Esports: more than just an adrenalin rush

Julian Hall investigates the rising interest in esports and how it has become so much more than just game-playing

This year, the global esports market was estimated to be worth just over US$1.08bn – an almost 50% increase from 2020. Not only this, but the industry has been forecast to hit a whopping US$1.62bn by 2024.

While Asian and North America house the most burgeoning esports markets in terms of revenue, the UK’s is also on the rise. So, how far forwards are we in terms of the discipline’s integration into the nation’s education system?

… esports are a serious business, both in terms of revenue and the attitude towards competing in them

For people over the age of 45, the idea of gaming as a serious pursuit might conjure up comic images that wouldn’t be out of place in the sitcom Dead Pixels. However, despite not being legally defined as a sport (they are officially games), esports are a serious business, both in terms of revenue and the attitude towards competing in them, and they have become an increasing academic presence on schools, colleges and universities.

Esports are defined as organised multi-player games played competitively for spectators, and not against a computer. “It’s always human versus human,” explains Tom Dore, a science teacher who developed esports at his school after seeing how they helped motivate younger people.

“It’s teams of people playing against other teams of people. And, through that, they [young people] are developing the same holistic skills as they would if they’re playing in a traditional sports team – teamwork, leadership, communication, decision-making, strategy, problem-solving, etc.”

Game on

Games in the esports category include MOBA (multi online battle arena) games such as the hugely popular League of Legends, first-person shooter games like, Overwatch, Valorant, Call of Duty, battle royale games such as Fortnite and PUBG, sports-based games like FIFA and NBA 2K, and sim driving games including Rocket League, “where the player drives a rocket powered car around an indoor arena to knock an oversized football into a goal”.

… the University of Warwick recently became the first Russell Group university to open an esports centre

Guild Esports, the company co-owned by David Beckham (and who recently started an academy), has teams for Rocket League and also Fortnite and Valorant. The link with sports IRL doesn’t stop at David Beckham; football giants PSG and Barcelona both have esports teams.

Esports career opportunities

Parents and some teachers – perhaps shuddering at the mention of Fortnite and Call Of Duty – might be reluctant to embrace esports as a holistic discipline, but the skills mentioned above and the opportunities associated with them might surprise them.

Beyond the pro-gamers themselves (not unlike becoming a Premier League footballer, this is an outcome for the few and not the many), career opportunities include officials, event and community managers, PRs, social media staff, designers and a host of production roles around broadcasting events, such as graphic designers, technical managers, camera operators, floor managers and so on.

Esports by degrees

While there were already creative media, IT-based and games design courses, the last five years has seen courses specific to esports start to develop very quickly.

At university level, courses of note include Staffordshire University’s BA (Hons) and Masters in Esports. Announced in 2017 and claiming to be the world’s first Esports degree, Staffordshire’s course aims to impart ‘the expertise you need to host small and large-scale events within both practical and technical environments’.

The BSc (Hons) in Esports Production at the Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies (part of Nottingham Trent University) has use of a venue kitted out for high-spec audio and visual production. This will be added to next year with the purpose-built esports arena, ‘Confetti X’. Facilities there will include: a green screen studio, a high-spec broadcast gallery, team warm-up facilities and training suites with individual streaming stations.

Launched in 2019, the University of Chichester’s BA (Hons) in Esports takes place at the university’s £35m Tech Park. Partnered with Twitch, the course covers the physical and psychological impact of esports, including nutrition, coaching and strategy – a reminder that esports practioners take all these elements every bit as seriously as professional sportspeople.

Meanwhile, the University of Warwick recently became the first Russell Group university to open an esports centre. The report in the university’s newspaper, The Boar, hinted that this was the first step on an ongoing journey.

… we’re still in trial run territory with graduates only just beginning to spill out into the – albeit ‘post-pandemic’ – economy

While undoubtedly pioneering, some of the moving and shaking in academia has raised eyebrows. There has been criticism of some courses for being set up too quickly, for lack of depth and reach, and for having a cohort size that doesn’t realistically reflect the opportunities in the industry just yet. In terms of outcomes, it would be fair to say that we’re still in trial run territory with graduates only just beginning to spill out into the – albeit ‘post-pandemic’ – economy.

