Not “just a game” – how esports is training the workforce of tomorrow

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

For decades, sports have been a vital part of school education, bringing students and school communities together, teaching important lessons about leadership, strategy and teamwork just as much as they build agility and physical prowess… Now, in the digital era, esports are transforming the sporting experience.  

Far from being “just a game”, students in years 6-9 are learning collaboration, communication, and compromise for the greater good all through Microsoft’s Minecraft: Education Edition (M:EE). Cyclone’s esports Teacher Induction Programme, which is rolling out Minecraft training to teachers across New Zealand, is creating not just the Jonah Lomus and Sophie Pascoes of tomorrow, but the town planners and engineers as well. 

Imagine this…  

The sports hall that is usually exclusive to the kids in the hockey or netball team is fuller than it has ever been. The air is abuzz with excitement. Around the room, faces of concentration huddle around a desk. Hundreds of students with their brows furrowed and their minds focused on the task. Classmates that have never talked before are cheering each other on. The rugby half back and the spelling bee champion are deep in conversation. They’re learning from each other, combining their skillsets to solve problems. That shy student that always hangs back is leading a team to victory with confidence.  

Now, imagine a student on Microsoft’s Minecraft.  

Did you imagine the same scene? Chances are, you imagined a teen playing a computer game, headphones on, alone in a dark room.  

You’re not alone. Many teachers and parents across the globe think of Minecraft as simply a game. In New Zealand, some schools were unaware of the way M:EE can teach the curriculum in an engaging way that resonates with students who prefer a hands-on, interactive style of learning. Others had heard of its benefits but had no idea where to start.  

Last year, 90 teachers from 73 New Zealand schools decided it was time they educated themselves on M:EE to enhance the education of their students. From girls’ schools, boys’ schools, co-ed schools, public schools, prep schools, city schools, rural schools,  – they all came together to join education tech expert Cyclone’s esports training programme.  

Cyclone’s experience working with schools and educators around New Zealand enabled it to see how Minecraft could transform education for the better. It wanted to share that vision.  

“There is a stigma attached to esports. A lot of people still think of it as a game, when in fact it’s a viable opportunity for students to be involved in something that’s not a ‘traditional’ sport like rugby and football. We wanted to challenge those preconceived notions that gaming is a solitary practice and highlight the skills students can gain from getting involved,” says Jo Nicol, Professional Learning Manager at Cyclone. 

The teachers become the students  

To kick off the Minecraft: Education Edition learning experience, Cyclone hosted a series of regional events in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin for teachers with students in years 6-9.  Covid-19 tried to rattle the Auckland event, due to the number of cases peaking, however, as experts in their field, Cyclone were able to seamlessly pivot the induction to an online series of webinars instead.  

The training sessions acknowledged that everyone learns differently, so it was important that teachers had time to learn through listening, discussion, and participation. Those who had already set up esports in their schools could share their expertise with those who had never set eyes on Minecraft before. The group collaboration skills demonstrated by the teachers showcased how Minecraft could spark this same approach to teamwork from their students. 

As with any sport, nutrition and well-being are paramount. So, Cyclone made sure to provide teachers with information and resources to help students feel like their best selves both on and off the PC. Alongside this, training was provided into online safety and being a good digital citizen – a topic that should be part of every teacher’s curriculum in today’s digital-first world.  

“The inclusive nature of esports is really important.  Being a part of a community and team is a great way to really help students feel included and build respect between one another.  Our programme incorporated training on how to facilitate and encourage participation so that every student could take part,” says Jo.  

Esports competitions can be used as a local in-school team building activity, or a global contest, allowing students to collaborate throughout different countries and cultures.  It was time to put the teachers’ new-found skills to the test. Teams of teachers from different schools came together to compete in mini-build challenges, so they could not only have fun competing, but learn valuable skills in how to set up esports competitions, using Microsoft resources such as the esports framework. This enabled teachers to take the knowledge and experience gained from the session and share it far and wide with their students.  

