A video games activity that began life as a lunchtime club for SEN students has blossomed into a pioneering course that is tapping into a global Esports revolution.
St Vincent College’s BTEC level 2 and 3 courses in Esports have attracted 56 young people and are the only ones in the college to feature SEN students who have moved from the School of Personalised Learning (SPL) to study alongside mainstream pupils.
But IT and Esports lecturer Martin Birch-Foster says all his students aren’t just playing games – they are developing transferable skills that can lead to university, apprenticeships, and jobs in the IT sector.
An Esports match pits two teams of players against each other over a number of different online games, with the winners being decided by best of three or five. They take place via a secure server and are overseen by the British Esports Federation. It is one of the fastest growing sports in the world with 1.2 million players and online spectators in the UK alone.
“Some of the parents were unsure about the course at first but we’ve been able to show them that when you break down the units of what they are learning, the playing games side is very little,” said Mr Birch-Foster.
“Otherwise it’s a business, media, sport and IT course. We spoke to some universities and they said they would take people from our Esports course on to sport, IT, business and media degree courses.”
Mr Birch-Foster, 31, began as a learning support assistant in the college’s SPL in 2014 before training as a teacher. Three years ago he found one of his BTEC level 1 IT students watching a game being played on YouTube while an Xbox console lay unused next to him.
“I asked why they were watching it when they could play it themselves and they said ‘why do you watch football?’. That’s when I got what it was all about,” he said.
As interest in Esports developed among students he discovered the British Esports Federation was running competitions for schools and colleges. He was given a budget by principal Andy Grant to buy three gaming laptops and the St Vincent Sharks were born.
“We saw that there was a competition for SEN students so we started the team and began playing. The students designed a badge and a shirt and they approached Gosport Rotary Club and some games companies for sponsorship,” said Mr Birch-Foster.
When the Sharks started playing fixtures at lunchtimes, students from across the college began coming to cheer them on. “It was amazing for them because SEN students don’t usually get to join the football teams because of the timetable clashes, their ability and their additional needs,” said Mr Birch-Foster. “But they became college celebrities.”
After being contacted by dozens of students the college started a mainstream team to play BEF fixtures. “We were invited to play an international friendly by James Monroe Middle School Raiding Raptors in New Mexico,” said the lecturer.
“The SEN students organised it and the mainstream students played. We streamed it on YouTube at 10pm on a Friday night and hundreds of students and teaching staff watching.”
Last year the college introduced a BTEC for ten SPL students as a trial and it was so successful that two new BTEC courses were introduced. “Five SPL students have now transitioned over to mainstream full time and because they have got that safety net of fellow students who are into the same kind of things as them and they are in an environment that’s built for them they are thriving,” said Mr Birch-Foster.
“If you put them in a classroom with a whiteboard and a list of tasks, not all of them could cope, but here they are in their element.”
They study in the purpose-built ‘Shark Tank’ on gaming PCs with reclining chairs and light-up keyboards. “It’s an environment they feel comfortable in,” said Mr Birch-Foster.
A major part of the ten-unit course is health and wellbeing. “They will be learning about fitness, healthy eating, and looking after themselves, just like any other athletes,” said their lecturer.
He has banned fizzy drinks and sweets from the Shark Tank and encourages them to bring in oat bars, even passing on recipes to make their own at home. “We want to help them make the right choices and we want to get rid of the stigma that people are going to be playing games 24/7, consuming energy drinks and not going to sleep,” he said.
The Esports industry is worth more than £1 billion worldwide and is set to double in the next ten years. “We have 56 students now but the nature of gaming is that you always want to beat your high score – so we want to get double the numbers next year,” said Mr Birch-Foster.
“We want to solidify our position within the South West as the number one for Esports. Students are choosing to come here for this course so we need to keep them engaged and wanting to do so.”