GameCentral visits Staffordshire University’s Digital Institute London to discover how their degree in esports is laying the groundwork for a new generation.
To call esports an ‘emerging’ industry downplays its popularity and growth across the world. At the start of 2019, research firms estimated it would become a billion-dollar industry worldwide before the year is out, with revenues rising through advertising, sponsorship deals, and media rights to stream the biggest tournaments.
While the UK is playing catch up compared to the rest of the world, there’s been enormous strides in recent years. More local leagues are popping up across the country, international organisations like Fnatic have offices in London, and recently football team Manchester City joined forces with esport company FaZe Clan to capitalise on its popularity with youth.
There’s also a quiet revolution happening in education. In 2018, Staffordshire University launched the UK’s first esports degree following the establishment of a number of esports scholarships in the U.S. Whereas those focus on nurturing players to win top prizes at tournaments, this degree opens career paths into the industry at large; building skills in production, event management, and casting, tailored to expectations in the esports world.
The UK degree, along with a range of games design courses, has expanded via the specialist hub Digital Institute London at Here East technological park in Stratford. The move was inspired by the London-centric placement of the students interested in the degree and the industry itself, allowing for greater networking and work placement opportunities – with Here East housing gaming and broadcast companies from Football Manager developer Sports Interactive to BT Sport.
The space itself is remarkably different from a traditional university building. There’s no classrooms or enclosed lecture halls to speak of, with an open-plan space splintered with computer workstations, casual teaching areas with sofas and bean bags, and an arena which replicates an esports tournament set-up with state of the art equipment.
It’s a modern learning space for a distinctly modern course. With tuition fees at £9,250 per year for a three-year degree in its infancy, however, it’s hard not to feel there’s a risk in accumulating overwhelming debt for a qualification tailored to a new industry. Rachel Gowers, director of Digital Institute London and co-creator of the degree, believes the transferable skills the degree offers make it far more flexible than it initially appears.
‘I think the beauty of it really is the transferable skills people will get,’ Rachel tells Metro GameCentral. ‘The skills students are getting are general business skills. They have to learn how to do all of the things our business students have to do but they have to contextualise it toward a particular industry.
‘At the end of their degree they’ll all have skills in event management, people management, budgeting, marketing, social media, all of the things which are really important to graduates nowadays. Most importantly, because all of their assessments are based on them having to do things like putting events on, the skills they get from physically doing that are massive.
‘We’ve delivered a whole year of this now, and the students that finished all put events on in their first year. They were all really confident in the way they approached the industry and talked to people; they networked amazingly well, and they really are a different breed of students than any of us are used to. They’re very proactive, and I think part of that is down to the way we’ve designed and delivered the degree, in having the underpinning that we deliver to them in a very informal way.’
Despite what it offers underneath the surface, there’s still a battle to fight ‘Mickey Mouse degree’ perceptions often pinned onto new subjects. Rachel isn’t concerned about this though, and points to challenges Media Studies faced when it emerged in the 1960s and 70s, which has since become a mainstream subject in many schools. ‘I think esports will be the same,’ Rachel adds. ‘There’s always criticism about anything new.’
There’s still a short-term battle, however, in convincing those unfamiliar with esports of the merits. Prospective employers are apparently not the problem, and have ‘embraced the creative digital skillset students gain’, but it’s parents and schools which have required the most work.
‘Some of the people we have had to convince are parents,’ Rachel says. ‘And because of the way schools don’t have funding for careers advice particularly anymore, we’ve had to convince schools there is a pathway for students to take legitimately which will lead to well paid jobs. That’s been more the battle.
‘When we do open days, usually the student will come with their parents and we’ll do an activity for the parents as well as the child. By the end of the session they have got a good understanding for the size of the industry, what it involves, how much money there is involved, what kind of jobs their son or daughter could get at the end, and that it’s actually really a valid career path.
‘The first thing I always say at an open day is you will not do any gameplay as part of your course. There’s no computer gameplay which is assessed at any point, and the parents are like, “Okay I’m listening now.” I think that’s the big thing to get over to people. This is not about how good you are at League Of Legends, this is about how good you are at networking, communicating, being creative and coming up with different problem solving things.’
