One of the fastest growing spectator sports – eSports on campus – is creating copious opportunities in academics, sports and the entire field of STEM, writes By Chris Buchanan, client solutions director at Dell Technologies South Africa.

Esports on campus was not something many of us from the Pac Man generations saw coming. Much has changed in the past 20 years, yet the idea of organised, competitive video gaming is still a tough concept to grasp.

That said, if we look a little closer at the ground-breaking technologies and innovative career paths that have evolved to support the now $200 billion gaming industry, it becomes clear that eSports on campus isn’t only a logical adoption for students, schools, and technology brands, but an incredibly exciting opportunity in this new era of technology-rich sports and education.

Just look at the numbers. To say that eSports is gaining momentum would be an understatement. According to Statista, revenue generated by the gaming industry in South Africa is projected to reach R570 million in 2022 with an annual growth rate of 12.17%, resulting in a projected market volume of R8.3 billion by 2026.

Competitors are also collecting sizable winnings, even at the student level. For example, South African students participating in the Global University Students Valorant tournament this year stood the chance to win R350 000 in prize money.

Esports on campus is more than just a game

Even with the astonishingly swift growth of this industry, many are still unsure why universities are offering top players thousands of rands in scholarships, and how eSports on campus goes along with academics.

Understanding the mechanics behind eSports on campus might help shed some light. Multiplayer video games played competitively require a level of depth that demands near-mastery of real tactics, communication, co-operation and incredible motor skills.

According to a pioneering scientific study of eSports athletes in Germany, top-tier young players are capable of up to 400 focused asymmetrical actions per minute – a level of strain and hand-eye co-ordination unseen by professionals in any other sport. The same study looked at the athletes’ release of the stress hormone cortisol during high-level competition, which was equivalent to that of a professional race-car driver, and player heart rate, which approached that of a marathon runner.

The academic component

At least 17 South African universities have joined the eSports community, and that number is growing fast. Many South African schools have also developed their own programmes that support students playing video games as competitors. But eSports hasn’t just benefited the talented young players who participate in clubs, student affairs, or varsity athletics. Esports has extended into academic areas of study, including engineering and other STEM-focused programmes.

A growing number of schools across South Africa are leveraging new degree paths and research opportunities that capitalise on the expanding gaming industry. This is also an effort to attract top students – many of whom are pursuing careers within STEM and game design theory across a variety of disciplines from engineering and technology to healthcare, finance, retail, arts, sports marketing and many others.

Top-ranked universities including University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, Durban University of Technology, Stellenbosch University and Tshwane University of Technology are just a few institutions with high-quality game design programmes.

Scholarships for students pursuing careers in game design and interactive entertainment are also available from a variety of funding sources.

The technology component

An added advantage of these growing programmes is the exposure students receive to cutting-edge technologies. Students are able to experience high-performance and data-intensive gaming systems – including Alienware computers, hyper wall displays, live streaming and broadcasting equipment, analytics and 3D physics engines, and immersive technologies such as AR and VR.

USSA introduces eSports league for students

In July 2021, University Sport South Africa (USSA) introduced an eSport league for students, providing opportunities for students to play in a series of eSport competitions. At the University of Johannesburg alone, more than 100 students have registered to participate in the eSport league series. The games are played on FIFA21 PlayStation, Clash Royale and League of Legends.

Another example is the University of the Witwatersrand which also promotes eSports and is affiliated to Mind Sports South Africa (MSSA). The club competes in intervarsity tournaments, USSA eSports tournaments and the FISU eSports Challenge.

At Wits University’s School of Electrical and Information Engineering, a Dell PowerEdge SC1420 server enables the club to pursue many sports initiatives for the future. The server is hosted within the Central Networking Services (CNS) university server room and, with a 1Gbps national connection and a 32Mbps international connection, allows club members to host games and ensures delay-free gaming.

Getting started with a network of motivated players

The technology required to support esports on campus can be fairly complex. For those just starting out, the prospect of where and how to begin may seem like a daunting task. How do schools ensure their IT infrastructure is robust and scalable enough to handle the large compute and seamless interconnectivity requirements? Do they rely on traditional on-premises infrastructure or a secure, hybrid cloud? And logistically, how best do they integrate shoutcasting and broadcasting, recording playback and even performance analytics for coaching?

The good news is there are resources available to help schools navigate the complexity. Whether just starting to explore the idea of adding an eSports programme or building on a champion-level team, schools can look to the extended eSports community for support.

Together, this community of motivated players can help make eSports on campus an entirely innovative means to inspire, educate and collaborate with others, both locally and worldwide.

After all, isn’t that what higher education is all about?