Esports has taken centre stage throughout the Covid crisis – and as Harry Drysdale-Wood learns, universities and business schools are also plugging into its vast potential
Video games have been big business for as long as many of us can remember. The golden years of the 1980s saw teenagers gathered around arcade machines, watching players tackle Renegade, Afterburner, and Out Run, before things really started to hot up in the early ‘90s, with driving simulators blazing a trail in group play. Coins in the slot, gamers could line up against friends and foe and tear into the first bend – the future had been glimpsed.
Attempts to pioneer online gaming date back to the 1970s and beyond. The first example of a networked multi-player game was Empire, which was written for the PLATO network system in 1973. Logs recording the use of the PLATO system showed users spent 300,000 hours playing Empire between 1978 and 1985. Fast-forward to 2000 and the release of the first internet-ready console, the Sega Dreamcast. Although the console failed, ending Sega’s position as a major force in the gaming world, a new generation of consoles configured for online play followed in its wake. In 2002, the Microsoft Xbox made real advances, which were fine-tuned for the Xbox 360 in 2005. Since that day, the only place for gamers to be is online.
Few will have been surprised by the popularity of players linking up across continents to play FIFA, Call of Duty and the like. However, the rise of esports, and the scale of audience interest over the last decade has caused everyone in the business world to sit up and take notice. In July 2019, a 16-year old boy became the world’s best Fortnite player, bagging a $3m prize in the process. The US government officially recognises esports players as professional athletes. No longer are people just playing games for fun, they are competing professionally in staged events, all the while delivering masses of online content for marketing firms to sink their teeth into.
Esports has witnessed 445% growth over the last five years, with revenues of $3bn worldwide expected by 2022. The 2019 League of Legends final was watched by 99.6 million globally, and by 2023 it is thought there will be some 300 million frequent esports viewers.
Playing for real
From media and marketing, to consultancy and data analytics, there is a broad range of professions required to make the esports’ world tick, which is why an increasing number of universities and business schools have made the sector part of their package. Staffordshire University was the first in the UK to add esports to its portfolio – now known as Staffordshire University London, Director Rachel Gowers says the biggest obstacles in establishing the programme were about perception: “The main challenges were convincing the media that the course was not about teaching people to play games and persuading parents this was a valid career path.”
The university laid the groundwork throughout 2016 and 2017 for a 2018 start – any fears regarding the uptake were soon laid to rest: “Within four weeks of applications being open we had hit our target and so grew the size of the course rapidly, with over 100 students starting in the first year. Usually the first year of a new course runs on minimum numbers of 15-20,” says Ms Gowers.
Whilst no industry could ever wish to profit from a global health crisis, the last few months have demonstrated that esports is here to stay. Among others, ESPN, Eurosport, and BT Sports have filled reeling broadcast schedules with esports – while the events attracted marketers of all stripes, other sports took a hit from Covid-19. Formula One and NASCAR both turned to virtual racing in order to deliver a product, with a mixture of current drivers and celebrities taking the wheel.
Pandemic aside, it all bodes well for students hedging their futures on this burgeoning industry. According to the Staffordshire University London esports prospectus, students by their final year “will be totally immersed in esports and develop a large-scale commercial event from start to finish”. They will also learn about games community management, the legal issues involved with esports, as well as the business of building and effectively running teams. Data analytics and how to present meaningful statistics during game play is also on the agenda.
So, beyond combining huge commercial potential with fun and social engagement, are there any another dimensions to esports? Mickael Romezy, Head of Sports Makers Institute at emlyon business school thinks so: “Esports requires a lot of training and the development of managerial skills that can be transposed in a corporate environment.” Emylon believes so strongly in the soft skills that esports can develop that it’s offering all Masters and BBA students the chance to earn academic credits by playing League of Legends, Fortnite, and FIFA.
“Our students, like our faculty, have perfectly understood what this supervised practice could bring them in their professional career: capacity for strategic analysis, risk calculation, leadership, team spirit, stress management, decision making and performance management. These are qualities expected from future managers and executives in companies,” says Mr Romezy.
And to ensure a level playing field, students can access live group coaching with an esports professor, plus a whole plethora of other tools designed to maximise joypad potential. This training element is in partnership with the Gaming Campus in Lyon – Europe’s first higher education facility dedicated exclusively to the video game industry.
It would seem the hard work is paying off, with emylon making the final of the first ESC esport League of Legends French Cup, organised by SKEMA. Six teams from French business schools, comprising 30 players faced off on 25-26 April, and although IÉSEG School of Management made off with the silverware, the real winner was esports, with the event registering 30,000 viewers across the TwitchTV-Ritogaming platform.
Through the levels
Compared to mainstream sports with their myriad of regulatory bodies and established broadcasting revenue streams, esports is still very much in its infancy. Challenges lie ahead in terms of regulation and ownership of media rights.
According to says Mr Romezy: “The difficulty lies in the internationalisation of legislation. Indeed, Asian countries have largely regulated the practice of esport and the associated market, especially in terms of advertisers and broadcasters [in their local space], but this is not the case in many countries.”
He continues: “The different actors and rights holders will have to structure themselves to build a lasting model, not dependent on fashions and games. Indeed, if at present, customers are essentially made up of the fan base of certain games, the development and sustainability of the market presupposes that structures can invent other sources of income from other audiences.”
So, with esports being at an early stage, can the academic sector influence the global formation of the market? “Schools are closely monitoring the development of this emerging market in France and Europe, and many of our students are looking into the matter through case studies […] In addition, many of our former students work in the video game sector and keep us informed of major projects or innovations,” says Mr Romezy.
Academia does indeed have a role to play in creating value for the esports sector, but in terms of actually shaping the way esports evolves Ms Gowers of Staffordshire University London believes, “it isn’t for universities to drive the agenda, but to support the industry,” adding that, “universities can be at the forefront of innovation which helps grow the industry.”
For example, Staffordshire was one of the first UK universities to adopt NewTek’s dynamic Network Device Interface protocol for the delivery of video over IP. Now the university has 350 esports students using this technology across two campuses, with many other esports companies adopting it since.
Ms Gowers describes how this technology was implemented in collaboration with esports professionals. As a result, the university’s multi-purpose esports arena and broadcast zone meets professional standards and external companies can use the space. It’s a win-win scenario.
“This is mutually beneficial, as students can then have access to these industry professionals and gain valuable real-world experience throughout their degrees,” adds Ms Gowers.
No doubt the coronavirus crisis has put esports in the spotlight, consolidating its position as a scalable industry with vast commercial potential. In recent years there has even been talk of it becoming an Olympic event. There is some way to go before that happens, but in the meantime there is new and exciting territory for higher education to explore. And parents need not worry – the games are being played for a reason.