• Technology

Game On: U.K. Campus Looks to Turbocharge E-Sports

AFP-Jiji
Students on the e-sports program take a class.

SUNDERLAND, England (AFP-Jiji) — Rows of super-powerful computers fill a classroom in northeast England, their LED-lit keyboards, mice and headsets washing the space in a futuristic blue glow.

Each one costs £3,000 (nearly $4,000) and is dedicated to one thing — training students to play video games at the highest level.

The new kit is part of a new e-sports campus that has recently opened in the city of Sunderland, with the aim of boosting the country’s virtual sports sector.

Dave Martin, chief operating officer at the British Esports Federation, said there was “incredible talent” in the country.

But he believes more could be done, particularly as other countries are further ahead.

AFP-Jiji
Dave Martin

Popularity

E-sports — professional level competitive gaming — is booming in popularity and officially became recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2017.

The global market is worth more than $1.8 billion, according to a report by Nielsen and specialized foundation ex corp. published in August.

That is still less than 1% of the entire video games market worldwide.

But the e-sports sector is growing fast.

It tripled in size worldwide between 2017 and 2022 and is projected to grow by another 50% by 2026.

In the U.K., the e-sports market was valued at over $69 million in 2022, far behind industry giants like China ($594 million) and the United States ($440 million), the report said.

In an effort to catch up, the British Esports Federation has invested £7.0 million into Sunderland’s National Esports Performance Campus (NEPC).

AFP-Jiji
The entrance to The Place, an office workspace housing the National Esports Performance Campus is seen in Sunderland, England on Dec. 19.

Martin said he hopes it will “enhance the U.K. e-sports ecosystem from grassroots upwards.”

The federation already provides training for a range of gaming industry professions, including marketing, competition broadcasting, team management and pro-gaming itself.

Olympics

The new NEPC will not exclusively focus on training prospective players.

It will also educate other future industry professionals via a partnership with Sunderland College, a local higher education institution whose premises it shares.

“The e-sports industry is comprised of lots of different professions,” explained Toby Bowery, leader of the Sunderland College e-sports program.

“There’s the events management side of things, the business side of things. There’s the creative media side of things. Then you’ve got the sports side of things” with players, psychologists and nutritionists, he added.

Bowery described the facility as a “real work environment” shared with the British Esports Federation, enabling students to meet pro-players.

Prize pools in virtual sports are now exceeding traditional sports.

Each of the five-member team that won 2021’s “The International” — a showpiece tournament hosted annually for e-sports giant DOTA 2 — took home more than $3.6 million.

In comparison, that year’s Wimbledon men’s tennis champion, Novak Djokovic, won $2.2 million.

In September 2023, the IOC announced the creation of a separate commission dedicated to e-sports, to develop virtual sports as an Olympic staple.

Sunderland’s new campus will soon complete construction of “The Arena,” a complex designed to host e-sports tournaments.

‘Quite surreal’

Nicholas Wilkinson, a student on the college’s e-sports program, called the development of an e-sports campus in northeast England “quite surreal.”

He hopes to start a career as a “caster” — the e-sports equivalent of a professional commentator.

Previously, “every time you’d want to go to an e-sports event or anything to do for e-sports, you’d have to travel down south to London, to Nottingham,” Wilkinson said.

Another student on the course, Evan Howey, aims to become a pro-player.

“Different people on the course have different interests,” he explained.

With students aiming to get into a variety of jobs in the sector, he said it would be good to encourage collaboration, to help growth.

The new campus is also a gateway for “students with underprivileged backgrounds that may not be able to have access to this equipment at all at home,” added Chris Jeffrey, an independent game developer and e-sports coach.