A few years ago, cybersecurity and robotics competitions were a big deal on high school campuses. But it seems that today they’ve been replaced by esports leagues. Before seeing this as yet another sign 2020 really is the worst year ever, the inclusion of esports as part of the curriculum might just be a panacea for a second academic year upended by COVID-19.
According to Brandon Shopp, Vice President of Product at SolarWinds, even before the pandemic befell us, the popularity of esports was soaring in K-12 schools across the United States. “[M]ore than 1,200 schools now participate in the High School Esports League, a six-fold increase from 2018. Researchers say esports, or competitive video gaming, has become a US $1 billion global industry,” he shared in a recent article in eCampus News.
With it looking more and more likely that most schools will resume classes online starting next month because of on-going concerns about rising COVID-19 infections, esports is quickly becoming recognized as one way of reducing social isolation and keeping kids connected with each other and academically motivated. “Esports students aren’t traditional athletes, but they still practice after school, play different positions, wear jerseys during competitions, and compete for trophies and college scholarships. Coaches even suspend players whose GPAs dip below the required minimums,” shared Shopp.
One of the unexpected benefits of the sustained shift to online learning is that K-12 districts have already started investing in their IT infrastructure to facilitate classroom time and these same investments will support esports at school as well. For Shopp there are three major factors to take into consideration to build an optimized environment for esports.
First ensure adequate bandwidth. Network latency is the enemy of any gamer, but particularly a competitive esports gamer. “A high-performing network delivering quality, uninterrupted gaming is a must,” said Shopp. “IT managers can start by analyzing network traffic to help inform bandwidth use, to set up alerts when bandwidth is saturated, and to detect bandwidth hogs on the network. They should also monitor performance across all devices, applications, networks, and vendors to isolate network slowdowns and determine whether the app or the network is causing issues. From there, they can more efficiently troubleshoot and remediate the problem before users feel the impact.
Then plan for regular software updates. To help IT teams manage updates that will be needed on a regular basis, Shopp suggests turning to automated patch management. “Sending staff out to each school to manually patch systems is inefficient and time-consuming. But with automated patch management, teams can centralize fixes and updates across workstations, servers, and esports applications. They simply schedule a job once, and it’s automatically pushed out to devices across the district.”
And always pay attention to security and privacy. When the popularity of an online activity grows, the cybercriminals will surely follow. “The growth of esports is fast attracting the attention of bad actors looking to exploit vulnerabilities in software and networks…Strategies such as network segmentation and the automatic application of security patches and updates can help ensure cyber risk is minimized and the security posture of the esports program is improved.”
As we all navigate our way through a world turned upside down by the pandemic, it’s important to grasp opportunities, like the inclusion of esports, to fill the gaps. As much as children go to school to learn about math, history, and literature, a vital part of the school day is about socialization and social interaction. Through technology we have the opportunity to provide a facsimile of that experience and do it safely and securely without adding to the burden of the IT team.