are the absenteeism and suspension rates, which speak volumes to the lack of student engagement and teachers’ abilities to reach them. I can only imagine Covid-19 is helping push that because kids feel disconnected and disenfranchised. They feel totally uncoupled from the educational experience and not being able to apply what they’re learning in meaningful ways, to say nothing of the lacking social interaction that school age kids need.

How has scholastic esports helped in Orange County? Even before Covid-19, we were seeing that, as we wrote and tested the curricula, kids would sit up and take notice. When they realized that there was an English language track that focused on esports, with projects and activities that centered on aspects of the ecosystem, they raised their hands and asked to get into that class. High schools that offered the new courses had to open secondary tracks because there was such interest.

There was this desire, this impassioned interest: kids wanted in and teachers who picked up these classes made themselves more relevant. They became the “cool teachers” on campus that were teaching esports English and had kids showing up.

Threading standards and learning content through esports, even if the teacher wasn’t a huge gamer, made learning more attractive to kids and encouraged them to want to do more. So we’ve seen a huge uptick in teachers not just in Orange County, but across the U.S., that are trying this and adapting the curricula to their state standards and their particular teaching styles. It has been gratifying and a true delight to see teachers and students coming together to reinvent learning!

Are there one or two success stories you’d like to share?

There are lots that I'd like to share. I'm just excited when anybody calls me and wants to learn more about our library of content and want to take it on. Even better when they’re a history or math or world language teacher, or even from middle school. 

We piloted this at the Samueli Academy (a charter high school serving a low-income, at-risk youth population on the border of Orange and Garden Grove). That school is funded philanthropically by the Samueli Foundation, who have generously supported  everything NASEF from its inception, so they were first to take it on. They ran the English classes to start and they're the ones that have dual tracking and their kids were eating it up.

Positive feedback from students and teachers must have emboldened the OCDE and NASEF team; in early 2019 we decided to apply for the US Department of Education’ Perkins V Innovation & Modernization grant. We used the model at Samueli to say not only do we want to do English language arts - we want to do all of the Common Core classes, and career tech education...AND dual enrollment content from post-secondary institutions, and we want to line this up freshman through senior year. 

So we created four-year educational maps, sort of like undergrad programs, for high schools. They said we’re nuts, but we were surprisingly awarded one of nine national grants to prove our theory over a three-year period. We’re in year one of this and there are three high schools in Santa Ana (California), each of whom has a career tech education pathway we're going to leverage as the output for integrated learning and job skills. There is certainly an esports flavor to it all, but the math, science, English, and history teachers are all involved in a collaboration to teach lessons that uphold at each of these levels. We're going to watch them for three years and see where this goes.

The fact that the Fed is actually pouring money into this and is interested gives me great hope because, at a national level, we're understanding that you don't have to do rote education anymore. You can do something hugely interesting that's pertinent to kids right now, kids who want to see how to apply what they just learned in a real-world setting. So the fact that students can take what they just learned at 3:00 o’clock in the classroom and can use it at 3:30pm when the club starts in any number of ways (like for shoutcasting, social media, IT setups, sponsorship drives and entrepreneurship, etc.,) is amazing.

For the second story, I was asked by my grandson’s middle school principal to bring all of this to the middle school level. I didn’t know if it would work at the time, but I was interested in trying it out. The principal gave me an after-school elective class to teach for a quarter.

While I built the curriculum to all of the California state standards, the students helped me reinvent the material. We met three days a week, but we only played video games for 23 minutes of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Friday of each week. It was purposeful play where we applied what we learned earlier in the week to the game. 

For eight weeks they learned about careers and the kinds of work in each of the four ecosystem domains; they created a club logo and business charter, created marketing plans and wrote sales pitches to secure club sponsorships, and of course, they played games, but paid attention to the stats at the end of each round to crunch data and come up with a better squad of four for competitions. It all culminated into the final project in week nine, which was for them to host an open house and run a tournament themselves.

When parents and school administrators arrived, they were truly speechless. They knew their kids had been doing things for eight weeks but didn’t know exactly what they were doing. They looked like they were just gaming and chatting online the whole time during their “homework”.

They were blown away to see their kids shoutcasting and competing and helping run the tournament. I told them what I had learned as a parent and educator about scholastic esports, how there is a whole world out there that their students were going to be exploring. It was hugely gratifying to see that trust given to me and NASEF and to be able to give it back and show that kids will pull like draft horses and go the distance to make these things happen.

They were doing theorycrafting around different matches and figuring out probabilities in the game. They were coaching each other on when to use their special skills and when to or when not to go after the smash ball. Skin tone, gender, where you were born, number of toes - none of it mattered; all that you needed to be in the club was a passion to play and the desire to work as hard as your classmates. 

It’s what I like to call chocolate broccoli. They’re learning the things they have to learn, but if you tell them they’re learning it they’ll fight you on it, but if you wrap something they need (education) in something they want / love (esports), they jump all over it.

