Esports revolution being pioneered in Barnsley

Student journalism series - University of Leeds’ Jonny Burke looks at esports.
Esports at Barnsley CollegeEsports at Barnsley College
Esports at Barnsley College

Whether it is the hopeful Saturday afternoon walk towards a noisy Elland Road, a pre-match pint or even just the whiff of the stadium’s sizzling burger van at half-time, the nationwide lockdown has forced most sports fans to draw on the memory bank to get their usual sporting fix.

But as coronavirus has forced people to stay indoors, video games are now being played and viewed at record levels.

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In search of a sporting buzz (but now from inside the home) the discovery of the virtual sporting arena, known as ‘esports’, has provided an alternative for 

The League of Legends attracted a huge audienceThe League of Legends attracted a huge audience
The League of Legends attracted a huge audience

Esports is online competitive video gaming, and just last week, Premier League footballers took part in an online football video game tournament, Andy Murray won tennis’ virtual Madrid Open and Yorkshire’s own racing driver Oliver Rowland is competing to be a virtual Formula E champion.

These recent high-profile esports events may have only happened as one-offs because of coronavirus-related sports cancellations.

But, even before the UK lockdown was enforced, competitive video gaming had already been breaking into mainstream audiences, particularly here in Yorkshire.

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Last year, Barnsley College became one of the first further education centres in the country to offer a full-time esports course, teaching students about the growing industry and supporting future employment opportunities.

The idea came from research done by teachers at the college, including curriculum lead, Kalam Neale.

“You’ve got lots of students who have a passion for games and competitive esports,” he began.

“What we did in starting the course was we looked at a qualification that covered sports, health, fitness and nutrition alongside esports, enterprise and entrepreneurship.”

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According to market researcher, Newzoo, global revenue for the esports industry will break $1billion by the end of 2020 and last year, more people watched the League of Legends final (the biggest event in esports) than the NFL’s Super Bowl.

Neale is confident that the 37 students who started the course in 2019 will be well placed to profit.

“The growth of the industry is absolutely huge and with that comes a lot of opportunities for a student body who once they’ve left college, the jobs will be there for them ready,” continued Neale.

“There are a lot of people who don’t really know what esports is but as soon as you start to present the facts, then people start to see it for how fantastic it is.”

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But the industry does face challenges. Negative stereotypes surrounding the sedentary nature of video gaming are sometimes attached to esports.

Educational centres that offer esports courses, like Barnsley College, Leeds United College and Sheffield Halam University, are supported by the British Esports Association. The not-for-profit national body was set up in 2016 to help grow grassroots esports in the UK and is chaired by Andy Payne, who says the industry is working hard to change negative attitudes towards gaming.

“I think it’s normal,” said Payne. “Every other entertainment has the same challenges, for example it’s bad for people’s heath, it’s addictive.

“What the opportunities are, in a nutshell, is to socialise, to have a lot of fun and to potentially learn about choice, consequence, rule sense. That’s a social, cohesive opportunity.”

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But as popularity for esports increases across Yorkshire, could there be a danger that esports begins to replace and subsequently reduce traditional sporting participation numbers? Payne does not think so.

“I think this country has always had a real interest in sport and popular culture, whether that’s music, video games or films. [But] I don’t think we should pit the two things together.

“Humans need fun and games are fun.”

For now, though, it is just nice having something to cheer about and esports offers that.

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