My trip to the first annual Esports Conference (ESC 2018) at UC Irvine

ESC 2018 banner.png

banner picture source: uciesc.org

 

The Esports Conference (ESC) held its first-ever annual gathering at the University of California, Irvine in October of 2018. This meant that, just like everyone else who attended and presented, this was my first time at ESC. It was just as amazing as I’d hoped it would be.

Three things, in particular, made this trip “amazing”:

  • I didn’t have to explain what “Esports” is.
  • I confirmed that Esports researchers are, in fact, real people that exist.
  • The Esports research “scene” is both growing and coming together.

Let me elaborate on these points:

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A look at some of the gaming setups available to anyone (not just students) to use at the Esports Arena at UCI.

 

“Esports, you say? What’s that?”

I’m conditioned to explaining what Esports is whenever I mention my research interest. The fact that, for the first time, I was surrounded by so many fellow researchers with interests in Esports meant that we could all forego the explanations we’ve grown accustomed to tagging on at the end of our introductions. The first annual ESC 2018 was a place where we could “check at the door” all the data we use from Newzoo to try to convince people that Esports is not just playing video games.

No longer did I need to cite Newzoo’s 2018 Global Esports Market Report to defensively say that Esports revenues will reach $906 million in 2018, which represents a year-on-year growth of over 38%. I never needed to try to prove that competitively playing video games is actually a thing here in the United States by saying that North America will account for $345 million of that $906M total, while China will account for $164 million. Nor did I find the need to say that, on its current trajectory, the Esports industry will reach $1.4 billion by 2020. Additionally, I never had to declare that the Esports audience (people who watch professional Esports independent of frequency) will reach 380 million this year, which represents a year-on-year growth of over 13%. And most certainly—not even once—did I have to explain that Esports is defined as competitive gaming in an organized format (a tournament or league) with a specific goal (such as winning a championship title or prize money) with a clear distinction between players and teams that are competing against each other.

A major highlight of attending ESC 2018 was the ability to talk about my interests and discuss my ideas on future research, all the while not feeling that I had to convince a single person in the room about Esports’ value as a research area. The reasons we all attended ESC 2018 was because we are already convinced of Esports’ research value. The conference was an energizing experience—one that allowed me to confirm that all those authors’ names I see listed on Esports papers belong to actual, real, living people.

 

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An actual place, with actual people. Who knew?

 

Esports researchers and industry pioneers actually exist. They’re real people.

As I was walking through the door on my way to the registration table, I began to run into researchers whose published papers and books on games and media influenced my thinking. They included scholars such as Constance Steinkuehler, Kurt Squire, Katie Salen, Sean Duncan, and Mimi Ito. There’s nothing quite like shaking the hands of people whose work I’ve read. Forgive the brief fanboy moment, but it was a little surreal…and I loved it.

As the days progressed, I added many new names to my growing list of contacts involved in the gaming industry and gaming research. Among these innovators were:

In addition to these new friends, I also met other games scholars whose work I had not yet read, such as other professors and graduate students. This represented another significant highlight of my trip: meeting other up-and-coming Esports scholars-in-training. Some had paper presentations, while others had poster sessions. Nevertheless, all were enthusiastic about their research and demonstrated their willingness to share some hard-earned lessons when convincing administration and wider audiences that their area of interest is worthwhile.

Although every paper and poster session I attended was informative, useful, and even inspiring to different degrees, I single out here one session in particular where Phill Alexander and Glenn Platt of Miami University shared their story. Their story was filled with details and pointers about how to navigate some of the popular obstacles involved in kick-starting a collegiate Esports program. This session was especially memorable both for the useful information they shared, but more so for the open dialogue they facilitated between everyone in attendance. The room was filled to capacity as we gathered to share our own experiences with these obstacles, build on each other’s ideas, and offer help in navigating those obstacles when we returned to our respective institutions.

This session with Phill and Glenn (and everyone else in the audience) reflected the overall feeling I walked away with from ESC 2018: the Esports research scene is simultaneously growing while coming together.

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Showing off my game face while at ESC 2018

 

Esports as a scholarly research area is growing—and coming together.

Coming together for the first annual academic conference on Esports is, in itself, a defining moment in the future of Esports as a scholarly research field. It marks the first time that a significant number of us were able to meet future Esports research collaborators. I’m sure that I’m not alone in my impression that the overall conference felt like a place where we convened to show that we are, indeed, not alone in the Esports research world. Perhaps more importantly, we showed that we are all coming together and using each other as resources—across the academic and industrial sides of gaming—in our collective efforts to explore Esports-related research questions.

Because it wasn’t all fun and games (although there were plenty of each!), I walked away from ESC 2018 knowing that I will make it the site of an annual pilgrimage for many years to come. I hope to see you there next year.

gg & wp ESC 2018

 

A Final Note on Moving Forward

I don’t want to end this blog post without sharing one particular point of conversation that dominated most of the discussions I heard while at ESC 2018: the quickly spreading popularity of Esports programs across colleges and high schools as institutionally sanctioned activities. A popular concern present in our discussions was that Esports (especially scholastic and collegiate Esports) is still too much of a recent phenomenon for us to know for sure what their long-term effects are (positive or negative). Requiring students to play Esports in exchange for scholarships while they’re getting their education raises concerns. Among these concerns is the sedentary nature of Esports or the time commitments necessary to remain competitive that might distract from players’ formal educational focus. Our suspicion, of course, is that there is much good that can come out of Esports as an activity. However, we recognize that not every collegiate or scholastic Esports player will go on to have a career as a professional Esports player. Therefore, it is our responsibility to continue exploring how students’ acquired experience and time invested in Esports can impact not only their performance in school but also life after school, either for better or worse.

———————–

I would like to extend a most sincere thank you to Elisabeth Gee who graciously helped me pay my way to attend ESC 2018 at UC Irvine. Betty, you’re responsible for this!

 

 

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