While the trials and tribulations of Emma Raducanu at Flushing Meadows were in full swing in the second week of the US Open, a parallel universe of esports and education was developing in Basingstoke. Two success stories side by side — with one involving far less prize money! But after celebrating our new national hero's success it led me to reflect on a somewhat smaller, but equally satisfying adventure: the induction of BTEC esports students at Queen Mary’s College.
Along with the regular shenanigans that September brings for every college across the country, the intake of the new wave of esports students has been a real eye opener!
Over the last three days I have intercepted, interrogated, inducted, introduced, and more importantly offered a very warm welcome to over seventy five students who have made the decision to study esports at QMC, and there’s two classes that I haven’t seen yet! But over those three days, including a full induction day with my tutor group a few key themes have emerged which have been buzzing around my brain and have forced me to put pen to paper to try to answer a question I ask myself: "Why is education and esports a winning formula?"
Will I be able to achieve that in this article? Only you can decide, but hopefully you will obtain a valuable insight into my own thoughts with some evidential based justification of my ideas.
Firstly, I should put things into some context on a national scale. For those of you who aren’t aware, I am very comfortable in saying Queen Mary’s College (QMC) in Basingstoke is at the forefront of esports within Further Education in the UK. Our Director of Learning James Fraser-Murison (a.k.a. the esports teacher) played a significant role in the writing and promotion of the new BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in esports working very closely with Pearson and The British Esports Association, among others.
A little over 18 months after the course was unveiled, over 165 colleges in the UK are now registered to run the esports BTEC! That is a significant achievement!
We are spoilt here, QMC is blessed with a state of the art esports facility including two gaming arenas, classrooms, a yoga and palates room, a chill out area, streaming facilities, a shoutcasting booth – I could go on, but I think you’ve got the picture. This development has a lot of other people and organisations to thank for their support and generosity along the way but that’s James’s story to tell!
So let’s go back to the last three days…
When inducting students, it’s important to make them feel welcome, try and keep things light-hearted and enjoyable as it’s important they return the following day without being scared off – our jobs depend on it!
So we start with some simple questions:
- “Put your hands up if you game?” (About 99% of students thrust their arms towards the heavens at a speed I will probably never see again once proper teaching starts.)
- “Ok that’s good to see, most of you game, excellent”. (All the students are feeling very proud of themselves and the initial teacher-student bond has been made…. Time to put things straight.)
- “But to make it clear even if you’ve never played a game in your life before the esports BTEC is still a great option, so for the one person who doesn’t, don’t worry, it’s fine, we’re not here to play games”. (A quietness descends within the room at this point, time to move on...)
- “I’m going to go round the room and you ask individually what your relationship with esports is and what you’re dream job would be” (Now they’re thinking! You can see it in the eyes, what is the ‘correct’ answer I should give here…. Time to settle the nerves!)
- “Don’t worry, there’s no wrong or right answer here, I’m just curious!” (Phew... The frowns turn upwards.)
A quick round robin involving the engagement of every individual as you would probably imagine 90% of the responses are something on the lines of, "I love gaming, I like watching gaming and my ideal job would be a streamer or a pro athlete."
That is what I would expect and that’s fine, however it’s the other 10% that I’m interested in:
- "I’d like to run my own business and I think esports would be a good place to start."
- "Although I play a lot I’m not very good at games but I really like watching tournaments and the idea of shoutcasting or being an analysts interests me."
- "I love gaming and want to go into content creation or branding within esports."
And my favourite: “I want to be an accountant, but it sounds boring, so I thought I’d train as an accountant, but with a view to using those skills in the esports industry.”
Those four responses ignited the thought chain with the rest of the group visibly taking note and that first seed that are there are wide variety of jobs available in esports had been sown.
These opening encounters act as a perfect facilitator to remind the students what the BTEC is about, what they can expect and to remind that it is not a course in becoming a pro-gamer! How many of you are now thinking 'then what is it?'
For those of you who may not be aware what the BTEC is, Pearson, along with the British Esports Association, and the team who put it together have produced a very balanced qualification (equivalent to A-Levels) that looks at the esports industry as a business but includes those key elements that anyone working in the industry would expect to see like tournament organisation, nutrition and wellbeing, strategy and analysis, entrepreneurship, shoutcasting, video production, content creation, streaming, event management, etc. The course enables and facilitates the business side but also some of the practical elements which has resulted in a very engaging and attractive offer and I hold my hat off to those responsible.
Back to the classroom.
With the course introductions out of the way, next on the agenda was the need for some ground rules. It’s crucial to make clear the boundaries — those underlying principles and ideologies — and never has this been so easy than with a group of esports students.
