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Beyond play – the rise of esports in shaping future education - Lliam Dickinson

28th March 2024

By Lliam Dickinson, Higher Education Pathway Leader for esports, sport, public services, travel and tourism at Barnsley College and Research Further Scholar

Esports (or electronic sports) is a term for competitive video gaming. It differs from standard video gaming in that esports are competitive (human-vs-human) and usually have an engaging spectator element, just like traditional sports (Sacco, 2016).

The potential and scope of Esports can be demonstrated by the sheer number of children who play video games. Ofcom (2023) suggests that nine in 10 children between 3 and 17 play video games.

Esports is not a new phenomenon - its roots are owed to video gaming in the late twentieth century. In the early 1970s, through the games Pong and Space Invaders, the popularity and visibility of esports began to rise. An estimated 750,000 Space Invader machines were operational globally, illustrating the widespread appeal of video gaming at the time.

The landscape of esports witnessed a significant transformation with the emergence of online games in the early 2000s, and then 2010 heralded a transformative shift with streaming platforms, notably Twitch, which redefined esports content consumption. This platform facilitated unprecedented levels of interaction among fans, players, and spectators, enabling the live viewing of matches from the comfort of one's home.

Twitch reported about 1.3 trillion minutes (equivalent to roughly 2,500,000 years) of content viewed and 35 million daily visits in 2022, underscoring the massive and growing interest in esports.

Many believe South Korea to have been the pioneer when it came to esports in education; their approach has evolved from merely focusing on competitive play to embracing a broader spectrum that includes school tournaments, curriculum integration, extracurricular activities, scholarships, and career opportunities, as highlighted by the Network of Academic and Scholastic Esports Federations in 2023.

The United Kingdom is slightly behind, but on a similar journey. In 2020, the British Esports Federation collaborated with Pearson to design and make available the world's first-ever technical qualification in esports (British Esports Federation, 2022). Similarly, the higher education sector has devised qualifications that target specific sectors. Likewise, secondary and primary schools are starting to integrate esports into their extracurricular activities.

Incorporating esports into education offers numerous advantages, including opening avenues to modern careers, enhancing skills, especially in the digital realm, and engaging with an exciting and enjoyable industry.

Esports careers span beyond professional gaming and include roles like event management, video editing, coaching, teaching, shoutcasting, marketing, and esports psychology. Similarly, numerous career pathways exist in tech and STEM fields, such as cyber security, big data, cloud solutions, and drone pilots.

In addition, esports has been shown to develop transferable skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, dexterity, decision-making and communication (British Esports, 2023; Zhong et al., 2022; Rothwell & Shaffer, 2019).

This is why many organizations, such as the armed forces and the NHS, are eager to be involved. Recently, as reported by Sadler (2024), the Deputy Commander for Strategic Command, Lieutenant General Tom Copinger-Symes, encouraged those working in the forces to play more video games to develop skills that better equip the troops for the ever-changing online world.

Finally, it presents a chance to inject fun and enthusiasm into educational settings. Esports rooms are dynamic places, where the learning experience is both thrilling and pleasurable. Is there a better setting to nurture a passion for lifelong learning?

However, there are some potential obstacles to consider. Firstly, despite being general, broad concerns still demand attention, such as unhealthy lifestyle habits, online toxicity, and ensuring accessibility for everyone. Additionally, the impending overhaul of qualifications casts a shadow. Still in its initial stages and misunderstood by those unfamiliar with video gaming, esports faces a period of uncertainty.

Despite these hurdles, esports' journey from niche to mainstream is a testament to its resilience and relevance in today's digital and modern world. As we move forward, integrating esports into education represents an acknowledgement of its cultural significance and a commitment to leveraging contemporary interests to enrich learning experiences, prepare students for future careers, and foster an environment where education and entertainment intersect to inspire a new generation of learners.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.