A city-wide esports smackdown in New York: BotB

02 Dec 2021 BotB Feature Article Banner

What happens when the largest school district in the US goes virtual?

With the global pandemic making in-person attendance unpredictable at best and impossible at worst, educators have been desperate for ways to make virtual learning fun and engaging. So, to cap off the 2020–2021 school year, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), a massive school system serving more than one million students, decided to dream big with a district-wide challenge.

Their platform of choice? Minecraft: Education Edition.

The Battle of the Boroughs challenged students to redesign their city in ways that would reinvigorate and enhance the lives of New Yorkers. Using Minecraft: Education Edition, learners would design and build solutions that support sustainable communities and reduce inequities for everyone in their neighborhoods, their home boroughs, or the city as a whole.

To make this project a reality, NYCDOE partnered closely with Microsoft and Cxmmunity, an organization dedicated to increasing the participation of minorities within the esports and video game industry.

This kind of learning presents incredible opportunities for students. "Esports is a powerful tool for education," shares Laylah Bulman, senior business program manager at Minecraft: Education Edition. "It creates a learning space that integrates STEM and STEAM with new technologies alongside the necessary standards, and excites students about their own learning while matching their ambitions."

BotB Splash Art

The challenge took place in two phases. In April and May, elementary, middle, and high school students across the city joined the Build a Better Tomorrow challenge. Drawing from the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and New York City's OneNYC 2050 strategic plan, the district challenged learners to identify an issue and build a solution that would positively impact New York City's future.

Students worked individually or in teams and used Flipgrid to create short video tours of their Minecraft builds, using voiceover to explain their thinking. Teacher volunteers acted as judges and used a rubric to assess student submissions based on the best pitch, the most innovative creation, and the most impactful design.

“To get everyone on board and up to speed, we’ve been offering professional learning for the past few years on Minecraft: Education Edition. We also made a library of recorded webinars available for all teachers to access.  When we launched the Battle of the Boroughs, we provided teachers with a synchronous session and a session on the UN Sustainable Development goals so that teachers had the resources they needed and could refer to anytime.  We advertised these links along with a district wide Microsoft Team where all relevant resources are housed for teachers who want or are using Minecraft EE with their students. “– Laura Winter, NYDOE

Learners dreamed up everything from urban food production and power generation to accessible public commons that provide access to community green space. Everywhere, students demonstrated innovative ideas for improving the city in ways they'd like to see in the future. You can marvel at the elementary winners in this Flipgrid mixtape and experience the top middle and high school builds here.

For these older competitors, the Build a Better Tomorrow challenge was just the beginning…

BotB Boats and Skyline Art

Once the judges had selected the top middle and high school builds, their creators joined forces to form 20 new teams for the final showdown, the Battle of the Boroughs esports competition. There were two high school and two middle school teams from each borough. The groups were assigned teacher coaches to help them think through communication and collaboration strategies as they conducted practice rounds before the finals.

Here's where the pressure really ramped up! The single-elimination tournament featured separate brackets for the middle school and high school teams. For each match, students received a build prompt and had 75 minutes to ideate, hack, and work on a solution. Then they went head-to-head with their opponents in a 30-minute build battle.

Judges assessed the final creations according to their use of the theme, originality and creativity, and collaboration and project management. Students also had an opportunity to present their work to the judges, so presentation skills were vital.

The battles took place on re-creations of the iconic Staten Island Ferries in New York Harbor, with a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline and overseen by the Statue of Liberty itself–a truly epic setting for a build championship! Designs included reimagined transit solutions, future-ready takes on school facilities, and infrastructure based on renewable energy. It was a fitting end to almost two months of effort from dedicated students and teachers.

After days of close-fought competition, it was time for the main event: the high school grand finals. This match between the Queens Kings and the Manhattan Marauders would be live-streamed across the planet on Twitch, showcasing the incredible talents of these young builders.

The prompt was to design a new element that would foster innovation for the city's infrastructure. In a close-fought nail-biter of a match, the Manhattan Marauders took the grand prize with a build inspired by New Urbanism, a school of thought focused on walkable, human-centric approaches to living and working in cities.

But don't take our word for it. You can watch the grand finals for yourself on Twitch and see how these students went head-to-head under enormous pressure.

The results of this initiative were incredible. The city-wide Build a Better Tomorrow challenge engaged 17,000 students and more than 250 educators. This extraordinary participation resulted in over 1,300 submissions for the competition. More than 450,000 spectators watched the live-streamed finals on Twitch, and almost 300,000 people tuned in to the championship broadcast on ESPN. You wouldn't believe the excitement and energy as these students competed for the top slot!

“It was incredible to see how the teams absorbed the challenge prompt, planned and then built their solution with such little time.  Regardless of the time constraints, the solutions the teams came up with were sophisticated and some of the builds, quite elegant.  Watching students work together to solve a problem is always inspiring and one of the outcomes we expect when offering this type of challenge!” Laura Winter, from NYDOE, goes on to say, “I wasn’t surprised to see how much the students cared about the SDG(s) they chose for their initial submission; these are all topics that they care about deeply. What was a little surprising for me were some of the actual ideas they had to address these issues and the ways in which they depicted the problem and solution using MEE.”

This kind of challenge can bring a massive boost to students' engagement and investment in their learning. It also provides benefits associated with the skills they'll need to thrive in tomorrow's world.

"Building future-ready skills is about equipping learners with both social-emotional and technical skillsets to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society," shared Aria Azizi, business strategy lead at Microsoft Education. "When students participate in esports, they're building skills like interdisciplinary learning, adaptive problem-solving, and real-time virtual collaboration—all important competencies for the future workplace. And the best part is they're deeply engaged because these opportunities connect with their passions!"

The NYCDOE's experience reveals that if you present students with a challenge that captures their imaginations, they'll do amazing things. It also demonstrates that esports is here to stay, and it has a key role to play in equipping today's students with the skills they'll need tomorrow.


If you're interested in using esports in your classroom or district, get the background you'll need in this free online course through the Microsoft Educator Center. Explore esports resources for Minecraft: Education Edition here.

If you're new to game-based learning with Minecraft, start your journey today.