7 tips: Understanding esports athletes, fans and gaming culture

From the Academic Esports Guide, simple strategies such as learning the lingo to the games being played can get educators into a space enjoyed by so many students.

This column is part of a series of articles from the Academic Esports Guide, which serves as a primer for schools and faculty interested in getting started in competitive video gaming.

At first glance, esports, or competitive video gaming for the uninitiated, can seem confusing. The desire to play video games as a hobby to derive pleasure was once hard to comprehend for some but now it’s widely accepted and understood. According to Newzoo, there are more than 2.7 billion gamers in the world, which is just under 30% of the global population. In America, the percentage is much higher, at nearly 70%, according to a study by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research.

More than 200 post-secondary institutions and more than 1,500 secondary schools are officially supporting esports with varsity programs. PlayVS, a California-based company focused on developing the high school esports space, has raised millions through investment. Some colleges are offering esports-focused academic programs. This is just the beginning. Esports industry insiders agree that it’s only a matter of time before esports is adopted and officially supported on the same level as traditional athletics. Getting started now will still put your school ahead of the curve. Let’s explore seven things to understand about esports athletes, fans and gaming culture:

  1. Are esports considered sports? Are participants considered athletes? Debate has raged for years and it will likely be many more years before we see any sort of consensus agreement. The Oxford Dictionary definition states that sport is “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” By that definition, most people are quick to point out that esports do not involve physical exertion and therefore are not sports. There are many counter-arguments to this however. ESPN, a network focused on sports broadcasting, promotes poker, cup stacking and speed pool as well as many other activities that don’t quite fit the definition of sport either. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, has done so with esports. So why not esports? Recently, a gamer that learned to race through simulator esports racing took on a professional Formula 1 driver in a real race car and won! The reality is that it doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether it becomes widely accepted as sport or not will not slow down its tremendous growth. The only important thing to understand is the opportunities surrounding esports, rather than the semantics of “sport”.
  2. Speaking of semantics, is it “esports”, “eSports”, or “e-gaming”? While it may not make a difference whether esports are considered sports, the lingo you use to talk about esports does matter. For many years, people fought over the spelling, but in 2017 the Associated Press settled the debate. The decision was made that “esports” is the proper spelling. Using anything else is a quick way to show that you are not well informed. To a Millennial or post-Millennial, someone using a word like “e-games” clearly signifies that the person in question is out of touch. Similarly, the term “esports athlete(s)” can be used in certain situations, however, “gamers” or “competitors” are much more widely accepted terms. Understanding this very basic lingo can prevent you from making some early missteps that could discredit what you’re trying to do in the eyes of your target audience. Gamers place a high value on authenticity. Rather than pretending to understand the space, you’re better off admitting your ignorance and leaning on your students for advice. Esports on the high school and college level to date has been built primarily by passionate students. Empower your students with the tools, resources and guidance to build a program, then step out of the way. The authenticity will shine through and create for a much stronger program and your students will benefit from experiential learning.
Alex Haney/Unsplash
  1. So I’m supposed to just give my students a Tetris game and that’s going to somehow be valuable for them? Another important distinction to make is that not all video games can be esports and therefore not all gamers are interested in esports. Most esports are purpose-built to be played competitively. Taking the time to learn which games are esports and which ones are not will further help you connect with this demographic. While exploring this topic fully would require a chapter of its own, an example may at least begin to explain this idea. Just as working out at the gym does not mean someone is competing in a sport, playing Super Mario Bros. does not mean someone is competing in esports. The most popular esports are team games that require cooperation, strategy and execution by a group. They are not solo activities. Supporting an environment that allows students to learn these games can create immense value in terms of learning teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills.
  1. Are there any other similarities with traditional sports that make this easier to understand? Definitely, and probably many more than you think. First of all, a similarity that many people that are discovering esports for the first time have a hard time grasping is that just like in athletics where you have separate teams for different sports as in basketball and volleyball, in esports there are separate teams for different games. For example, in esports there may be a League of Legends team, an Overwatch team, and a Rocket League team. Further to that point, competitors for a particular game may not necessarily be interested or may not be any good at another game. In traditional athletics, especially once athletes reach the collegiate level, they tend to specialize in one sport. The same is mostly true for esports competitors. Therefore, an esports program is structured very similarly to an athletics program often with a director overseeing a staff of coaches that each work with individual teams comprised of multiple players that compete in a single game. In high school, students likely will still be experimenting with many games, so the structure can be a little more freeform to allow for flexibility. The similarities don’t stop there. Training schedules can be almost identical in esports to traditional sports with designated practice times, film review sessions, strategy meetings to review playbooks, game times, travel to tournaments, and even team workouts. Yes, gamers hit the gym just like their traditional athlete counterparts. As the adage goes, “healthy body, healthy mind”. Competitors in esports may not display the same athletic abilities while competing as athletes in traditional sports, but they require strong mental fortitude. High-level gamers are tasked with executing hundreds of actions per minute, with near-perfect accuracy and precision, for long periods of time, requiring top-notch mental stamina. To accomplish this with consistency, a healthy lifestyle is essential. Building in health and fitness requirements to your program not only will help your players perform better in game, but it also will help shake some of the negative gamer stereotypes.
Photo courtesy of NASEF
  1. That’s not what I Imagine when I think of gamers. What are they like? For decades, the media has presented video game enthusiasts as unhealthy, antisocial, and lacking ambition. Even today as the number of gamers in North America outnumbers non-gamers, these stereotypes continue to be perpetuated through film and television. In reality, the average modern gamer doesn’t quite fit this narrow definition. Gamers come from all walks of life and every shape and size. In many ways, the accessibility of video games means more people have the opportunity to participate than in traditional athletics. We see band geeks, jocks, rockers and straight-A high achievers competing shoulder to shoulder. Although the number of women involved is still relatively low, we are beginning to see gender barriers in esports disappear with many women filling roles on high school, collegiate varsity and professional-level teams. The accessibility and welcoming community in esports has resulted in a sizeable number of participants from the LGBTQ community as well. Ask any high school program faculty lead and they will tell you that the esports club has given many students who previously didn’t have anywhere to belong, a home on campus to call their own. In addition, many esports competitors take their craft just as seriously, if not more seriously than traditional athletes. Stop into the training facilities on a varsity campus and you’ll see gamers demonstrating extreme focus and dedication to their game, along with an intense emotional connection to their results. In the world of esports, it’s not all fun and games. Competitors take esports seriously, and so should you.
  1. Why should I take this so seriously? Is it really that big? The short answer is yes. In North America, the first collegiate varsity team appeared in 2014. Six years later there are more than 200 post secondary institutions offering varsity esports which easily represents more than 2,000 student-athletes and new schools are launching programs just about every week. This represents millions of dollars in new scholarships for high school students looking to pursue a position on a collegiate roster after graduation. For those not interested in competing, many colleges are beginning to offer esports academic programs to help students learn the business and content creation skills necessary to work in the esports industry. On the professional level, investors are purchasing franchises for millions of dollars, some players are earning six-figure salaries, and hundreds of millions of dollars in prizing are up for grabs. According to Statista, revenues in the esports industry eclipsed $1 billion in 2019. The interest for esports has created viewership numbers that rival some of the biggest traditional sporting events in the world. The world championships for League of Legends in 2018 reached a peak of 99.6 million viewers, up from 57.6 million in 2017.
  1. The interest is there. How can schools benefit? As mentioned previously, esports is very accessible. In addition, it appeals to a segment of the student population that isn’t often reached through traditional student life programming. Together, these factors mean that a well-implemented esports strategy will improve student life on campus for a large segment of the student population. The idea that gamers are antisocial is a myth. The reality is that very few opportunities to socialize while enjoying activities catered to this demographic have been explored. First-hand experience has demonstrated that by creating a space and activities for gamers, you create opportunities for positive social interaction that can often result in the formation of strong friendships. This, in turn, has a positive effect on mental health. If this benefit alone is not enough there is another area where esports can create big opportunities for high school students and that’s as a pathway to a post secondary education. More than 200 colleges now support varsity-level esports competition. This is still only a fraction of the more than 4,500 post-secondary institutions North America but all indications suggest that it’s not a matter of if esports is adopted into schools, but rather when. This means that thousands of scholarship opportunities will become available over the next few years. Launching a program can give your students an edge when it comes to pursuing those opportunities. Luckily, another major benefit is that the startup cost is fairly low in comparison to traditional athletics. To get started on a basic level all that is required are six gaming computers and a small amount of space. Most competitions take place online so there is no need for travel.

