Grown ups

More than just a game: Esports as a career opportunity

Esports are shaping up into a thriving an industry.

Julien Gelinas, 23, is really good at League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game where players form teams of five “champions” and battle for control of an opposing team’s base. So good, in fact, that it earned him a full-ride scholarship to Maryville University, Missouri.

Earlier, he had traveled to South Korea to train in order to attempt to break into the professional leagues, and even though he discovered he wasn’t quite good enough—yet—he knows that his future is in esports. “I’m still interested in playing professionally,” he says. “I’m also interested in finishing my degree and potentially coaching. I know I want to work in the scene, I just don’t know exactly what I want to do.” Even so, he expects his business administration degree to give him “a pretty good advantage over other people” who skip school to go directly into esports.

Competitive gaming, also known as esports, is on target to become a $1.5 billion industry by 2023. Even before COVID-19 started to affect traditional sporting events, esports had been on the upswing. In the last few years, the total prize money has been over $60 million and growing; even the pandemic-curtailed 2020 calendar is still brimming with events till the end of the year; and super-star gamers are continuing to vie for glory in high-stakes events.

In fact, experts now advise parents not to berate their young humans for “wasting time” playing games. Gaming and esports-related subjects are being introduced into the curriculum in schools and universities around the world, with the idea of making it a viable long-term career, not just for gamers, but also for those in support and management roles, in gaming strategy and coaching, in research.

Experts now advise parents not to berate their young humans for “wasting time” playing games.

Ashley Miller-Hodge, a former esports player, current high school esports coach, and an advisor on Riot Games Scholastic Association of America, which governs the varsity competition for Riot’s games, including League of Legends, has seen first-hand the benefits of esports for younger people. She has had reticent teenagers transform into strong team leaders with excellent communication skills. She has seen them develop critical thinking, teamwork, hand–eye coordination, and multitasking skills.“I dare say that teamwork is probably the most important aspect of esports,” Miller-Hodge says. “Anybody can get good at [a game] if you practice enough, but if you can’t work in a team, then there’s no place for you in esports.” Players need to know how to work even with people they don’t like, they need to have effective communication skills, be able to plan and react quickly to situations as they change, she adds, and esports provides opportunities to learn these skills.

South Korea is the sun around which the esports world revolves, and no surprises that many of the pioneering moves in the industry happen there. Including the idea of setting up an academic discipline in esports. In 2009, principal Bang Seung Ho of Ahyeon Polytechnic High School (in Korean) created an esports department at his school that supported students to become not just good gamers who could turn professional, but also to study game production. When the World Health Organization included “gaming disorder” in its International Classification of Diseases, calling it a behavior where “gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities,” Ahyeon’s principal Bang was quoted as saying, “Students don’t really get addicted to gaming itself. It’s more that they seek shelter in gaming to run away from reality, when they fall short of parental expectations for academic achievement, or when they get bullied in school.”

In the US organizations like the High School Esports League (HSEL) and PlayVS organize high school esports leagues that host competitions, have a system of collegiate scholarships in esports, and offer courses for future career options. PlayVS, for instance, collaborates with the National Federation of State High School Associations Network to run high-school state leagues in partnership with 23 state associations and regional leagues, as well as official collegiate national leagues for their publishers. They also run an educational hub called PlayVS Academy to impart skills and knowledge to esports coaches.

HSEL gamers and coaches are now set to have personalized, neuroscience-based training to improve their shooter skills. This will be supported by the game training platform, Aim Lab. They have also developed a curriculum called Gaming Concepts that “teaches college- and career-ready skills and social-emotional learning—all through the lens of video games and esports” with the aim of equipping high-schoolers life skills that will help them in college and otherwise. The curriculum is available as a free turnkey package for educators. The parent company that runs HSEL, Generation Esports, are also starting a middle-school esports program, and have recently expanded their high-school program into Australia and New Zealand.

Ashley Miller-Hodge is a PlayVS Super Coach, currently in the process of setting up her second esports program, this one at Dodge County High School in Georgia. “It’s a multi-step process,” she says. “Basically, you try to gauge the student interest…make sure that their parents are okay with it, and then you just kind of build it like any other sport, you have a booster club, make sure that school board of education is okay with it, and then you just start having practices and competing.”

There is real money in professions like esports commentary now.Formula 1 Esport/Formula 1/Getty Images

And things are a lot different now than they were just a few years back. “Three years ago, you had to really fight to get an esports program in your school, depending on what school you are in. Now, because of the publicity, and people seeing how much money kids can win and scholarships and things like that, and companies like PlayVS and Riot getting involved, they see it as more legitimate now. So it’s not nearly as hard and it works similar to other sports programs.”

