When you hear the word esports, your first though is most likely…video games. But did you know that esports is one of the fastest growing industries in the world? That it can lead to college scholarships and even rewarding careers? Esports is education, connection, friendship, trust, growth, safety, opportunity and so much more than you might have imagined. Read on to learn how Garden State Esports is impacting the New Jersey educational landscape through esports. 

Garden State Esports (GSE) is a nonprofit founded by educators with a mission to create high-quality, student-centered experiences through scholastic esports so ALL students can use esports as a platform to grow socially, emotionally, and academically. Esports, short for electronic sports, is the world of organized, competitive video games played between individuals or teams.  

When used in education, scholastic esports has a variety of benefits for students. GSE helps schools and students incorporate Career and Technical Education (CTE) & Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning into their esports teams and make connections to colleges and career pathways available to them. 

We met Chris Aviles, high school teacher and founder and president of GSE in 2021, and we were so impressed by the impact Chris and his team were making on students and their families. Everyone at GSE is a full-time NJ educator so the team truly knows the schools, the kids and how to help make esports meet the learning goals of the school districts. The Grunin Foundation saw the immense value of GSE and provided funding to support its Career Education Program, which connects GSE’s scholar athletes with higher education institutions and employers looking to recruit them. This program provides students with hands-on technical educational training and career guidance from industry professionals, then ultimately connects them with relevant opportunities and employers. 

Esports is playing a major role in the lives of students and their families. Students are making new friends, finding trusted adults, getting better grades in school, landing opportunities at the collegiate level and are set up for lucrative careers – all while having fun doing what they love. For the second year in a row, more than 95% of kids involved in GSE said they made at least one new friend. Students said that they feel a sense of belonging and can express themselves without the fear of being criticized. A seventh grader even said, “I finally found my people!” Ninety-eight percent of kids also said their club advisor is a trusted adult they can go to if they are in crisis. All of this is so important in these socially formative years.  

In addition to the incredibly impactful social aspect of GSE, more than 80% of kids say they are more likely to attend class and earn good grades because of scholastic esports. GSE works to connect learning and play in and out of the classroom so that students, educators, and families experience the real-world value of education through interest-driven learning.  

Beyond the secondary education benefits, 36 of the 42 colleges and universities in New Jersey have an esports program, and GSE works with NJ school districts to ensure esports teams are varsity letter eligible so students can take advantage of scholarship opportunities. When surveyed, nearly 89% of GSE student athletes said they intend on going to college, 53% want to major in STEM, and over 63% of those students are at least somewhat likely to go to college in New Jersey. GSE not only helps schools, club advisors, players, and parents to be in the best position to take advantage of the postsecondary opportunities in New Jersey, it also builds relationships with state colleges and universities. “The goal is to build a pipeline for GSE’s students to follow their passion for gaming into college,” says GSE founder and president Chris Aviles. 

GSE is committed to fostering diversity, equity and accessibility through its programming. One of the many ways GSE has advanced this is through launching the Victoria League which is a gaming league for females. “Girls are less likely to identify as gamers even though they play just as much as boys,” says Aviles. Through this league, GSE has doubled its female population, but also took steps to educate students on the value of diversity and why esports should be a safe place for everyone to game. After a successful pilot season, the Victoria League will continue to provide girls with mentors in esports and abroad as it expands to a full-year offering. GSE also started a Unified League. Unified Sports traditionally pairs student players with disabilities together with their non-disabled peers. Through the GSE Unified League students grow together both socially and emotionally in-game instead of on the sports field. You can learn more of the ways GSE supports equity by reading their blog post: https://gsesports.org/how-esports-can-support-equity.  

GSE has seen incredible growth over the years. Since 2020, GSE has grown from 76 school districts to 261, from 1,400 students to over 7,000 and from 80 teams to 430. GSE is currently in 20 of the 25 largest districts in New Jersey and impacts nearly 730,000 kids and family members. The future of GSE, and most importantly of its students, continues to look bright and exciting. While many GSE student athletes dream of going pro, there are such diverse career opportunities beyond professional gaming. The NJ Department of Education is considering approving curriculum for Career Technical Education (CTE) Pathways. Multiple New Jersey colleges and universities will be offering esports related programs in traditional career pathways like Hospitality & Tourism, Journalism & Communications, Sports Management, Business with additional General Esports Electives.   

GSE is making sure that esports provides learning, opportunity, community and diversity, is creating fun and rewarding experiences for students, and helping pave the way for a successful future. To stay up to date with Garden State Esports, visit https://gsesports.org.