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.


[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

The Intricacies of Esport Broadcast Overlays

Esports has dramatically changed over its relatively short existence, from local tournaments & LAN parties to sold-out stadiums & international events. In that time, the way people have watched it has also evolved. When esports was reaching its renaissance back around the late 2000s or early 2010s much of the technology behind streaming was still in its infancy. At the time esport broadcasts relied on Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) which originated around 2001-3; from 2009 onwards, services like Twitch.tv and own3d began to make live internet broadcasting more accessible to a growing audience [1]. Since then, there have been substantial improvements to streaming tools available to the public, such as custom overlay builders like Streamlabs or broadcasting software such as OBS. What was once only possible with professional tools within the broadcasting industry became usable by anyone with a small amount of knowledge, opening the proverbial floodgates on what streams could do technically.

A personal, and rather niche, example of such evolution in action would be in the community-led esport of Team Fortress 2. Early broadcasts of competitive TF2 play was presented primarily using the in-game visual assets & spectator function, but as time progressed more sophisticated tools were developed. These include custom in-game assets, external controllable stream overlays and broader modifications to the game that give the broadcaster more spectator functionality. Most of these tools were created by community members or used advancements in streaming technology at the time. This gave amateur esport producers the ability to setup and run professional-looking broadcasts from the comfort of their own home.

An example of an older competitive broadcast [2] and a newer one [3] from the Team Fortress 2 community

A lot of modern high-production esport streams contain information that is not normally presented on in-game head-up displays (HUDs). However, a question that is not discussed frequently is whether such streams are showing information that is relevant or if it is unnecessary and potentially confusing for new viewers. Taking a standard sports broadcast for example, it is observable that they tend to avoid showing a significant amount of information on screen at once, preferring to leave more in-depth analyses to the commentators. Data such as individual athlete statistics or team formations tends to be shown intermittently during quieter periods of a match such as half-time. On the other hand, video games contain more information which is crucial to understanding the current state of the match, such as a player’s health or what equipment they have. An absence of such details would be a detriment to the viewers overall experience. The inverse is also an issue; having too much information could alienate the viewers more unfamiliar with the intricacies of the game. Different organisations within a range of games have taken diverse approaches to the challenge of controlling visual information.

A screenshot from a BLAST Premier CS:GO competitive stream, a professionally run broadcast [4].

To anyone unfamiliar with Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), what can you pick apart from this image? Those who have experience with games, you may be able to determine that Team Liquid have more players alive, yet Faze Clan is winning the overall game and that this player is in a rather precarious situation. You may also recognise that there are 30 seconds left and possibly that it is currently the 18th round, from which you can draw the conclusion that Team Liquid is likely going to win the round to make it 9-9. However, you may have little idea on who has economic advantage or why this player is using a handgun against people with assault rifles. Given enough time with this image, the average person could conceivably begin to unpick the greater contexts surrounding the game. But in a live match it would be difficult to unravel what is happening without more experience with the game. The broadcasters behind this stream, BLAST Premier, have acknowledged the problem and addressed it somewhat with the Firepower bar near the scores at the top. This gives a brief insight into who is winning or expected to win the current round based on a variety of different factors. Simply placing this information on screen allows people of differing experience with CS:GO to get a sufficient understanding of the match. Those with a lot of knowledge about the game can recognise that Faze Clan are saving their money for a later round by not purchasing expensive equipment; people less familiar with CS:GO have a good idea of who is going to win this round, but not necessarily why.

A screenshot from the Overwatch League, a professionally run competitive league and broadcaster [5].

Let us try again with another game, Overwatch that is significantly faster-paced than CS:GO and features a range of abilities and traits. Asking someone new to the game what was going on in this image would be harder to tell what is going on than the previous screenshot. For example, it can be determined that Seoul Dynasty is one point up, but Shanghai Dragons have 35%. What does that mean? Educated guesses could correctly determine it as one round to zero and first to 100% wins a round, but that is not immediately apparent. Secondly you could determine that the circle percentage in the middle is important since all players have one. To a fresh face, there is little information to convey what is happening at a higher level from a spectator’s perspective and that what is presented could provide more questions than answers. For more experienced individuals, such details would make sense and the lack of visual clutter from HUD elements. The result is that the moment-to-moment gameplay takes more of the viewers attention as compared to CS:GO, where viewers benefit from examining various elements on screen.

However, one stream is not better than the other. In Overwatch much of the contextual information is presented in the gameplay, not the HUD. Viewers tend to focus on the occurring plays and developing narrative of the match. On the other hand, CS:GO is a slower game that benefits from a more methodical viewing experience where part of being a spectator is drawing your own conclusions and anticipations. To facilitate that, broadcasters present viewers with more information to draw on. Presenting too much information in a faster paced game risks the viewer not taking in the right knowledge and confusing them. On the other hand, insufficient or unnecessary information in slower games could cause casual viewers to become disinterested or lost.  When designing spectator views in games or external broadcast overlays, designers need to consider what audience they are orienting this towards and what information is necessary for them to have the best experience.

One important question when designing spectator experiences is where the audience should be looking and when. Taking away attention from a pivotal moment in a match is incredibly disruptive and frustrating to a viewer; leaving player statistics or other sporadically useful information until quieter moments would keep the audience engaged until more exciting parts. Adopting principles like the Gestalt Laws of visual perception to structure information in a way that directs where the audience is looking. For example, having a part of the HUD or overlay that groups together information that is only relevant at the beginning of rounds guides viewers to look there at that time. Controlling where the audience is looking through implicit cues give them the illusion that they are making the decision to look at specific information in certain instances where in reality it is the designer implicitly saying “Hey, look over here now!”.

Another screenshot from the Overwatch League, before the next round is due to start [5].

The previous Overwatch broadcast has a great example of this. During a quiet part of the match, the broadcast shows a banner informing viewers that they may want to consider engaging with the stream though twitter, giving them quick access via a QR code. This places a seed in the viewers mind to check social media in between rounds, increasing viewer engagement and encouraging people not currently watching to get involved.

Some advice I received a while ago was that a big part of esport broadcasting is telling a story, and a good observer doesn’t always just spectate the player getting kills but tries to show the perspective that provides a viewer with the best possible experience. By designing organised & appropriate visual information in combination with commentating talent, more people can engage with esports without the need to know all the details of the game. Esports is one part of the digital entertainment future, so making it accessible to as many people as possible is incredibly important.


[1] Scholz, T. M. (2012, December). New broadcasting ways in IPTV–The case of the Starcraft broadcasting scene. In World media economics & management conference.

[2] eXtelevision. (2011, December 6). eXtv Live: ESEA-I Quantic vs Mix-Up – 12/5 [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/kZjE0YZ62uc

[3] EssentialsTF. (2020, April 5). Insomnia65 TF2 Lower Bracket Final: Se7en vs. Faint Gaming [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/H9iXx0xmIO4

[4] BLAST Premier. (2021, February 14). Faze vs Team Liquid, NAVI vs Faze Clan | BLAST Premier Spring Group 3 Day 3 [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/1DYKn_jIU9A

[5] Overwatch League. (2020, October 9). Losers Final | @Seoul Dynasty​ vs @Shanghai Dragons​ | Grand Finals Weekend | Day 2 [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/lX4N9orHmZ4