Driving Esports Education: Opinions on esports within higher education

On the 28th May 2021, Esports News UK published an article detailing the turbulent first years of the first undergraduate esports degree in a UK higher education institution [1].  Be it students believing themselves more knowledgeable than the lecturers on esport topics, the poorly received tweet stating “Soon, working in Esports will require a university degree”, or power struggles between related student societies, it seems there were no shortage of ire directed at the course. Obviously no one expected formal esports education to be easy, the institution in question admitted some fault and has committed to changing the content of their course and addressing other concerns brought up by students. Despite this, many on social media have expressed their frustration with higher education on their delivery of esport curriculum, or even the necessity of such degrees.

Esports News UK’s report on Staffordshire University’s esports degree [1]

There seems to be a certain level of animosity towards esport degrees from those in the industry, and from their perspective it is justified. There is an established and successful ecosystem which has grown naturally; many who have a prominent role in the industry do not have degrees like the ones proposed or even any formal higher education. So why spend three years at a university on a program where in the same amount of time one can get valuable industry experience from volunteering or employment? This is a valid sentiment and a consistent challenge for those who teach in a creative field, where practices can be learned through non-academic mediums. However, parallels of this rationale can be drawn to the creation of computer game development degrees. Existing practitioners at the time challenged the necessity of game-specific education, yet nowadays many entry level jobs in the games industry require a related qualification from their applicants – making such degrees a valuable resource. Degree programmes focused on esports should not be cast aside simply on the grounds that existing professionals do not possess one, as it dismisses the potential that such education can provide. As an industry continues to become more professional and recognised, it can be presumed that job seekers would reflect a similar progression; a measurement of such could be some level of formal education. It is reasonable to expect that a similar transformation is forthcoming for esports as well, especially given similarities to existing disciplines that have study options available. These include areas such as games, traditional sports and broadcasting, to name a few. Completely denying or resisting this is a poor attitude, particularly as the graduate population from such courses grows. An esports degree should not be the de facto method to get employment in the industry, however it should definitely be an option available to those interested in such a career.

To be a valuable career pathway further education must provide a programme that is valuable, something that gives students the skills or experience that could be considered equivalent to three years of industry work at least. This value must not come entirely from the content one delivers, but also from simple interactions with their peers & staff. Additionally the course would need to provide an environment where students are free to make mistakes, as it is from such that effective and distinctive learning can be constructed; the individual needs of each student can be addressed throughout to ensure that they are getting the most out of what is provided. If public perceptions of esports courses are to change, there must be a demonstration that undertaking these programmes are a benefit to one’s time and money. The responsibility of ensuring that these courses meet those expectations falls with the institutions themselves, that they are to the highest possible standards and have the students’ best interests at heart.

It is that last point where concerns on the approach certain higher education institutions are taking can be raised. One example is the naming of some of these programmes. What is the justification in calling a course just ‘Esports’? Of the nine UK providers of esports degrees listed on the UCAS website, six of them have such nomenclature. As a prospective student, what can they draw from that at a glance? Given the breadth of esports as an industry there are many professional disciplines that could be covered by an undergraduate degree. Under those circumstances, a course called ‘Esports’ is forced to either shallowly cover multiple areas or focusing on just one or two. In the case of the latter, it should not be difficult to label it appropriately to make applicants aware at a surface level what your curriculum encompasses. One would be hard pressed to find a programme that explores traditional sport techniques or disciplines that is labelled as Sports BSc (Hons) for example; it’s far more likely courses would be called Sport Science, Sport Broadcasting or Sport Business & Management. This allows each degree to deliver directed teaching to students whilst still giving them enough freedom to tailor their education towards a future career. So why does this principle not extend to esports, an industry that mirrors traditional sport with similar career opportunities? A student interested in supporting esport players or broadcasting would not want to take a course that is primarily based in enterprise or event management. On the surface this may seem like a trivial concern, however it underlines a larger problem with whether academic institutions really understand what they have with esports. It demonstrates that there is a lack of understanding if they are willing to promote their programmes as vaguely as this, which risks attracting students to a course that they may not be suitable for or passionate about as a future career. If education providers cannot clearly indicate what field – or fields – of study they will be covering, it is difficult to reassure oneself that their course will meet the high standards that are expected of them. 

Tweet from Paul ‘Redeye’ Chaloner, a prominent figure in the esports industry, on a specific esports course

Esports is an industry that is born from an already existing discipline; through its growth it drew on the principles of areas including traditional sport, media, and games more broadly. As such it seems reasonable to assume that those principles are directly transferable from one to another. However, that rationale does not factor in the industrial context that esports reside within, which can be of concern if the academic staff delivering the content are holding an external perspective. Simply being an expert in a relevant field is not enough to deliver content within esports education. Having industrial awareness allows one to apply known concepts into esports, understanding how to adapt it to fit within nuances that perhaps an external expert may not have considered. Yet, there is value in experts exterior to esports that can provide an alternative perspective, delivering knowledge and skills that may be applicable to other careers. A graduate from an esports broadcasting course, for instance, should have the skills to transfer their knowledge into a television setting. Many of the courses that provide some level of formal esports education in HE have provided the opportunity to develop these transferable skills so despite some concerns the core frameworks of good education are present. Despite this, one can argue that if they are interested in transferable skills to existing industries then it would be more valuable to enter a course in that field and use that knowledge in esports. This would follow the same path the industry took in the establishment and professionalisation of the esports industry. To an extent there is a semblance of truth. For many institutions that plan to offer formal esports education, it may be more reasonable to create individual modules exploring the practices of the industry that are of interest to their course(s). As an example, esports widely adopts online streaming as opposed to traditional methods, with specialist software designed for that goal. A university with a television & broadcasting course could introduce a module that explores online streaming from which the application of those techniques in esports could be a source of knowledge. This strategy would allow these institutions to foster esports education, whilst simultaneously supporting their existing curriculum with new approaches to existing ideas. That way students that have an interest in that industry would be able to learn an established discipline whilst still engaging with their own personal interests and career plan. On the other hand, there is room for reasonable justification of a dedicated esports course given the practices can wildly differ from traditional methods. Given the infancy of such curricula, there is not a sufficient amount of data to suggest that a module or course is the most appropriate way to go. There is room and demand for education providers to explore this, but such experiments should not come at a cost to the students who will undertake the curriculum that is created as a result.

Esports Arena at Arcadia University [2]

So what is the intended future for formal esports education? The key priority is to shift perceptions away from esports being a single field, to one that draws on the expertise and knowledge of other disciplines. This would direct attention to more subject-specific content  that is appealing to students of varying career pathways yet have a shared interest. At least in the UK, there are universities that have started to take this approach. Birmingham City University, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Portsmouth are all offering degree programmes that are focused on specific areas such as management, production and coaching & performance respectively. The existence of such programmes demonstrates a change in attitude, but more work is needed in this area and it will require practitioners and academics familiar with esports to lead the way.

References

[1] Sacco, D. (2021). Course Corrections: What lessons can be learnt from Staffordshire University and the UK’s first esports degree?. Esports News UK. From: https://esports-news.co.uk/2021/05/28/course-corrections-lessons-learnt-staffordshire-university-uk-first-esports-degree/

[2] BaldL. (2020). Sourced from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arcadia_University_Esports.jpg . This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s