Their efforts to convince appear to be working too, with around 120 students signing up for the degree in 2018 at Staffordshire University, after they only initially budgeted for 40 students. It’s become not only a way to grow and fuel the esports industry, but has also enticed people who perhaps weren’t interested in attending university at all otherwise.
‘The first open day that we did I met a group of parents who made me think about things in a slightly different way,’ Rachel added. ‘They came and said, “If you hadn’t of written the esports degree, my son wouldn’t have gone to university. They weren’t interested in going to university, there was nothing that interested them enough to spend the kind of money it takes to go, and they didn’t have the motivation to do it. But as soon as they saw your degree was advertised, they’re working harder at school because they want to get onto the degree.”
‘It made me think about the whole widening participation agenda and the fact there would be a whole group of people who perhaps traditionally wouldn’t have gone to university because there is nothing they were passionate about enough to make them want to borrow the money, or invest three years of their life into. That’s been a real eye opener and really motivated us to carry on.’
How do I get onto the esports degree?
The entry requirements for the esports degree at Staffordshire University’s Digital Institute London are as follows:
UCAS points: 112
A Levels: BBC
They take on mature students with less points if they have either relevant experience or experience which could translate into skills for esports. They also accept international students.
UK/EU/Channel Islands students: £9,250 per year of study
International students: £12,500 per year of study
Modules are broken down between event planning, building teams, casting and hosting, broadcasting methods, marketing content creation, and ethics in the industry.
Students are not assessed in exams but instead on projects like event plans, reports, evaluations, presentations, and written and video blogs.
For the students starting at Digital Institute London who have grown up following esports, there’s a sense concerns about the degree will be made redundant by the time they’ve completed the course, considering how fast the industry is growing.
Ellis Celia, 26, who is aspiring towards a career in esports events management, said: ‘I feel like this is the perfect time for an esports degree. It’s growing so quickly and it’s growing a lot more now we’re in 2019. So I think over the next few years while we’re getting our degrees, it’s going to be a lot bigger.
‘There’s going to be a larger market for it as well. So by doing it now there couldn’t have been a more perfect time.’
Ryan Chapman, 18, who wants a career in esports production, said: ‘I think if the course was set up maybe three or four years ago, esports wouldn’t have such a strong foundation to have degrees and courses because it’s still quite a new section. But now there’s a solidified idea of the viewership, the sponsors coming into it, and the longevity of the gaming tournament structure, it’s a good idea for the course to actually become a thing.
‘Staffordshire made really clear that when you’re applying for this degree there are so many skills that are transferable. So maybe in two or three years you think, “I really like esports but I’d rather be making events in music or festivals,” you can literally – these are the skills that can transfer into this role. I don’t have to be locked into esports if that’s what I don’t want to be locked into.’
The degree has already spread across other institutions, with the University of Chichester having started an esports course this year. A number of international universities have also approached Staffordshire’s esports division too to discuss their approach, with hopes of rolling it out abroad.
As they move forward, the technological park at Here East sees Digital Institute London as the start of their plans to grow UK esports. Gavin Poole, CEO at Here East, hopes it’ll even become the centre for a potential arena to support teams and the scene itself.
‘Ultimately I would like to see more businesses come to Here East for us to open some sort of arena or mini-stadium,’ Gavin said. ‘Where we could curate and support teams to come and play tournaments, and possibly anchor and give a home to franchises should they need to.
‘The engagement is there and now we just need to drive. We saw esports over the last four years suddenly start to lift, and it’s lifted now. That’s why it’s amazing we’ve now got a university opening here at Here East which is going to develop not the next generation of players, but the people that are then going to feed the industry to build events, run the technology, host, create and stream the content, all of those talents are going to be trained through the university.
‘It’s about developing the talent pipeline to ensure the esports sector continues to grow. That’s really important.’
You can find out more information about Digital Institute London on their official website.
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