The idea of bringing esports to your school may seem overwhelming. Many of you may finish reading and immediately move on to something else. However, the most important thing to understand is that esports is coming, whether you embrace it or not. Students took the initiative and started hundreds of clubs and competitive teams at schools all around North America long before the first officially sanctioned program was established. That being said, the potential to create improvements to student life can lead to immensely positive benefits for students and schools alike. Although the task may seem daunting, the time to get involved is now.

Shaun Byrne is a Professor St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario, and the Esports Director for Saints Gaming (SaintsGaming.ca), its varsity Esports program. St. Clair was the first post-secondary institution in Canada to fully embrace varsity esports. Starting in January 2019, he also began serving as program coordinator and faculty lead for the Esports Administration and Entrepreneurship academic program, one of only a handful of programs in the world training students for careers in the esports industry. Prior to his positions at the college, Shaun founded and served as CEO for Esport Gaming Events, Inc. (EGE.gg) from 2012 until 2017. EGE hosted more than 100 successful Esports events in that five-year span throughout Ontario, Quebec and Michigan, including Good Game Con, the largest, with more than 3,000 live participants in 2016, as well as Saints Gaming Live in 2017, which served as proof of concept for the esports programs at St. Clair College. Although Shaun doesn’t have as much time to play games these days, when he gets the opportunity his favorites are Super Smash Bros., and Fortnite.

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