For me the most important element of this process is mutual respect, this pretty much covers all of those things in society that should be normal and natural and observed by all, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. 16 year old college noobs are at a very impressionable stage of their development when they leave school and venture into Further Education, it’s almost a rite of passage and is most definitely a first step to some form of independence. Therefore, the messages they receive must be right. They are the future after all!
"So let’s have a tour of the esports facility," I announce.
All of a sudden the excitement within the room is palpable followed by a burst of chatting and mumbling accompanied by big smiles! We start the tour with a look at the toilets, the lockers and the chill out area before we get onto the really cool stuff when we head into the two gaming arenas and the streaming room. At this point all of the group are visibly buzzing so again — time for a reality check and into the yoga/palates room which, if you want to imagine it, is essentially a nice empty space with a smooth floor and a couple of swivel chairs!
“Anyone guess what this room is used for?”
"Is it an arena for real life rocket league on chairs?"
There’s always one! But in fairness I knew exactly what she meant! The discussion ensued about the importance of health, nutrition and wellbeing to any pro-athlete and the conversation was easily negotiated through simple questions about gamers and why we need to think about things like yoga and palates. An instant recognition was noted with regards to posture, too much energy drink, not enough sleep, pent up aggression, etc. So now we were back on a serious level which is when I mentioned the issue of gender and women in esports.
"Who plays games more, men or women?"
"About the same," was the general response.
"Correct, there is a very balanced gender split when it comes to who is buying games to play. Who streams more, men or women?"
"Men," was the overwhelming response.
"Can you expand on that, please?"
At this point one of my female students chipped in by saying that she only played games offline. Without being sure of the reasons why I hazarded a guess which helped the discussion.
"Why do you only play games offline?"
"Because when I’ve tried to play games online I have come up against some...! As soon as they hear my voice, I got a load of sexist rubbish thrown at me!"
Rhetorical affirmation required, "And is this ok?"
As you can imagine at this point everyone had something to say on the matter. Some of the other young women in the group backed up the statement saying they had experienced similar while almost everyone agreed that they had seen woman streamers and gamers abused in the chat or had heard men making derogatory comments about women during their streams.
As anyone involved with esports is aware, toxicity is real and it is something that has to be addressed. That toxicity isn’t just gender-based but can be anything to do with difference. I make it very clear to all students those differences are to be celebrated, not to be scared of and certainly not to discriminate against. In an average mixed college group, the differences can be significant, gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, appearance to name a few but the list of differences is as long as you wish to make it.
A really mature and interesting discussion followed and it was very clear the message had hit home. This then led to a realisation of perhaps more significant importance. As the first set of students to be leaving college (in around 21 months), they are the future of esports, it will be their responsibility to start changing, transforming and improving those negative elements of esports that shouldn’t be part of the scene. In all of my years working in Further Education, never has the discussion about respect been so easy and productive than this year’s chat with the esports groups and I don’t think this is coincidence.
The final point I wanted to raise involves parents perception of this completely new course offer which could prove to a major barrier for young entrants into the esports industry. As part of the discussion of toxicity and the perception of gamers as sweaty teenagers playing games in a dark, dingy and smelly room all night, I had to ask the question…
"What did your parents or guardians say when you told them you were studying esports?"
Having worked in and been involved in esports for a number of years now, I was pleasantly and genuinely surprised by the answers that came back to me.
80% of the group responded with "they thought it was a good idea… they happy as they know it’s such a big industry… Dad’s over the moon cos he loves Call of Duty!"
15% of the cohort said their parents’ initial response was "what is esports?" while only a couple of students stated that their parents were not at all happy about it at all, but let them do it as they wanted to.
From my perspective this (albeit it very unscientific) survey represents a huge shift from what I have experienced with parents over the last five years. I have been talking to mums and dads of youngsters of all ages, in education, but predominantly outside of education, and they very much see it as something for the kids to do outside of school.
There has always been a massive void in knowledge of gaming and esports, a lack of understanding about these huge industries that create jobs, create wealth and are real career pathways moving forwards. It would be fair to say I’ve spent much of the last five years trying to educate the parents as much as (if not more than) the youngsters that these areas offer a realistic future for their kids.
So, has there been a sudden change of heart? That question I cannot answer just yet but I do believe that the significant amount of work and targeted effort by Pearson and the British Esports Association on a national level is showing promising signs of success. On a local level the hard work put in by everyone here at QMC has had, and is continuing have, the desired impact — word is spreading that there is so much to esports and there is a whole future awaiting the next generation in a very lucrative global industry.
Long may this continue!