The future of eSports: schools, universities and long-term careers

While pundits debate on whether eSports is actually a sport and others bemoan its corrupting influence, schools and universities around the world are offering degrees, diplomas and scholarships and developing hi-tech curriculum material for the business of eSport, the design and development of games, and gaming itself.

This article is aimed at the naysayers — those who say that eSports is just a flash in the pan, a temporary phenomenon, a “bubble”, an addiction or a corrupting influence on the youth.

It is also aimed at the youth who see eSports as a legitimate sport that warrants their attention. It aims to highlight the huge potential that is opening for them for studies and careers in a brand new industry.

Defining eSports

eSports are video games played in a competitive environment. This includes both amateur and professional players and is usually associated with leagues, ladders and tournaments. All games can be included, not just those of the sports genre.

While eSports is only a small part of the overall gaming market, there’s no doubt that it is a growth phenomenon. The global eSports economy is showing a year-on-year growth of 38% to nearly a billion US dollars. Most of this is from sponsorships, advertising, media rights and licensing of content — in other words, the same business model as traditional sports. And audiences for eSports are also growing, based very much on technological improvements in internet connectivity for live streaming and the increasing use of mobile devices.

You can read more about 2018 Trends in eSports here.

The question is whether this is just something on the fringes or whether it is going mainstream.

What are the signs that eSports is rapidly going mainstream?

You know that there’s something going on when statistics about ESports feature on the website of the World Economic Forum.

Add to this the “Esports Forum” hosted by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) in July 2018. The GAISF President, Patrick Baumann had this to say,

“We understand that sport never stands still and the phenomenal growth of esports and gaming is part of its continuing evolution. The Esports Forum provides an important and extremely valuable opportunity for us to gain a deeper understanding of esports, their impact and likely future development, so that we can jointly consider the ways in which we may collaborate to the mutual benefit of all of sport in the years ahead.”

Just days after the FIFA 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, the FIFA eWorld Cup final was held in the landmark O2 stadium in London. It showcased the top 32 players who had qualified through various global events, involving more than 20 million online players, between November 2017 and June 2018. The winner, 18-year old “MSDossary” from Saudi Arabia, walked away with $250 000 in prize money, along with an invitation to the Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony — where he says he hopes to meet his football hero, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Then-ESPN president John Skipper may be regretting his emphatic declaration in 2014 that eSports was a competition but not a sport. eSports will be included as a medal event in the 2022 Asian Games, and there is pressure to have it included in the Olympic Games.

Likewise, there’s been a shift in mood for most countries. For example, China has moved from passing legislation to limit time on the internet, and listing “web addiction” as a clinical disorder, to China being one of the leading countries for eSports. 40,000 fans filled Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium to watch the final of the world championships for League of Legends.

However, perhaps one of the most telling demonstrations of the change in understanding and acceptance of gaming and eSports is in the approaches being taken by universities around the world.

Schools and scholarships for eSports

Schools are starting to develop programs and degrees for eSports. Some schools are providing scholarships to students in much the same way that they provide scholarships for traditional sports. They are based on the student’s ability in the sport, contributions to teams and academic grades. They are backed by talent scouts, coaches and game analysts just as for traditional sports.

There are numerous examples from around the world.

USA

The Robert Morris University in Illinois, USA, in 2014 became the first University in the USA to have a scholarship-sponsored League of Legends team. Team members can qualify for $19,000 for room and board. They are recruited in a similar way to rising stars selected for traditional sports.

The University of California Irvine has 10 scholarships available for members of the College League of Legends team. It had sponsorship from computer companies and Riot Games to open a new $250 000 “eSports Arena” in 2017.

Many smaller universities see gaming courses as more affordable to present than others. For example, Boston’s Emerson College is offering a new course on eSports this year and eventually hopes to offer a minor degree. The University of Pikeville is looking to sponsor the best players — and has set high standards for both academic achievement and practice regimes. Columbia College has converted an old soccer locker room into a fully-fledged gaming arena.

Today there are over 50 such programmes in the USA, and there is a national governing body — the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Michael Brooks, executive director of the Association, says they have been taken a little bit off guard by the reaction — they are speaking to three to four new schools every day.

Another interesting organization is Tespa, which is a network of college clubs, set up to promote gaming on college and university campuses, and to set up college events and competitions. It has more than 15,500 members in over 200 chapters, based at multiple university campuses — from Purdue and Harvard to Ohio State, Denver, Louisiana, Texas, Berklee, John Hopkins, George Washington, Nevada and Utah — you name the university, there’s a chapter there. Tespa’s “Heroes of the Storm” tournament in 2015 had $450,000 up for grabs in the form of free tuition for up to three years.

Outside companies are also getting in on the act. For example, the video game retailer KontrolFreek is looking to provide scholarships to casual players who maintain a 4.0 GPA (academic record) as well as to more hardcore gamers who might have somewhat lower grades.

