Game on: esports takes off

As noted here before the US is some way ahead of the UK in the development of esports, although perhaps there is not quite the size of gap as that which exists in more mainstream sports facilities and investment.

I noted here back in 2014 of the launch of some scholarships for League of Legends players in the US and, more recently have posted here on some big UK developments announced 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 by running the first official university esports championship. Since this previous article there have been some further significant changes in the UK. Whilst I’ve still not heard of any library spaces being converted for gaming, Staffordshire University now has the UK’s first esports degree up and running.

Press start

It covers a wide range of activities:

You will learn within a practical technical environment everything required to host small and large scale events. Developing your skills for single player and multi-player team events you will create business plans to build teams, create online communities and promote your events through digital marketing. You will also get the opportunity to explore the culture of esports, its audience and fan base as well as a variety of the most popular current game genres. As the sector grows, the ethical and legislative regulations are trying to keep pace, you will learn what is happening in the industry right now and how these issues are affecting the esports environment.

  • Join one of our competitive societies including games such as: League of Legends, DOTA2, Hearthstone, Counter Strike, Overwatch and Super Smash Bros and compete in events in the UK and overseas.
  • Take part in UK and International varsities.
  • Visit esports events in the UK
  • Study digital marketing and take Google Garage Exams as part of the course.
  • Plan, develop and implement an esports event. In the first year the event will be a single player event, in year two this progresses to a team player event and in the third year the event will be a large scale, commercial venue event with team players and a prize fund.
  • You will be taught in a dedicated Esports Lab and Pro Gamer training facility with all the latest industry standard software and hardware.

And on successful completion of study graduates receive a BA (Hons) Esports.

Insert coin?

Meanwhile the University of Chichester has also announced an esports degree with a slightly different emphasis:

The programme examines esports from a number of perspectives:

  • Competitive game play
  • Sports science
  • Psychology
  • Event production
  • Business

Students will get the chance to participate in single and multiplayer games events, both live and online, across a number of titles including Counter Strike, FIFA, League of Legends and Project Cars.
This highly practical course examines, through scientific study, the effects and impact of extensive gaming, both physical and psychological. Student will get a good understanding of events promotion and management as they stage online and live room competitions, and gain an understanding of commercial sponsorship opportunities for this dynamic new area.
We will cover the current issues and trends concerning ethics and codes of conduct, player management and coaching and the impact of immersive gaming experiences of virtual and augmented reality.
For the gamer there is also continual skills development sessions and the study of strategic and tactical thinking to enhance gameplay success.

Not everyone welcomes this innovation though. The Daily Mail takes something of a dim view and as part of its story on the Chichester course quotes a sceptic:
Chairman of The Campaign for Real Education Chris McGovern said: ‘These universities are seducing students into joining their courses as a money-making racket.
‘They make these courses like computer game studies seem really attractive to young people and then they are leaving with £50,000 worth of debt and are unemployable.
Universities are failing in their moral responsibility to students by allowing them to take a course which will be no use whatsoever.’
A University of Chichester spokesperson said: ‘We are looking to the jobs of the future to support young people and those seeking a change of career.

Levelling up

And from September 2019, the University of Roehampton will be offering the UK’s first esports scholarships.

The scholarship, the first of its kind for a UK university, is worth £1,500 a year and will support a student on any undergraduate and postgraduate courses enrolling at Roehampton from Autumn 2019. Up to 15 esports scholarships will be available for students enrolling.
Students applying for the scholarship will need to demonstrate aptitude in the field and in common with other sports scholarships available at the University, successful applicants over the coming years will be required to display their commitment to esports alongside successful academic progression.

Meanwhile, in the US the Chronicle reports that there is something of a race on to recruit gamers for university esports programmes. Whilst some, such as the University of California at Irvine, recruit for their esports teams primarily from among current students, others are out looking for those to join their teams. For example…

In high school, Ryan Nget was already a professional gamer. He spent hours training for his next League of Legends tournament, climbing the rankings, and winning thousands of dollars in prize money. When he started applying to colleges, Nget wanted to keep up his competitive gaming profile while also enjoying college as a normal student. Harrisburg University of Science and Technology gave him that option.
A growing number of colleges like Harrisburg are buying into esports, starting programs and building million-dollar facilities where gamers take on their counterparts on other campuses. And while some observers roll their eyes at the trend — still in its infancy — high-profile esports programs are looking to gain prestige by recruiting gamers like Nget.
“It doesn’t matter to me what people think about the sport,” he said. “All I know is that I’m getting a full ride to Harrisburg University.”

There are now over 120 esports programmes in US universities and the territory is so new and chaotic that some have described it as the Wild West of collegiate sports. Some universities are using recruitment agencies similar to those used to hunt for more traditional athletes and coaches. Others search on “gaming leaderboards, attend high-school tournaments, and hold competitions” in order to entice the gaming talent.

The University of California at Irvine though has a different approach and concentrates on its on-campus talent:

It also scouts high-school students but limits the number of esports recruits to three or four per year said Mark Deppe, the university’s esports director. Because Irvine’s esports program is housed in the student-affairs department, the program has a focus broader than competition. It also includes game research and career development for participating students.
“Even with the rapid growth of college esports, I sense there may be a bubble forming,” he said. “There are a lot of schools looking to generate interest in their university, position themselves as innovators, and win championships. With over 100 schools now investing in esports, … the space is getting more saturated.

Bonus round

The gaming industry is big and growing in the UK and there are also those who argue that there are wider benefits to esports too in terms of the skills acquired by casual as well as serious gamers. A recent Guardian article by Dr Matthew Barr, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow and vice-chair of the British Digital Games Research Association, suggested that a range of core skills were enhanced where students engaged in gaming:

We assigned undergraduate students to one of two groups: one played games together for two hours per week, the other did not. Both groups had to self-report on measures of communication resourcefulness and adaptability.
While the majority of games selected for the study were multiplayer, emphasising teamwork and collaboration, the variety of eight games was intended to exercise participants’ adaptability. A game like Papers, Please, for example, requires an entirely different skill set to that demanded by the team-based mayhem of a title such as Team Fortress 2.
After eight weeks, the students in the game-playing group scored significantly higher for communication, resourcefulness and adaptability. Looking at it another way, a significantly greater number of students in the game-playing group increased their scores than in the control group. The game-based intervention worked, for most students.
This suggests that video games may have a role to play in universities, and can offer an engaging and low-cost way of developing graduate skills. If we encourage students to join university sports teams to gain useful experience, then why not include video games in the list of worthwhile extra-curricular activities? Certainly, the possibility is worth exploring.

So it would seem that esports is really taking off and might yet have an ever greater impact on higher education, on both sides of the Atlantic.

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