My time at school was many moons ago; more than a quarter of a century in fact. It feels like an eternity, and to all intents and purposes, it is. Through those rose-tinted mists of time, all I remember most is just being able to hang out with my friends and classmates. Fast forward to today and, during lockdown, our home has been about balancing work with home-schooling our two sons, like many millions of other households across the world. The focus is on schoolwork, of course, but this broad challenge neglects another important element missing from these repetitive days at home: socialising with friends.
Peer groups are vital for kids. Apart from the usual value and benefit of strong friendships, it is well-known and widely accepted that childhood is where a lot of your social skills are developed and nurtured. That’s been largely removed with the closure of UK schools, and now the only place where my sons get to see their pals is online.
At the end of each school “day” at home, my two are allowed a couple of hours’ time on the PlayStation. There’s a double benefit for them, as they can chat to their mates and play a computer game simultaneously. Their bedrooms are often soundstages of laughter, shrieks and shouting. My experience of using home computers was largely solitary, thanks to the technology of the time. I adored my internet-less Commodore 64 and Amiga, but they were hardly social devices other than the chats at school, ironically, where we’d share what we’re playing the next day.
It’s no surprise then that the growth in eSports, the profession of playing competitive computer games for achievement and entertainment, is in part fuelled by youngsters’ interest in it. And it is worth getting to understand this industry, lest it is ignored or missed by adults outside irregular news reports. You know the ones: the tongue-in-cheek stories such as the lad who won a competition on Fortnite and promised to buy his mother a house. eSports will be mainstream in the next decade – or less. And I think that the Covid-19 pandemic has already done a lot to raise its profile.
In 2020, while the Formula One Grand Prix season was put on hold, several of its professional drivers took to their PCs and consoles to battle it out virtually. It was a real success, with mainstream media coverage, the drivers keen to increase their bragging rights, some humourous glitches, and an avalanche of digital content created around it all. The BBC did a nice wash-up report which you can read here.
Finance follows eSports too, especially now that the big gambling companies have warmed to it, with the various new markets it offers. Indeed, research found that a fifth of eSports gamblers were aged 18-24, right in the sweetspot of those young enough to know and engage with it.
If you’re thinking this is all still very new, and it is just for a few teens welded to their screens in their bedroom, then check out Polophony’s Gran Turismo Academy. This is a competition where the fastest drivers in the game win are selected to find the best driver in real life, with a paid, real-world competitive drive with Nissan’s GT racing team. They were hardly bad drivers either, with brilliant performances right from their debuts, mixing it with traditionally-trained drivers, and then winning races too. The most notable point is that it was commissioned way back in 2008, on the PlayStation 3. It means that far from being a new, exciting industry, this is something well-established and bringing those brands, competitors and games significant coverage to an incredibly young market base.
The point here is we may be looking at the perfect, harmonious timing of two things: that the pandemic has forced most kids’ socialising on to the game networks, and most, or many, eSports enthusiasts are kids. As the many levels of lockdown recede, we can expect this kind of connectivity to persist, which then helps support competitive, professional gaming well into the future. Gaming was already a vast industry and eSports will be its next field day.