Really interesting is the entry of the William Morris Endeavor — International Management Group (WME-IMG). Their academy has provided training to top athletes over the past 40 years — including tennis players Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova. In 2016, they announced that they would be providing training for eSports athletes too.

UK

In the UK, Staffordshire University is offering a BA (Hons) in eSports commencing in September 2018. This course is focused on the business side of eSports: hosting tournaments and events, developing teams and fan bases, streaming, digital marketing, game genres and more. This course comes on top of existing programmes at the University in games design and development. The university boasts a dedicated eSports Lab and Pro-Gamer training facility, with the latest industry-standard software and hardware.

Singapore

In June 2018, the Informatics Academy in Singapore launched a Diploma in eSports and Game Design. This is a 12-month part-time or 8-month full-time programme, for young people looking for a career in the eSports industry. The Academy has partnered with key players in the industry, such as ESL Asia, Riot Games and Twitch. They have provided insights into curriculum design, will give guest lectures and offer internships for students coming out of the programme.

China

In Jinan, China, the Lanxiang Technical School offers a 3-year programme to develop the gaming skills of students. During the first year, half of the content is on gaming and half on game theory. From 2nd year, the best students continue to become professional players (many of them also receive scholarships) and the rest are given the opportunity to qualify as coaches or eSports business managers. The goal is to help students to cash in on the country’s digital gaming industry which already employs 50,000 people and looks set to employ 260,000 more.

According to iResearch, there are 260 million people in China either playing or watching eSports, and this number keeps growing. Revenue from the eSports part of gaming is relatively low but nonetheless expected to reach 13.8 billion Yuan ($150 million) in 2019.

There are gaming teams at 910 universities across China.

Brazil

Brazil is really interesting. According to NewZoo, it is #3 in the world in terms of eSports enthusiasts, behind China and the USA. 7.6 million Brazilians watch professional content more than once a month. The annual spend per payer is $37.22, considerably higher than the global average of $5.49.

Previously, Brazil was perhaps better-known for imitations of games. Today, there are government incentives for the development and export of games, and there are multiple professional game companies. A big studio like Kokku will employ anything between 40 and 90 developers, depending on the need. Universities are supporting this drive, with 45 universities offering classes in games development.

Europe

Finland is a major center for the development of games. Supercell, the developer of Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, was recently bought out by Tencent, but remains headquartered in Finland. Critical Force has just released mobile versions of its popular C-Ops game. It has also established an academy for students at the Kajaani University, which has one of the best game development curriculums in Europe.

In Norway, the Garnes Vidaregaande Skule is the first high school to add eSports to the school’s core curriculum. The rationale is that it enhances a student’s ability to stay focused over a long period of time. The Arlanda Gymnasiet School in Sweden introduced an eSports curriculum in 2015. Their stated goal is to equip students to work in the eSports industry, even if they don’t have the talent to be professional players.

Like Tespa in the USA, there is a body bringing together all university gaming communities in the EU. This is the UEM — University Esports Masters. It represents students at universities in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Winners from the UEM 2017 European University Championships took part in the International College Cup in China, a tournament sponsored by Tencent. Here two teams each from China, Europe, North America, South East Asia, and one team each from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong competed in a League of Legends tournament over 4 days, for a prize of about $15,000. The two teams in the final (from China and Canada) also qualified for the 29th Summer Universiade in Taipei. The Universiade is a multi-sport university competition — and is the largest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympic games.

Russia

The Skoltech Esports Academy just outside Moscow is an example of how gaming and eSports can be the basis for innovation. Researchers from other departments at the University are using the game-related technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing at the Academy to develop new kinds of software, capable of advanced decision-making in complex situations. And innovations in hardware, like virtual and augmented reality interfaces, can be tested on the gamers — a built-in population of skilled users. The Academy has moved beyond just preparing students for careers in gaming and the digital economy. It has become an innovation hub for the University as a whole and the place for start-ups by students and researchers that will drive competition in the Russian and global market.

Perhaps the comment from Asi Burak, CEO of PowerPlay, a company in partnership with Skoltech, says it all when we wonder about whether eSports might be a negative influence on young people:

“Becoming a Russian professional gamer is about discipline, exceptional abilities, leadership, media understanding, nutrition, and being a role model to fans. And Skoltech can help train and shape that next generation of Russian winners.”

In summary….

For the naysayers — there might be more to the eSports phenomenon than meets the eye. Anybody who still thinks that eSports is about teenagers stuck in their bedrooms for hours may have missed some of sheer size and competitiveness of this growing sport.

For the youth — there might be more opportunities in the eSports phenomenon than you were aware of. But it will take hard work and discipline, exactly like in other sports.

A quick heads-up: Be on the look-out for the launch of the beta version of the Play2Live streaming platform. It brings a new form of blockchain-based technology to gaming and eSports and gives an opportunity for everyone — players, viewers, tournament organizers or games owners — to develop their skills and to earn an income.

Stay tuned!

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