Could esports be a winner for colleges?

Colleges across the country launched the first-ever BTEC in esports this month. So what can we expect from the course? Is it just a gimmick that will let students spend their study time competitive-gaming? Or will it provide young people with the skills to forge a successful career in a massively growing industry? Carly Page investigates
11th September 2020, 12:01am
Could Esports Be A Winner For Colleges?


Could esports be a winner for colleges?

There are players on the “pitch”, crowds of screaming fans packed into arenas and millions watching from home. There are teams, coaches, tactics and transfers. And there are million-dollar prize funds and elite players. But despite all of this, esports still struggles to be taken seriously as a sport.

Perhaps it’s because esports is essentially competitive gaming: players sit playing video games, rather than running around exerting physical energy. Or maybe the reputation of video games as a derailer of youth hinders perceptions.

But disparaging esports is becoming an ever-more difficult endeavour. The sport is organised, it’s professional and it’s very, very popular. The burgeoning industry is projected to generate revenues of $1.1 billion (£830 million) in 2020, which would mean year-on-year growth of more than 16 per cent, and the total esports audience is set to rise 11.7 per cent to around 495 million individuals. Yes, players are sitting down and wrestling only with a controller, but is that really any different to standing and throwing a dart, or sitting on a horse? It’s definitely physical - just watch the videos on YouTube: these guys work up a sweat.

Still not convinced? Maybe the next step in the sport’s evolution will persuade you: esports is slowly carving out a place in further education - as a full-blown qualification.

Capitalising on this booming industry’s need for skilled professionals, global learning company Pearson, in partnership with the British Esports Association, has developed a first-of-its-kind BTEC in esports.

Yes, you read that correctly: from this month, students in the UK who know their Call of Duty from their Counter-Strike will be able to study the level 3 qualification at colleges across the UK. Suddenly, the dream of thousands of teenagers in darkened rooms has come true.

However, if you have visions of colleges training young people in the art of digital war play, you are mistaken.

According to Tom Dore, head of education at the British Esports Association, students who opt to take the BTEC won’t just be confined to their bedroom with a console and snacks (though they may wish to do that in their own time). Instead, the skills-based qualification comprises 20 units that focus on the business of esports. These include enterprise and entrepreneurship, strategy and analysis, events management, live-streamed broadcasting, video production, shoutcasting (that’s an esports word for commentating), coaching, health and wellbeing, the law and legislation, computer networking and more.

But does that “more” actually include playing a video game?

“Yes, there are aspects of playing esports on this course,” admits Dore. “But it’s [mostly] looking at the wider industry around it and the links it has to the wider Stem, digital and video-gaming industries.”

Dore is keen to talk up the fact that colleges that offer this qualification will be delivering a number of transferable skills to their students (and no, that doesn’t mean they will be able to better transfer their skills in covert attack between Call of Duty and Overwatch).

“As well as teamwork and leadership, there are business-linked units, creative media-linked units, sport coaching, health and nutrition-linked units and there are units on game design and computing networking,” he says. “It’s hugely cross-curricular; I can’t think of another vocational course that picks up on so many different areas.”

When it comes to assessment, you may be expecting some form of virtual death-match, but actually there is nothing resembling a final reckoning on the course. Instead, it’s all coursework-based. In the business enterprise unit, for example, students will learn to write business plans and to pitch for investment, with the practical side based around esports.

“Students will need to come up with their own esports enterprise, and then pitch that in a Dragons’ Den-style environment,” Dore reveals.

So is the lure of being part of a growing digital sport, looking relevant to the next generation and all that cross-curricular appeal enough to get colleges on board? It seems so: 72 centres have already been approved to deliver the course, with a further 42 expressions of interest.

“There are some cases where groups of students have got together and gone to their college, saying, ‘We’ve seen this course - we would love to do it,’” Dore says.

Queen Mary’s College in Basingstoke is among the colleges now offering the esports BTEC. “Being aware that [esports] was an interest, and that the esports industry was starting to generate a lot of conversation in the UK, we thought that there might be room to manoeuvre some sort of course into the college,” explains James Fraser-Murison, director of learning and head of creative arts and technologies at Queen Mary’s.

“We launched our first-ever esports enrichment in September 2019,” he says. “We gained 55 students straight off the bat, and then we had to create a waiting list of 15, and all of those students had to stay an hour after college had finished. So we knew we were on to a good thing.”

Indeed, Fraser-Murison was so convinced that he was one of the architects who put together the esports BTEC course.

“We’ve put together a really good spec and the course is contemporary, engaging, relevant and fun, all within an educational sphere,” he says, adding that 48 students have signed up for the inaugural year of the BTEC at Queen Mary’s. “We’ve now got something that is absolutely cutting-edge and allows itself to constantly evolve into what’s new and what’s fresh just by the very nature of the course.”

Barnsley College is another of the centres that has been convinced that bringing gaming into the building is a good idea.

“We are finding that esports has been an excellent vehicle to drive engagement in sport and re-engagement in education with an incredibly diverse group of learners in a unique learning environment,” reveals Kalam Neale, curriculum lead at the college

As positive as this all sounds, though, is this just pandering to the personal interests of a group of students without any long-term gain for them in terms of careers?

With students only beginning the BTEC for the first time this month, it remains to be seen how the qualification (and any others like it that get developed in future) will be viewed by potential esports employers. But Dr Emily Ryall, reader in applied philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and editor of the Esport Science Insights platform, believes that as the industry continues to grow, a range of new professional paid roles will start to be created.

“Some of these roles may replicate existing sports roles, such as coaches, psychologists, nutritionists, performance managers and event organisers,” she says. “Other roles may be unique, particularly in design, coding and other similar technical areas.”

And there are some positive signs that an esports-related qualification will boost a young person’s chances of accessing those roles.

Staffordshire University launched the UK’s first esports degree in 2018. That qualification has received wide-ranging industry support and Rachel Gowers, director at Staffordshire University London, suggests that the signs are already good that an esports qualification could soon be a very welcome addition to someone’s CV.

“In terms of the amount of work placement opportunities and live project briefs that have been coming through from industry, I think students will be very well placed,” she says. “The industry has been really supportive, and we’ve got an advisory panel we work with in London that offers students mentoring and workplace opportunities. For example, an esports broadcast called Blast in London took on four of our students. We’ve also had a guy that went out to interview an esports caster in San Francisco. There are a lot of work opportunities out there.”

But what if these students ultimately choose a different career path? Will the BTEC be viewed in a similarly positive light? And what about the impact on the sector as a whole - is an esports BTEC a positive step for the image of FE?

Dore likens the launch of an esports course to the arrival of media qualifications some 10 or 15 years ago, which were viewed by many as “useless” but can now be studied at colleges up and down the country, with students going on to a wide variety of careers. For him, there’s no doubt that we will all see the worth of this course in time.

And he has such confidence that he is already plotting the expansion of the esports presence in FE.

“The level 3 has been fully approved by the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and the level 2 is going through that process at the moment. And then we’re developing entry-level and level 1 qualifications as well,” Dore explains.

If that thought fills you with dread, then he says you just need to get with the times and accept that change is inevitable: esports is coming to FE whether you like it or not.

“It’s the vehicle that educators need to wake up to,” he says. “It’s the equivalent of discovering football has just been invented.”

Carly Page is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 11 September 2020 issue under the headline “Ready player one? Your esports BTEC is starting”

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