Esports Production Forum: Protecting and Fostering the Amateur Gamer

Organizations, colleges aim to provide a positive environment and future careers

The burgeoning world of esports is putting gamers of all ages in the public spotlight. With the new industry sector still in its infancy, many executives are creating a strategy to develop youth gamers. At the recent 2018 SVG Esports Production Forum in Los Angeles, execs from the Big Ten Network, Twitch, UCI Esports, and Super League Gaming touched on the need to help gamers mature and evolve, improve the current state of amateur esports, and supply possibilities for employment for these individuals.

A Youth Movement
Although a new industry featuring a majority of young participants offers a lot of potential, execs are challenged with curating the skills of the players. At Super League Gaming, Chief Commercial Officer Matt Edelman and his team keep the player at the center of all decisions. “The focus,” he said, “is celebrating the amateur player and showcasing what the amateur is all about.”

College and Amateur Perspectives panel at SVG Esports Production Forum: (from left) Mark “Garvey” Candella, Mark Deppe, Matt Edelman, Erin Harvego

In esports, the idea of amateurism is a bit tricky. According to Edelman, player age varies with the game: for example, 6 to 12 years for Minecraft, 14 to early 30s for League of Legends, 15 to early 50s for Clash Royale, any age for Fortnite. With such a large range of ages, organizations are also tasked with presenting even representation throughout.

“We wanted to design experiences so that players of multiple skill levels can all have a good experience and compete against other players at their skill level,” Edelman explained.

To do so, Super League Gaming operates leagues, promotes activity outside of the organization (other brands, gaming publishers, venues), and produces original content on broadcasts and live streams.

Ensuring Safety and Erasing Stigmas
Modern gaming often means a lot of negative influences. To combat the possible dangers of online gaming, executives plan to create an inclusive platform that starts by educating parents.

“We take great care to create a safe environment when it’s a play-at-home competition, and it has to do a lot with communicating well with parents,” Edelman said. “That is, for the younger gamer, what we have to be great at doing.”

At the forefront of many organizations’ efforts to create a safe and equal forum is providing ample and fair opportunities for females. “With this digital medium,” said Mark “Garvey” Candella, director, strategic partnerships, Twitch. “We can have the potential to break out of some societal constructs.”

According to Edelman, creating an all-female team or a females-only experience is not the easy fix. “From our research, that’s not what women in gaming want at any age,” he said. “They want to be rewarded for being great players, climb up the ranks, and be right alongside whoever else there is to compete against.”

From a network’s perspective, Marketing VP Erin Harvego and the Big Ten Network in the second year of competition have a renewed sense of purpose for female gamers. “With our Big Ten teams last year, there weren’t any females,” she noted. “Now that we’re really embracing amateur and collegiate esports in a way that’s never been done before, I think we’re going to be able to create these new types of opportunities for girls and women to keep them engaged and playing.”

Some smaller universities and colleges across the nation are turning toward esports as a legitimate avenue for potential student-athletes. University of California, Irvine, for example, is making esports a mainstay of college athletics. According to Esports Director Mark Deppe, UCI Esports is taking the approach of a typical college team by supplying games with coaches, including meetings with team psychologists and exercise physiologists. “We’re trying to train people to be professionals,” he said. “We try to send all of our resources to our players.”

To persuade the nation’s elite gamers, UCI Esports created a scholarship program, offering up to $6,000, which is half the in-state tuition. In addition, the student-athlete is allowed to keep earnings won in tournaments and other competitions. Unlike most NCAA-affiliated schools, UCI self-funds its esports program, supplementing the monetary pipeline with sponsorships, partnerships, and philanthropic donations. “[On] our League of Legends team,” Deppe said, “each player got $14,000 last year as part of their competitive success.”

The school hasn’t stopped at scholarships. It constructed its own venue in the second year of the program. Like any scholastic institution, the university provides an experience for those outside the gaming realm as well. For example, tech used for the gaming team is implemented in the academic curriculum.

“At a research university, you really have to align the academic mission,” Deppe said. “We have superstar faculty, a lot of human/computer interaction broadly across campus from arts and humanities to computer science, biology, and neurobiology.”

Most important, UC Irvine is giving students exposure to potential long-term careers after graduation. “We have 70-80 paid students at any given time in our program that are getting hands-on experience,” Deppe said. “[Some are] doing the hard work of building our stream and digital assets; others are writing about it and creating content.”

The Distribution Side
On the professional and distribution end of the scale, Twitch is doing its part, establishing the Twitch Student University Challenge to cultivate the students’ skills. “We really want to see a handshake between student affairs, academics, and sports,” said Candella. “It’s an interdisciplinary approach to practically applying education to the business of esports. Students will have great cover letters and portfolios when they graduate and say, ‘I’m a marketing student, but, for three years, I applied marketing through a digital-medium esports program.’”

Although esports is just beginning to hit the mainstream, there is still some work to be done at the amateur and collegiate ranks. With much opposition from universities entrenched in “stick-and-ball” traditions, it is up to other schools to do the hard work.

“[Esports] is really for schools trying to find an identity and carve out a niche for themselves,” Deppe said. “This is a new space, and the early movers are going to have an extra opportunity to figure it out quicker than others.”

As for the more popular schools, there is work being done. The Big Ten Network has recruited all 14 conference members for competitions, and, as the sport continues to grow, the need and relevance for broadcast events becomes more and more apparent.

“As a network, we’re always looking for really compelling programming,” Harvego said. “This definitely falls into that category.”