John Galloway flexed his Playstation thumbs with students at the recent Digital Schoolhouse event
To become a professional eSports player requires hours of dedication, quick reactions, nimble fingers, and, no doubt, understanding parents prepared to accept that it really is a job and you can make a career of it, one of the reasons for the eSports tournament run by Digital Schoolhouse at London's high-tech computer games showcase, the GFinity Arena in Fulham.
Four teams of three players from schools across the UK battled it out in a best-of-three-games knockout competition playing Rocket League, a game like a cross between Robot Wars and soccer, with on-screen buggies trying to direct a ball towards their opponent’s goal.
This was the climax of a competition started three months ago in four education establishments from across the country with 400 hopefuls battling it out in local competitions to get to the finals. Players came from the whole secondary school age range, plus a team from New College, Swindon, a further education establishment.
Spectators watched on the cinema-sized screen beneath which the finalists sat battling it out in dug-out style booths focused intently on their computers, their fingers flipping away on the Playstation controllers in their hands. Commentators described every bit of action on the screen, and the audience cheered whenever a ball entered the goal and exploded in a puff of coloured smoke.
The event was organised by Shahnelia Saeed, the director of Digital Schoolhouse and head of education for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE), the trade body of the video games industry in this country. “It is essentially a careers event with a difference,” she explained. While making participants aware that there really is a career path that can see them playing professionally, there are many other roles in the industry, too. “Tech roles, marketing, organising events, front of house, back of house, commentating," she added. "Whatever your passion there is a job for you in the industry.” In supporting the event, the games industry was “strengthening the talent pipeline”.
Professional esports players came along to share skills
To help emphasise this a number of professional esports players came along to demonstrate their skills and to mingle with the players and supporters to answer questions, including Josh Williams, founder of the National University eSports League who presented the prizes and reassured his audience, “You can make a successful career out of it.”
Although not everyone attending had that ambition. “It wouldn’t be my career choice,” said Jess (pictured above right) from Shire Oak Academy in Walsall, who had participated in the early rounds. Her friend Reece agreed: “I’d rather be someone who wrote the stories or made the music.” Although they both thought that the event, as it intended, had “had made them more aware” of the range of roles in the industry.
An aim that was helped by having eight members of staff from Sega’s European HQ in nearby Brentford on hand to talk about their jobs. They were from across the continent, men and women, and included a head of public relations, someone from human resources, a web-designer, a design engineer and a couple of people with different roles in quality assurance. They emphasised the range of possibilities that their industry offered, and the flexibility that had allowed all of them to work in various jobs, along with a view that, while the company didn’t necessarily look for qualifications in particular applications, there is a need for specialisation once in place.
“A lot of roles need very specific knowledge,” said Pete, from PR, “even within coding.” There was also general agreement on the need for the ability to work in a team within the individual studios responsible for each title. “It is a group effort,” said Marta, a web-designer, originally from Portugal, “It is not your game. It is everyone’s game.”
Certainly the ability to work together was evident in the arena, where Bailey, part of winning team, Veracity, from St John Fisher Catholic Voluntary Academy in Dewsbury, explained the key to success for him, his twin brother Harrison, and their friend Joshua. “I think the key to winning for us was that we communicated a lot.”
Digital Schoolhouse wants to double size of event from 20 core schools
Shahneila Saeed’s ambition is for the tournament to double in size next year. With Digital Schoolhouse already working with 20 schools across the country, each of them creating a local network, that shouldn’t prove difficult, especially if learners can reassure their parents that time on the console is actually schoolwork. The only disappointment is the small number of girls participating.
Jess reckons that fewer than ten took part at Shire Oaks, although 50 or 60 players participated overall. Girls are put off, she reckons, because the game, Rocket League, is a combination of cars and football. Although she wasn’t deterred because, “I like both.” However, both she and Reece felt that girls would prefer a strategy game, such as Walking Dead or Smite.
It is certainly something the organisers are aware off. They know in an industry with so many diverse jobs they need a diverse workforce to fill them. It is early days for the tournament, next year’s aim for greater participation will doubtless also aim for a better gender balance, because girls like to have fun, too.
John Galloway is an expert in the use of technology to support teaching, learning and communication for children and young people with SEND. He is also a successful author. His latest book, Learning with Mobile and Handheld Technologies, co-authored with Merlin John and Maureen McTaggart, won the Book of the Year category in the Innovation and Technology Awards, 2016.