A new pathway for esports

Seeing the opportunity for the secondary and post-secondary levels, Dore approached education publishing giant Pearson in 2018 to ask what they were doing in the space. The result was a new BTEC in Esports, made available for educational institutions worldwide from September 2020 and funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

The BTEC can be picked up at Year 10 and 11 stage (though it is not counted towards school league tables) and, if pursued as an A Level equivalent, it can be taken along with other subjects or worth up to three A Levels.

It consists of 20 units, including enterprise and entrepreneurship, strategy and analysis, events management, live-streamed broadcasting, video production, shoutcasting [commentating], coaching, health and wellbeing, the law and legislation and computer networking.

Completely vocational and without exams, the BTEC uses case studies from the esports industry and from the wider video gaming and tech industries. The coursework is based around an esports scenario where students develop their own esports enterprise, for which they write a strategic financial plan and then pitch it in a Dragon’s Den style environment to get investment.

Taught to 330 students across 15 colleges in 2020, the 2020-2021 academic year saw the BTEC rolled out to 160 colleges/centres to an estimated 2,000 students

Dore sees the course as a vehicle for transferrable skills – communication, entrepreneurial, design, production, etc – that could be used in the esports industry but also more widely in digital, creative and STEAM-based industries.

Taught to 330 students across 15 colleges in 2020, the 2020-2021 academic year saw the BTEC rolled out to 160 colleges/centres to an estimated 2,000 students. Over 100 of the centres were in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, with other schools in Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Spain, Netherlands, Dubai, India, Thailand and Indonesia.

While there are no graduate case studies just yet, one early BTEC success story is 17-year-old Josh Viney, who is studying the course at Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke. Already a co-founder of an esports company, Viney has just been employed by Guild Esports to be one of its scouts.

A competitive proposition

There’s arguably a plethora of reasons for schools and colleges to avoid esports: the exclusion from league tables; the outlay for a baseline operation (eg monitors, laptops with sufficient processing power or even consoles as certain games require); the wariness about screen time; etc.

However, as a testimony to the power of esports, the BTEC course is now being sought after for pupil referrals. “If that [epsorts] is the carrot with which you then make students do their maths and their English and attend school,” says Dore, “it’s better to get them to do that than try to force them to do a qualification.”

Engagement levels with esports can help make the case, and, with the British Esports Student Champs competition, Tom Dore can offer some compelling statistics.

“The Student Champs is the only PC-based schools esports tournament in the UK,” explains Dore, who spoke to ET at the start of this year’s competition. “We have 360 teams competing – double the number from this time last year.”

The grand final last year, held at Confetti, was streamed on Twitch where the viewership peaked at 182,000. “How many traditional school or college sport finals have that number of viewers?” Dore asks.

Catching them early

Four years before the BTEC was hatched, the Digital Schoolhouse (DSH) initiative from UKIE (The Association for Interactive Entertainment) started. DSH offers workshops and curriculum guidance around various aspects of digital learning, with esports covered by a senior tournament for 12-18 year olds and now a junior tournament for 8-11 year-olds which is sponsored by Nintendo.

esports
The Digital Schoolhouse initiative

Around the tournaments, there are lesson plans and other activities to give the communication and planning skills of the students a work-out. Meanwhile, key players in the industry are present at the tournaments to talk to pupils about opportunities in esport.

“The first year we did Rocket League,” says Shahneila Saeed, director of Digital Schoolhouse and UKIE’s head of education. “We had just under 500 kids taking part in the first pilot across four schools, and the findings that were coming back in terms of motivation to learn computing and attending school were really incredible.”

The 2020 tournament involved 10,000 children across 1,100 teams from 70 schools. Despite their obvious popularity, Saeed doesn’t see esports becoming taught “in its own right” but can see that it could become “part of standard school provision”.

