by Katie Tarrant

Katie Tarrant is a postgraduate Investigative Journalism Student who works for YGAM as a Student Journalism Manager.

In what industry can a 16-year-old win $3 million from the comfort of his family living room? There’s only one answer, and it’s the only sport that was able to thrive more than ever during the pandemic. You’ve guessed it: eSports.

This competitive gaming industry, valued in 2019 at $1.4 billion, is a tempting career path for many young gamers. Gaming in general is particularly popular among university students; from Fallout to FIFA to Animal Crossing, there are games out there for everyone. It’s no surprise then that 79% of university students have gamed during their studies.

eSports have taken universities by storm – Staffordshire university launched the first ever eSports degree programme in 2018. Universities like Warwick, who won the British University eSports Championship the past two years running, are a breeding ground for young eSports professionals.

Over 70 teams entered the National Student Esports (NSE) Siege Championship to fight for the crown in Winter 2020 and teams are now signing up for the Spring Championships, with prize money peaking at £600. But as League of Legends, Overwatch and Rainbow 6 Siege online battles loom, veteran teams will be balancing their dedication to the sport with their final year of university – and all of this during a global pandemic. 

The potential danger with the rise of eSports is how it could be encouraging a younger generation of gamblers, particularly among those aged 18-24. Monthly esports betting revenues for UK betting operators rose 30-fold between March 2019 and March 2020, and by June they had more than doubled again. The bets offered by major bookmakers such as PaddyPower, Bet365 and Betway during online tournaments could be reaching more than 11 times the audience members as traditional sports. The League of Legends World Championship attracted over 100 million viewers in 2019, while the Wimbledon men’s final that same year peaked at around 9 million viewers.

It’s not just the size of the audience that’s different, it’s also their age. The average tennis spectator is 61, whereas eSports spectators are on average 26 years old. The global eSports betting market was estimated to be worth up to 15 billion (£12 billion) by the end of 2020, an explosive growth fuelled by online advertising, which almost tripled during lockdown.

Behind the bright colours and eccentric battle anthems, the impact on the mental and physical health of career hopefuls all the way up to eSports titans are also concerning. Players have experienced anything from hand, neck and back pain requiring surgery to poor nutrition, bouts of insomnia, anxiety and burnout. In June, China’s most famous eSports star Jian ‘Uzi’ Zihao retired after declaring that his mental and physical health had deteriorated too much. He is just 23 years old.

It’s not all doom and gloom. From the point of view of avid gamer and student from the University of Warwick Oliver Barsby, he’s gaming more in his final year of university than in prior years. As he returned to university during the second wave of coronavirus, he says he’s gaming more often due to the lack of other options to socialise, an influx in great videogame titles this year and because he used the virtual world to keep his friendships alive over summer. Gaming has had a positive impact on his relationships and stress levels throughout the pandemic, and he is not alone – nearly half of student gamers play to relieve stress.

This is why YGAM is making it easier to understand the benefit of placing time limits on gaming sessions; to ensure you don’t accidentally exclude yourself from socialising with friends, and to be wary of gaming’s impact on your academic performance. You can learn more about how to manage your gaming habits and look out for friends at YGAM’s new Student Hub. Here, you can use our interactive surveys to test whether you’re an eSports expert, learn how to spot a gaming problem among your friends and find further advice on how to manage your relationship with online world.

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