“The United Kingdom has always been a powerhouse for video games,” says Andy Payne, the chair of the British Esports Associations advisory board, finishing up a potted history of 35 years of game development history. “We always punch above our weight globally, but our esports scene has been patchy, to say the least.”
The British Esports Association’s mission is a tricky proposition. The government backed not-for-profit is trying to get the UK public, starting with educational institutes and the media, sold on the benefits of esports. The ultimate aim is to grow a grassroots scene that lets the next generation of competitive gaming stars get the backing and opportunities they need to reach the highest level of the industry.
Payne describes a 2002 trip to South Korea where he first understood the appeal of esports, and the juggernaut it would later come. “I was absolutely astonished at what was going on out there. Number one, they were playing games that pretty much nobody in the west knew about.
“The world wasn't quite as global then, but all of the games were online, and there was no physical box retail market at all. Nothing at all, it was all online games, and this was a revelation to me was when I went out there. This community was growing at internet cafés around the country.”
Meanwhile, the UK didn’t seem to get on board as quickly as Payne feels it could have, which could be a reason that the UK is falling behind with esports now.
Something South Korea did right, Payne explains, is connectivity. Even back in 2002, powerful internet made players in South Korea more competitive and gave them a headstart. The UK, meanwhile, doesn’t have the architecture, says Payne: “People won’t thank me for saying it, but our connectivity is astonishingly bad. We’re 27th in the world, and people don’t realise that the digital networks that we’ve got in this country simply aren’t fit for purpose.”
Credit: H.Kristiansson | ESL | eslgaming.com
That’s not the sole reason the UK’s esports seem has withered on the vine, but Payne says it’s a major contributing factor. “It’s improving, but it could be much much faster. I’ve personally been involved in the effort to roll out fibre to homes around the UK for years, but it’s still not fast enough.”
Other issues include controversy over the use of the term esports “Sometimes I think the sports bit can be helpful, but sometimes it’s unhelpful. Primarily it creates a lot of confusion outside of the games industry as to what esports really is.” Payne says, and I immediately recall a nearly endless stream of slightly out of touch 40 year old men, questioning why teenagers playing video games in their pants were earning hundreds of thousands of pounds for winning a match on a competitive video game. Not only that, they’d say, but why are these game playing shut-ins appearing on their television?
This stereotype, inaccurate though it is, is one of the attitudes that the British Esports Association is looking to dispel. Paired with the connectivity issue, the perception of esports is one of the reasons it hasn’t grown in the UK, however that’s one of the areas that the British Esports Association can tackle immediately, and it’s an area in which they’re not alone.
“In the last three or four years we've seen Gfinity, a UK based and funded company, begin to make some action in the space. We've seen Game’s acquisition of Multiplay and their work in esports, and that's starting to get quite interesting.
“We've also seen companies like FaceIt start in the UK, albeit from an Italian entrepreneur, but that's where they've decided to make their business. And of course ESL has a huge UK presence. Those four companies are all driving the scene from a commercial perspective, grassroots upwards, and they’re not the only ones.”
Payne hopes the UK scene is nearly at a point now where it can “hold its head up with some degree of pride” to other countries, and has said that it makes sense, given the relative strength of the UK’s video games, advertising and marketing industries, that the UK should be one of the leading lights in worldwide esports.
For their part, the British Esports Association are targeting schools and youth centres, trying to identify and promote talent at a young age, helping young pupils, teachers and parents understand the benefits of esports and the potential careers and possibilities for those who want to pursue them.
“We've been running pilots in libraries, specifically with Westminster Council, and we've been making those totally free, but with limited slots. It's early days, but we definitely see really good levels of engagement, cooperation between players and teams, and we've been making headway explaining to people some of the routes that are available, even outside of play.”
This means explaining the sort of skill level and background work that goes into casting in esports, or the technical roles that exist behind the camera, or even managing an esports organisation.
Payne describes the organisations work as “too important for British Esports Association to be the lone torchbearer” and has said that in the future they’re hoping to work with esports publishers like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft or Riot to create more opportunities for people to get to grips with esports, and provide opportunities for enthusiastic and talented amateurs to make it into the upper echelons of the esports industry. In the future, Payne says the plan is to team up with hardware suppliers to provide equipment to libraries and community centers, even while they work with organisations across Europe to ensure the UK’s scene is taken seriously.
2017 has been a building year for the organisation, but its immediate plans are to run some pilot schemes that it can build on over 2018 and 2019. This should allow it to hit its core goals of having an energised membership, to start utilising libraries for esports as discussed, but also for the British Esports Association to get a better understanding of how the schools network works, and how that can be used to further their message: “there are something like 23,000 schools in the country,” Payne says with a laugh. “It's a big old task, but perhaps by 2019 there is a British school championship, for example, and it's credible. It's operating perhaps eight to 10 different games. It's got outcomes in terms of of championships, and it's got outcomes in terms of leagues, and joining schools up. So that's where we want to be getting to. Long, long ways to get there, but I think we've got the will, and we've got the network, and we've got the knowledge and the context to have a good go at it.”
Payne chuckles again. “That’s the plan, and it’s bold, but I think time will be our judge.”
Andy Payne will be speaking and networking at our forthcoming Future Games Summit Esports Workshop. Tickets for the half-day workshop are £49+VAT. Why not buy one?