Chocolate broccoli, I like it! As part of the leadership team, what are some of your goals over the next couple of years?

Propagation is a big thing. There are many other organizations that focus on play. They get in, they monetize, they profiteer off the backs of the kids, they want to form teams and get the kids to pay to play. They have these promises of getting them in front of recruiters or up on the leaderboards or have a shot at a college scholarship team, something that in the end cannot be guaranteed or promised. It’s a model that will exclude any school or student that can’t afford to play, and that causes a gap in equity, access and inclusion.

Competition is a subset of everything NASEF does - kids want to compete and we respect that. Our mission and vision are different; it's not about the play -  it's about the club. We started humbly at the end of 2017 with 25 high schools and 38 competitive teams. Now we’re north of 3clubs in 47 States and 11 countries to date. With teams playing with each other along most latitudes and longitudes.

That's one of my goals is to get clubs activated and to help them grow regional and state-sized affiliates so they can begin to run their own kind of programs. NASEF teaches them about all the toolkits we have and we ask them where THEY want to go and how can we further what is important to THEM? 

Again, thinking about that club model, every kid who wants something to do with esports CAN get involved. They don't have to be the greatest player; they don’t need to be platinum on the leaderboard. Maybe they have a great personality and brand that makes them an amazing shoutcaster, or maybe they know how to build computers and you want that person there on game day because they understand all the IT components you need when things go sideways with technology..

What challenges do you foresee in the scholastic esports space as it continues to grow?

I find that what passes for scholasticism in esports is really concerning. There are groups that will trot out a 150-page manual and say here's the book on how to teach esports. Really it’s more of a day in the life of what the club does and an anecdotal guide to how you manage those players, set up squads and how to hold team tryouts. Sure, it’s important information for someone brand new to the idea of an esports team on campus or after-school, but it is solely focused on the team and the play aspect. 

Where we're trying to go with NASEF is combining what is important in terms of education, fueled by something that is a passion for students, that can be used in a virtual or face to face setting.  What are educational standards that we want kids to reach? Whether it's through STEM or STEAM, whether it's an interest in foreign language, or whether it's an interest in US economic policy. How can we use this to begin to understand other nations, other cultures, and bring them into this scholastic esports culture?

So it's a wider net. We're looking to engage teachers and teach them how it is we have built a curriculum that respects what a state wants to teach. I'll go back to California, so in English, there are certain things you have to learn that every level freshman through senior. You have to get certain things done. You have to know how to write, how to do expository writing, how to persuade, and how to write a narrative. These are all the clear markers that you understand the English language and the use of it.

How can we do that through esports and how do we develop a curriculum that's going to bump up against this that actually satisfies those requirements and not just write a paper about Tyler “Ninja” Blevins about why you think he's still cool and if he’s still relevant.

We're the only group that we know in North America that actually aligns itself with universities, basing its curricula on research, and going to great lengths to legitimize those efforts by securing state approval of the finished academic products. Everything I've ever written has to go to the UC the Office of the President for approval that says yes, this actually has college entry bearing credit like its other standardized, non-esports alternative.

Nobody else out there does that. That's how we show our scholasticism: demonstrating that we built the courses intentionally with guidance from respected data scientists and factual research, and that we earned state support and approval, and this is what administrators and parents want to hear. This isn't just folderol, all chopped up that kind of looks and feels like it's learning content. It's not, you can actually use this, apply this, and it gets you somewhere.

Lastly, can you tell me your favorite gaming or esports experience that you’ve had?

So you can’t see it, but my age is like dirt. I go back to when the very first boxes of D&D materials were put out in 1977 when Gary Gygax, University of Wisconsin put his great college dorm game out. I learned to play D&D in a year and we got tired of it because the books were too refined, so I built my own universe which later became an omniverse. 

So role-playing games were cool for me. When I found Final Fantasy (FF) that was that it was all over. I speak Japanese and have lived and worked in Japan. FFVII was my gateway, FFX was pretty, and when it went MOBA with FFXI… that was it. I found my role, a Red Mage,  jack of all trades, master of none. No one dies on my watch. I like roleplaying games and their immersive stories.

I love that idea that we all made our story. We knew our roles, but we were individuals. That's my game of preference, but what just fascinates me is watching where kids take it now. I just got off a call with our Minecraft team that's building a new version of Minecraft that is being commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture. Spoiler alert! So there will be a farm-based Minecraft iteration coming out that's going to teach kids about economic theory around food production and agriculture and the science of it, food security, and teaches diplomacy and how nations can help each other. What if I’m the person who can grow drought-resistant carrots and then can import that to Ethiopia? Now they’ve got a food source and that begins to solve some problems.

So I love this idea that anything can be an esport. Again, this is a hook that draws kids in and makes them interested in trying to find ways to apply what it is they're learning in ways that are novel for them.