Higher education in esports-related fields is also seeing a lot of attention. In the UK, the British eSports Association has tied up with the educational publisher Pearson to promote and support esports, with new international level 3 qualifications that would encourage young people to consider long-term careers in esports. These include courses in events management, video production, enterprise and entrepreneurship, coaching, strategy and analysis, and more. The UK’s Staffordshire University even offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in esports, supported with job placements, a dedicated esports lab, and competitive societies.

In Australia, the Queensland University of Technology offers a number of full scholarships to students in their (relatively) new esports department. One of the researchers there is Dylan Poulus, a former gamer who has been studying how esports athletes deal with stress, and he hopes that this research will soon earn him his Ph.D. He published a paper earlier this year about how a top esports player tackles stress similar to that of an Olympic athlete. “Just like in traditional sport,” he says, “if you have more mental toughness, you’re probably a more high-performing esport athlete.”

The world championships can make or break careers.Hu Chengwei/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Hardly surprising, therefore, that much of the training for esports athletes is about how to cope in a stressful, performance-based environment with strategy and planning. “Learning, as a player, is a lot of just reviewing gameplay, and reviewing other people’s gameplay,” says Gelinas. A coach’s job, he says, apart from teaching game mechanics, is mainly about teaching “meta”, an esports term referring to a set of dynamic strategies that comprise the ideal way to play at a given time. The meta changes with changes to the game, such as updates or patches.”

Miller-Hodge finds that for some children, the teamwork aspect is often a real learning curve. “Specific esports games require significant amounts of teamwork, which the students are not used to. A lot of them might play Call of Duty, [where] one person runs in and kills the entire enemy team [and] you’re awesome. But with [esports games] one person cannot win an entire game.” She tries to mimic how professional esports players have a workout regimen and stay as physically fit as they can. “Because the better you are physically, the better you are mentally. So we do hand exercises to make sure that they don’t have any cramps. A lot of the students do take a weightlifting course.”

No one really knows yet what a long-term career in esports looks like.

No one really knows yet what a long-term career in esports looks like, mainly because it’s a fairly new industry. “But every job that exists in traditional sport, whether it’s the dietician, the coach, the cameraman, the broadcasters, the commentators, the player, will need to or already does exist in esport,” says Poulus. Esports jobs seem new and exciting, he adds, but as it’s still developing, there are no set-in-stone pathways of traditional sporting careers. What will help is for there to be more university degrees and high school subjects based around becoming accredited to work in the esports industry.

Another challenge that the esports industry needs to tackle on a war footing is the abysmal representation of women. GamerGate is still fairly fresh in our minds, and the esports industry continues to be an overwhelmingly male-dominated space that can often be toxic for other genders. “In terms of participation across gaming platforms, whether that is PC or mobile or console, the [gender] split is quite even, but…when it comes to esports competition, or esports industry or esports communities, it is really, really skewed against women,” says Amanda Hurley, who looks after Queensland University of Technology’s Esports Women in Gaming community. “I don’t know that there is solid literature to truly explain that, I don’t know if it’s because of social ideas of gaming…either way, it’s a barrier for [women] to join in the first instance, or they disconnect earlier.”

Humble origins.Nintendo

As a female gamer, she has first-hand experience of toxicity, online abuse, harassment. “It’s really disgusting … and in a lot of games, if you go and voice chat, and they know you’re a woman-identifying individual, they will unleash insults and stuff for no reason other than that you are a woman.” In closed and moderated communities, like school or university gaming clubs, this sort of abuse can — and is — clamped down on instantly, but it remains a discouraging scenario.

“We’re trying to get more girls’ schools involved, more girls in that space, and then build up competence at a younger age… Otherwise, culturally and socially encouraging girls to play [is needed],” Hurley adds. A better representation of other genders in game content might help too. “Historically, a lot of gaming has been [with a] lot of male characters or the gaze is like from a male [perspective], in terms of characters,” she says, though this is changing too.

Women-only tournaments also help to create visibility. “I think it’s an important space to get more representation, more opportunity, training, and to build connections with other women, in other communities across the country, and in other countries,” Hurley says. This, she clarifies, is not because she wants a gender-segregated gaming industry, but only to offer a stepping stone and build that initial visibility and representation to give gamers of other genders the same chances.

“Ultimately, [esports] are a source of enjoyment for players and viewers,” says Gelinas. “More and more people are entering the scene … just because each year it gets more acceptable.”