Wilmington Academy in Dartford among first schools in country to offer new BTEC Esports competitive gaming qualification
A secondary school has taken hands-on learning to the next level after putting gaming on the curriculum and investing thousands of pounds in a new "Esports arena".
Video gaming is fast moving out of teenagers’ bedrooms and into the classroom as educators capitalise on the competitive and entrepreneurial benefits of Esports.
Former Wilmington Academy pupil Amber Gleed explains what Esports is
Numbered are the days parents may be able to argue the excess hours their child dedicates to a screen are fruitless and will never lead to a job.
The meteoric rise of Esports – competitive video gaming – has opened up an infinite number of new careers spanning everything from pro gamer athletes to "shoutcasters" – broadcasters who run live commentary on matches streamed on Twitch and Youtube.
It's also been linked to highly sought after skills in the digital jobs market – including data analysis and video production – as well as more conventional skills in communication and teamwork.
As a burgeoning billion pound industry with teams already adopted by the likes of Manchester City and Paris St Germain, it's now too big for schools and colleges to ignore.
During the pandemic, UK education provider Pearson teamed up with the British Esports Association to design a BTEC Level 3 qualification – the first qualification of its kind in the world.
Getting ahead of the curve is Wilmington Academy in Dartford which is among the first group of schools across the country to offer its pupils the chance to study it as a subject.
The qualification covers a wide range of knowledge and skills required to work in and around the industry, including video production, games design and launching an enterprise, as well as skills and analysis of Esports games.
The Leigh Academies Trust has backed the mixed school with sums in excess of £25,000 alongside generous local sponsors.
Its funds have helped convert a former classroom space on its Common Lane site into an "Esports arena" complete with state-of-the art gaming hardware, equipment and its own sportswear merchandise.
Explaining the rationale behind the project, principal Michael Gore said: "We did a lot of research into job opportunities and career opportunities and we found a bit of a niche in the market where Esports was one of the highest grossing careers for students when they left school.
"Globally it is a huge market and we wanted to make sure our students had the skills and could manage those skills in an effective way and have apprenticeships."
The first cohort of post-16 pupils started the course in September but there are already plans to expand it from the current intake of 12 to 30 during the next academic year to meet demand.
"The uptake and interest has been pretty prolific I would say," added Mr Gore. "Indicative figures to come into an Esports post-16 subject has really risen and we have therefore invested in that future and we believe our numbers are going to be increasing year-on-year."
The head teacher also responded to a question likely to be asked by many parents: 'Are my children playing video games when they should be learning?'
"There's a huge amount of team building that actually goes on digitally," he explained. "They are playing with teams across the world, communicating with them, upskilling themselves in electronic skills."
Previously, said Mr Gore, it was considered "quite an isolated situation" where people played on their own – but that's no longer the case. "Esports is a vast network of opportunities and communication going forward," he added.
The new Esports arena and qualification builds on the progress already made by the school which has teams competing across the UK – including one of the first all-female and non-binary sides.
Practical lessons centre around the popular games Overwatch, Rocket League and League of Legends – a team-based strategy game where two teams of five face-off to destroy the other's base.
Esports teacher James Marriott says the games are a far cry from those he played in his teens.
But he believes the transferable business skills of data analysis and problem solving developed on the course will give pupils a competitive edge in either the jobs market or further studies at college or university.
Mr Marriott said: "I think it was an opportunity we sort of fell across. It was something I was keen to do.
"I didn't realise there wasn't as many in Kent that didn't do it, especially in secondary schools. There are a lot of colleges I think North West Kent College and a couple of others.
"But us leading it as a BTEC as well as running the Esports teams, in front of the curve, I think we have been slightly lucky so I'm happy with that."
It's also been somewhat of a learning experience for the creative media department lead himself who believes it has already changed the classroom dynamic and made it a more collaborative learning experience for all.
Mr Marriott added: "It just works really well and it's just been amazing to watch.
"It's great, I think it's going to be the way forward and other schools will come on, and as part of the Leigh Academy Trust if we can be the lead in that then that's great for us."
Professional gaming continues to go from strength to strength with international competitions offering up huge prizes.
It's hoped Wilmington's alumni will return once they complete the programme to pass the baton on and "inspire the next generation of Esports and digital learners".
Ex-pupil Amber Gleed, who leads one of the school's mixed teams, is among those sharing her skills and knowledge.
"Communication would be the biggest thing," the 18-year-old explained. "In a game with six other people who you are in a team with you just have to talk to them.
"As the head captain and coach of the Overwatch team that was the thing I had to get everyone to work on.
"I'm still drilling it into them but it's like now we have started doing it and we are communicating it more it's obviously coming across a lot more.
"I feel like just knowing how to communicate properly in a team of just five to six other people, it's a helpful thing."
It's also something the ex-pupil believes will help her and her former classmates in the near future.
"You have got to have the confidence to say the right things at the right time," she added.
"Having clear communication now and working on it and developing just helps that later down the line."
It's not just about competing either. Some of the other pupils hoping to get enrolled in the brand new Esports BTEC are eyeing up other careers in the industry.
Poppie Foard, 16, said: "You could have a streaming career just by playing the games with other people watching and earning money that way."
Asked what her favourite aspect was, she replied: "It's really great to work as a team. We've all started to talk to each other more."
Fellow student and team-mate Aaron Watkins has also taken an interest in the technical and business side of the sport.
The 15-year-old can see himself working in hosting such events in the future – a lucrative market with the League of Legends championship competitions attracting a bigger online audience than the US Superbowl.
On what sets Esports apart from traditional gaming, Aaron added: "It's basically the feeling of doing something other than for yourself.
"There's a reason to you actually playing. It makes you want to practice more and more."