Addressing the negative perceptions of esports

Before extolling the virtues of esports to the wider world, Dore had to convince his own headteacher at King Edward’s School in Bath to take on the new discipline. The head was circumspect to start with but, ultimately, took up the opportunity and is now “completely supportive of it, on balance, and in moderation” because he has seen pupils flourish playing esports while also keeping up a balance with homework and seeing friends in real life.

On concerns about toxicity and trash-talking, Dore notes that the teaching of esports is carried out as a private ‘closed community’, with moderators, but that can’t be guaranteed for all competitions.

For their part, the British Esports Association has developed a parents and carers guide with the NSPCC and is developing a membership platform with IBM with a moderated chat functionality that anticipates toxic comments rather than just deleting them after they have appeared.

Levelling the virtual playing field

Incidents of abusive language are a factor in the continuing gender imbalance within esports. However, while this has put some female gamers off, there is a cultural shift going on. Dore reports that the Student Champs competition has had an all-female team enter before and, this year, had its first entry from an all-girl school. Meanwhile the University of Roehampton has started to offer Women in Esports scholarships.

Shoubna Naika-Taylor, the curriculum lead for digital and esports manager at Coventry College, knows there is still work to be done. Only 3 of the 38 students doing the BTEC at college are women.

There are stereotypes about women or girls that play games that they ‘don’t actually like games’ and are just doing it because ‘they want attention’ – Naika-Taylor

As a Women in Games ambassador, Naika-Taylor tries to get across any initiatives that can help raise awareness, drawing in the work of support groups representing the diversity of gender, sexuality and race such as gameHERS.

Acknowledging that toxic and inappropriate language is a factor in impeding progress, Naika-Taylor adds that outdated attitudes and terms persist. “There are stereotypes about women or girls that play games that they ‘don’t actually like games’ and are just doing it because ‘they want attention’. We need to move away from that, and we need to avoid using the term ‘girl gamer’ and respect them as gamers.”

The future – more than a sporting chance

Dore is upbeat about diversity and inclusion, remarking that, “Esports is age neutral, it’s gender neutral and it’s able bodied/disabled-neutral.”

One thing that esports is not, of course, is tech-neutral. More centres with the right kit are opening, thanks to impetus of academic courses, while UKIE have encouraged businesses to support schools by donating their old devices.

… the UK’s esports sector had grown by an average of 8.5% between 2016-2019, supporting 1,200 jobs in 2019 and representing 8% of the global market

The rewards for levelling-up facilities are borne out by a 2020 report commissioned by UKIE, which reported the UK’s esports sector had grown by an average of 8.5% between 2016-2019, supporting 1,200 jobs in 2019 and representing 8% of the global market.

“It’s only going to get bigger,” says Dore. “In the same way that young people have the football team that they support, the rugby team they support, they’ll also have the esports team or teams that they support and that they follow in the same way that they do for traditional sport. It’s not going to be one or the other; it’s going to be both.”


Tom Dore biography

Tom Dore is head of education for the British Esports Association (BEA) and leads their work with young people and wider stakeholders in education. He is also the head of the Education Focus Group of the Global Esports Federation and is recognised as one of the leading global voices on esports & education.

Tom leads the BEA partnership with Pearson, the global learning company, and has developed the BTECs in Esports: the first esports qualifications of their kind in the world for 14-19 year olds. He is also leading critical work around safeguarding, child protection and online safety in esports.

Tom is also still a teacher and has taught for the last 17 years across a full range of state, independent (private) and alternative provision schools. He has held a range of senior leadership roles during that time, including Assistant Principal (Assessment & Progress) and Director of Maths & Science.

He currently teaches at King Edward’s School (KES), an academically selective, independent day school in Bath which is ranked in the top 75 schools in the UK. He is also committed to traditional sport and physical activity and is involved in the coaching and organisation of cricket and golf at KES as well as esports.


 

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