Esports in universities – serious games, big fun

One of the big differences between sport in US and UK universities is the sheer scale and investment in every aspect of sporting operations in the US, where football coaches and athletics directors are often paid significantly more than university presidents and more is spent on facilities – from stadia to climbing walls – than would be imaginable in the UK context.

One of the areas where there appears to be at least a chance of greater comparability though is in esports. I noted here back in 2014 of the launch of some scholarships for League of Legends players.  Developments in the US are starting to get extremely interesting as this recent Chronicle report notes:

At Columbia College, in Missouri, a once-smelly locker room for the soccer team has been converted into a futuristic-looking space for a promising new group of competitors: students who play video games on the growing campus “eSports” circuit. The Game Hut, as it is known, is now a don’t-miss stop on the campus tour.
At Boise State University, a 3,000-square-foot section of the library has been emptied of stacks and is being renovated into a glass-walled area big enough for 100 video-game competitors — and twice as many spectators.
Competitive video gaming on the collegiate level — known as eSports — is spreading rapidly. While many may argue over whether these organized competitions of multiplayer video games are “real” sports or not, and others question whether colleges should be encouraging activities that can foster online sexism or lead to a type of addiction, there’s no question that eSports are claiming their place on campuses. With more than 70 colleges now boasting scholarships for their varsity eSports teams (up from six two years ago), and hundreds of other institutions offering club teams, college leaders are scrambling to develop attractive new campus spaces where headset-wearing students can sit at computers in ergonomic chairs and duke it out with teams from other colleges.

Whilst I don’t think there are any examples of esports scholarships in the UK (yet) and I’ve not heard of any library spaces being converted for gaming there have been some big developments announced recently including the creation of an official body, National Student Esports, NSE. The NSE is supported by BUCS and is intended to support the development of esports in universities and will run the first official university esports championship and was launched in May at a big event at the Red Bull Gaming Sphere in London (a venue to which I remain a stranger):

By working with student organisations and game publishers, and with BUCS to leverage their knowledge, relationships and infrastructure across the higher education sector, NSE aims to raise the profile of university esports and create the best university esports experience worldwide. Their goal will be to build the community and to enrich and support the student experience at universities. By partnering with BUCS, NSE will also look to bring the higher education sector and the esports industry together to recognise the exceptional talent of student leaders in the esports and gaming space.
During the announcement, the team revealed their plans which will kick off at the start of the 2018/19 academic year. The official university esports championships will begin in October 2018 and will be among the first university competitions backed by a governing body. Alongside the championships, NSE will provide a programme of support for university societies and a first-of-it’s-kind digital community platform.

As NSE themselves put it they will be

working with student organisations and game publishers, and also by working with BUCS to leverage their knowledge, relationships and infrastructure across the higher education sector NSE aims to create an ecosystem for esports within universities around the UK, operating a series of official university esports competitions, offering a range of supportive services to student esports societies and a first-of-it’s-kind digital community platform.

The competitions they will be running are intended to involve students of all skill levels (I suspect they really don’t mean ALL levels) through tiered-competitive play, culminating in two annual championship events. We get a bit more detail in this interview with NSE executive director Jonathan Tilbury in which he discusses NSE’s ambitious plans and the BUCS set up with Esports News (a journal which is new to me, I must confess):


The university esports market has absolutely exploded over the last three or four years – it’s grown so quickly and inevitably continues to grow.

You’ll also find that when you talk to universities, there’s still a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding around gaming and esports. People still do not take it seriously. So we also exist to educate and again, BUCS are brilliant with this – they provide that communication with the people that need to be educated in order for the university societies and players to get more support.
And also, the skills and employment piece. It’s really important for us that the wider world recognises that if you’re playing esports tournaments with a team once a week for a year, you are a more employable person at the end of it. You can’t teach soft skills, they have to be practiced. What better way to do that than competition?
People talk about the benefits of sports, they’re not just talking about health benefits, they’re talking about communication and so on, and that’s applicable to esports as well.
What we’ve got the ability to do is to make sure those skills are recognised and educate the wider world, work with employers and industry to show them the benefits of people who’ve been through university esports. Playing in university esports does give you something to put on your CV that will have a meaningful effect on employment, whether it’s applying for a job in the games industry or elsewhere.

I am sure he is right about the misunderstandings around esports but suspect this is at least partly down to lack of solid information which I’m sure the BUCS-supported activities will help address. And the skills and employability aspects will, I am sure, be embraced by universities too.

Before you ask though they have yet to identify which games will be the basis of the competitions. But it’s a bit more likely to be League of Legends than Donkey Kong.

Serious games indeed.

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