After completing the induction programme, the teachers were eager to develop their skillsets further. So, over the past few months, Minecraft experts from Cyclone have been visiting schools to help educate teachers on new resources, offering ongoing training and support so teachers and students alike can experience the full depth of the curriculum benefits. With the ever-expanding universe that is Minecraft, there is always more to learn and a new world to create.  

Building communities, from Christchurch to the world 

Since implementing esports, teachers say the improvement in learning has been exponential. They have been using Minecraft: Education Edition to teach subjects throughout the curriculum, whether that’s rebuilding ancient Egypt and learning how the Egyptians lived or bringing a creative writing scene to life.  

“Implementing Minecraft has positively ignited the school year. Students are engaged, their attention is captured, they want to be at school and learn and do the work,” says Chisnallwood Intermediate teacher Anna Duncan. 

“Kids that never really show any enthusiasm towards learning and often disengage are now getting involved. They’re asking really great questions about the topics we’re teaching through Minecraft and their understanding has noticeably improved.”  

And they’re even building actual communities. 

At Chisnallwood Intermediate, the focus for this term has been all about ‘community’. Being located less than one kilometre from the Red Zone (an abandoned residential area demolished by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake), the teachers decided to create a project for students that would not only give back to the city community but teach them how to act as one.  

With the help of M:EE global mentor  Nathan Scott from Cyclone, they built an exact replica of the land, photographing the Red Zone and then overlaying it into the Minecraft world using coding. The students even created an algorithm of their own!  

Once the initial lay of the land was set up, the students were split into groups and each team was tasked with ideating a proposal for how the people of Christchurch could use the space. They brainstormed ideas of infrastructures they could build that would benefit the whole community – from sports facilities to homeless shelters to campgrounds with sustainable gardens.  

Thirty-one students all vying for the best plot of land for their project led to some debates over who should get what. Sitting around a printed map of the red zone, with post-it notes representing their buildings, the class community worked together to come up with a solution that would work for everyone. The town-planners made their case for why they needed specific pieces of land, with strong reasoning to back them up. Encouraged by teachers to think about existing infrastructures, as would be necessary in the real world, one sports-loving team argued “we need to be by the river because we want to offer rowing at our sports centre”.  

Pink and yellow Post-Its shuffled around the map like chess pieces until the majority of the class was happy with the location of their building site.  

“I’d say the class was 90% happy with the outcome of land divisions. They came to understand the need to adapt, negotiate and make do for the greater good of the community,” says Tui Waters, one of the teachers at Chisnallwood Intermediate.  

Once an empty piece of land, the Minecraft world’s virtual Red Zone is now the heart of the community and the students have learnt the life lessons of democracy, compassion and communication.  

“Working with Cyclone to bring Minecraft to our school really opened my eyes. It’s not a game. It’s a tool for education. There is a need for communication with digital tools that I didn’t expect, and the kids learnt that too,” marvelled Iva Hamilton, Deputy Principal at Chisnallwood Intermediate.  

Anna Duncan agrees. “It’s encouraged the kids to collaborate more. Because they are all working in the same world, they see what other groups are doing, then they ask questions and this drives collaboration and a bit of healthy competition amongst the teams.”  

Teachers are now planning on working with Cyclone to expand into more core subjects using M:EE. Next on the agenda for Chisnallwood Intermediate is building animal kingdoms to expand students thinking around habitats and wildlife survival. Other teachers from the Induction Programme are working towards holding inter-school esports competitions. And there’s already talk of a global build challenge!  

“Gone are the days when only the fastest, strongest or fittest could become sports champions. With esports, every schoolkid can be a star – and the teachers are having just as much fun,” says Lydia Kronawetter, Microsoft Education Industry Executive. 

“It’s great to see Cyclone and the schools taking full advantage of what Minecraft: Education Edition has to offer, not only enabling the next generation with the skills and attributes more commonly associated with team sports, but also providing a new and engaging way for children of today to be educated.”