A Schools Student Journey and Success In the World of Scholastic Esports
How one New York school has used the power of esports to improve the mental well-being of its students.
“Esports saved his life by giving him something to look forward to”
For Head Coach Danielle Keating at Franklin Academy in New York, esports is all about building the mental well-being of her students.
When Coach Keating first started coaching the esports program, she went in without much prior experience with esports — but she felt an added pressure due to how important the program was to her students. Coach Keating quickly realized that it doesn’t take an expert with years of experience to be the coach that her students needed.
As physical sports halted and classrooms became remote during the pandemic, Coach Keating knew that students needed a competitive outlet to connect with fellow classmates. For many students at Franklin Academy, the esports program became their way of connecting with the school and having a sense of community during the lockdown.
“I had a couple of heart-wrenching moments,” Coach Keating recalled to PlayVS. “After our initial kick-off, I sent out emails to the students. A mother reached out to me and asked if the email was real. I told her yes, that I was a teacher trying to get something moving. She said that she felt her son was suicidal and that this saved his life by giving him something to look forward to.”
“We're like the phoenix out of the ashes because this whole program was born out of necessity, survival mode – for the need for connection during a pandemic lockdown.”
Now back at school, classmates that had only previously met online over 3 seasons were now meeting their fellow teammates in person. “The kids were walking around and you heard them saying ‘What’s your gamertag? ‘What’s your name?’ And they would start saying their gamer tags and their names and they would go, ‘Oh my God!, that's what you look like I had no idea that was you. I've been playing against you for three seasons.”
Coach Keating had seen her player's social growth firsthand in other aspects of their lives. When one student was set to be inducted into the National Honors Society, his Splatoon teammates were determined to escort him. What is usually just a small event typically only attended by family members became an incredible moment for team bonding. The teammates recounted how cool it was to be there for their fellow teammate, taking up an entire row in the auditorium. “Many of these players never belonged to a team, never belonged to anything and now they are a tight-knit family. You just think about what that does for their mental health.”
Another memorable moment came when Coach Keating decided to hold a year-end banquet at the end of the Spring 2022 season, the first time these players and their families would get to meet each other in person a year and a half into the program. The trouble was that many of these students haven’t been to a school function before so they were not prepared for how to react. “These kids didn’t have a reason to bring their parents to an extra-curricular function. They didn’t know how to do it themselves”. Coach Keating worked to make it happen, working around schedules so that each player’s parents could attend and planning the whole event from highlight reels playing in the background to leading the group in conversation around the history of the program and how far they have come.
What Coach Keating didn’t plan for that night was an impromptu speech from one of her senior players, particularly from someone who was known for being incredibly introverted. Realizing that this may be his last moment with the group before graduation, Chase didn’t want to pass the moment up. Coming into his freshman year Chase recalled wanting to do nothing more than to leave the high school as fast as he could. “I hated it. I didn't know anybody. I hated not having friends and seeing everybody else have friends. All I wanted was out of here as fast as I could.” Due to the constant encouragement from Coach Keating for him to join it during his sophomore year everything for him changed. He now says that he has a family and never would have had the courage to stand up in front of a group this size and give a speech before joining his esports team. The speech brought parents in attendance to tears.
“Just seeing them light up by taking an interest in the things they love does wonders for their mental well-being”
A monumental moment for the program came when the school board unanimously voted to make esports an official designated varsity sport within the district, the same as any other sport. A lot of this success was due to Franklin Academy recognizing the benefits early. Teachers and guidance counselors would start reaching out to Coach Keating, telling them about introverted students that would benefit from being a part of the esports program. The esports lab became a safe space for students to feel comfortable and supported. Gaming became a “point of connection” for the otherwise-shy students, helping them build a rapport with students (and the school as a whole). This designation now means coaches and programs are validated for their work and esports has the longevity it needs to continue. Section X was quick to follow suit with the validation of esports as part of their athletic offerings.
Now, Coach Keating said, the focus is on finding ways to continue genuinely connecting and supporting the students that are taking part in the esports program. Her advice to others skeptical about the mental benefits of esports for students? “All I have to say to them is if you want to get students engaged, validate the camaraderie and competitive nature that esports demands. I have never had an easier and more rewarding time motivating students than when I’m talking to students about games, technology in esports, and their futures, and it couldn't be more inclusive. Just seeing them light up by taking an interest in the things they love does wonders for their mental well-being.”
While there’s always more to learn, coaches can be a part of the fix by simply being there for the students. That seemingly casual check-in could mean the world to some students, even if it’s just to chat about games. Sometimes students just need to know that someone is there for them and wants to listen.