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Enter the Esports arena: Behind the rise and rise of a global phenomenon

The growth of esports, or competitive video gaming, has been nothing short of incredible in recent years. From a niche pastime enjoyed by a relatively small number of people just a decade ago, Esports is now a global phenomenon expected to be worth a whopping $4.3 billion this year.

And, crucially, esports is no longer simply a hobby, it is part of education systems worldwide and it can lead to lucrative careers both in front of and behind the screen. So, why has the sector seen such significant growth, how are esports communities helping this and what does the future hold for this dynamic sector?

When Staffordshire University launched the first esports degree in the UK in 2018, it’s fair to say it wasn’t received wholly positively, especially among those who didn’t understand the depth and opportunity afforded by esports as a career. However, Staffordshire was simply the first university to react to a clear long-term trend that started with the introduction of NUEL almost 10 years earlier.

NUEL is the largest UK university esports tournament provider and it also works to develop student talent. It has been supporting university societies that provide esports activities on campus across the country since 2010 and it continues to be one of the key communities supporting esports talent.

However, it is now far from the only one, and it is these organisations that have helped to fuel growth, develop opportunities and formalise career paths across esports globally. Now, more than 15,000 students from 110 universities take part in the leagues and tournaments organised by NUEL, showing just how mainstream esports is at educational institutions across the UK.

This grassroots strength is also driving growth in professional tournaments. While Asia and North America have traditionally dominated when it comes to hosting major events, Europe and specifically the UK are catching up, attracting global tournaments such as League of Legends (the Worlds finals are taking place in London in November 2024), Apex Legends’ ALGS and Rocket League, and bringing with them huge revenue opportunities.

And, while it’s the prize money for winning these tournaments that often makes the headlines – top earning player Johan Sundstein is estimated to have earned more than $7 million during his esports career so far – the opportunities for lucrative careers in the sector run much deeper.

Take the example of Riot Games’ Project Stryker. The developer and tournament organiser is creating a series of remote broadcast centres that will receive live broadcast feeds from competitions to produce, transmit and translate content for millions of esports fans around the world.

The first centre in Dublin, Ireland, which opened in 2022, is home to broadcast production, engineering, event, sound and graphic design professionals, and features AR/XR sound stages, multi-purpose insert studios, production control rooms, and replay and editing suites all designed to deliver multiple events in multiple languages across the globe.

This facility alone employs more than 100 people and two more of a similar scale are already in the pipeline, creating even more demand for the skilled professionals needed to build and operate them.

However, the industry is facing a significant challenge in terms of a lack of talent. In a field where technology is enhancing at pace, with AR, VR, IoT, 3D animation, data analysis, remote production and programming all playing a role in a successful esports project, finding people with the right skills at the right level can be difficult.

Grassroots growth

This makes the grassroots of the industry even more valuable and means that those educational establishments and communities active in the esports sector have a huge opportunity to deliver education that can guide students into one of the most varied, fastest growing and innovative sectors around, while also developing transferable skills such as team building, event management and marketing that are essential in so many careers.

To achieve this, it’s important that they invest in facilities that replicate the spaces students will go on to work in, while also taking into account key factors such as comfort, safety, sustainability and inclusivity.

Indeed, when esports was in its infancy one area of concern was that it encouraged players to remain seated and static for long periods of time. Over the years, ergonomic design has enhanced many of the tools used by gamers, including chairs, desks, controllers and keyboards, and even amateur players are investing in professional-level setups.

This makes it even more crucial that universities, which charge students thousands of pounds a year for courses, provide suitable learning spaces that place mental and physical health at the forefront, especially as these facilities often have to perform a multi-faceted role.

For example, many institutions not only use their esports facilities for teaching, but they can also function as a venue for professional esports tournaments and offer a welcoming space for those who are interested in taking their first steps into the world of competitive gaming.

They can also be used to bring in additional revenue, whether being rented out for corporate events and parties or for after-school clubs to inspire the next generation of esports professionals.

This means gaming spaces need to be designed with teamwork, comfort and competition in mind, and they must be tailored to a diverse audience, some of whom may not have felt comfortable in a traditional learning environment.

Professional gamers are increasingly looking for high-end hardware, professional broadcast setups, robust networks and sleek aesthetics. But, more than that, spaces need to consider the health and wellbeing of players. Take the example of Queen Mary’s College, one of the leading establishments for esports in the UK and one of a growing number to invest millions in its esports offering in recent years.

A project to create a brand new esports building included installing 52 gaming systems, gaming chairs, large spectator screens, an editing and streaming room, a fresh new interior and even a yoga room. The idea behind the yoga room is to ensure students have the opportunity to get away from their screens, consider their posture and breathing, and help them to remain in good shape physically and mentally, much as any other sportsperson would.

While not every college or university will have the space or funds to go this far, there are steps that can be taken to ensure the wellbeing of students is central to the design of any room. For example, creating communal spaces and rows or circles of desks as well as individual gaming pods can help to build community and foster social connections while reducing isolation; low lighting will reduce glare on monitors and create a more relaxing environment; and furniture that is durable, adjustable and functional will help individuals feel comfortable and motivated.

The practicalities are also important, of course, so look for comfortable seating such as gaming chairs and couches, ergonomic desks, high-quality monitors and sound systems, and plenty of storage space. Esports desks should be spacious and sturdy, with cable management systems to keep the space organised while encouraging users to maintain good posture during play.

Not only will well-designed esports facilities attract students looking to pursue a career in the sector, but they will also create an opportunity to bring a wider audience to the space, including those who may not initially believe the world of esports is for them. With a skills crisis looming, one of the biggest issues facing the sector is numbers. And, as the industry is overwhelmingly white and male, attracting a new, more diverse audience will be key to its ongoing success.

Again, communities are springing up to help make this happen. Prominent examples include national organisations such as BAME in Games, a grassroots advocacy group dedicated to improving ethnic diversity and encouraging minorities to work within the games and the broader entertainment industry; and Women in Games, which is working towards gender parity in games and esports and provides a safe space for exchange and support.

Universities are also seeing the importance of wider representation in esports with many creating their own communities that encourage a more diverse range of people to enter the esports arena.

Further growth in participant numbers could also come thanks to an interesting new trend that’s still developing – the convergence of traditional sport and esport.

Last year saw the inaugural Olympic Esports Series. Although this received some criticism for veering away from traditional esports titles and instead focusing on sports simulation – events included Virtual Regatta and Virtual Taekwondo ­– it attracted 500,000 participants and more than 6 million views, most of which were from people aged between 13 and 34, suggesting strong interest from those perhaps not traditionally drawn to esports.

Going one step further, the 2023 Asian Games marked the first time that esports was included as a medal discipline at a major sports competition, and it looks likely it will also be present at the 2028 Olympics too.

All of this suggests that growth in esports participation looks set to continue and even widen as more universities create purpose-built facilities, more communities work to make it a safe and inclusive space, and more federations and sporting bodies embrace what is a skilled, exciting and innovative arm of sport.