National Student Esports (NSE) was announced a few days ago as a new body which aims to support the development of university esports.
Esports News UK's Dom Sacco sits down with NSE executive director Jonathan Tilbury to discuss NSE's ambitious plans, differences between the NUEL and the new platform they're working on.
Esports News UK: Could you tell us about NSE and why it was setup?
Jon Tilbury: The university esports market has absolutely exploded over the last three or four years - it's grown so quickly and inevitably continues to grow.
Working with British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) and Benchmark Sport is elevate that to the next level. The challenge you have when things grow so quick is, unless you have that support framework, you can end up hamstrung in certain areas.
BUCS have built their infrastructure over the past almost 100 years. What that means is they have an amazing network for doing all the stuff we need to do over the next three years to ensure the market continues to grow. And that's why NSE exists: to drive this forward and make sure all the support is there.
You'll also find that when you talk to universities, there's still a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding around gaming and esports. People still do not take it seriously. So we also exist to educate and again, BUCS are brilliant with this - they provide that communication with the people that need to be educated in order for the university societies and players to get more support.
"We're not about to create a bubble where we pour millions of pounds into the university esports space. The amount we're investing is the right amount to take things to the next level."
Jon Tilbury, NSE
And also, the skills and employment piece. It's really important for us that the wider world recognises that if you're playing esports tournaments with a team once a week for a year, you are a more employable person at the end of it. You can't teach soft skills, they have to be practiced. What better way to do that than competition?
People talk about the benefits of sports, they're not just talking about health benefits, they're talking about communication and so on, and that's applicable to esports as well.
What we've got the ability to do is to make sure those skills are recognised and educate the wider world, work with employers and industry to show them the benefits of people who've been through university esports. Playing in university esports does give you something to put on your CV that will have a meaningful effect on employment, whether it's applying for a job in the games industry or elsewhere.
Which seven games will NSE be focusing on?
We have a lengthy license process to go through, and until that's all sorted, we can't say specifically what the games are.
What I can say is they'll probably the games you can expect them to be, plus a few more where we're lookin to widen participation to the benefit of society.
The first NSE tournament kicks off in October. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, so that's being led by Chris "Hench" Henshaw, who previously designed NUEL's tournament format and has been there for four years.
He has a lot of respect in the community and the format he's designed for our competition is absolutely amazing: it does everything that it needs to do to promote participation, give people an opportunity to get involved and recognises the players that are great at the game, and provides meaningful goals for those right at the bottom, which is what we're about.
There will be two seasons per year. The thing we're doing which is kind of unique is we'll have an aggregate points table so we can really tell who the best esports university is in the UK. And we can hopefully then create some competition, not only between the societies but between the university administrations themselves. That's one of the ways we can drive everything forward - to get them engaged with what happens at a university from a brand/positioning perspective: "It's important that we beat them."
So we need to support our society better.
"There will be some overlap with the NUEL but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of competition has benefits. It's going to drive us to deliver more for players and societies, and keep us both honest as well."
It's great BUCS are getting involved. Why now?
This is true for both BUCS and Benchmark. They're not your average sports organisation coming in and ignorantly sticking their stamp on it and thinking they know what they're talking about.
They took the time to understand it. And that's one of the reasons why they've both been looking into esports for a while. The reason they're doing it now is they understand now, they've found the skills and experience they need to move forward.
We have a full-time team of three. I came from Multiplay so working on Insomnia and with GAME on the Belong project, and Niall "Nolly" Hayward and Chris "Hench" Henshaw who have obviously done fantastically in the university space before.
So there's a confidence now that actually what they can do is going to be authentic and genuinely beneficial, and they have the right way of approaching it. Whereas before, there was perhaps a fear that they might tick everyone off.
Did BUCS/Benchmark approach you guys, how did it come about?
Benchmark had a relationship with BUCS already. One of Benchmark's companies is Sport Industry Group, a networking organisation across brands and general sponsorship, they learnt that BUCS had looked into esports.
It was largely led by Benchmark because they're quite an entrepreneurial business and they're also genuinely fascinated by the grassroots and authentic competition. They want to work with BUCS and create an opportunity in this space for everyone.
Historically in the past, students will volunteer for esports tournaments. How will that work?
We're not looking to radically shape things up. It's a good thing that people will come forward and put their time into it.
Our operation model is the same as everyone else. We just have to be conscious that people are paid properly for their time. It will be a mix of using volunteers for some of the competitions, but also working with those who have valuable experience as contractors.
There certainly aren't going to be fewer opportunities, there will be so many more.
So as executive director you're heading things up at NSE, backed by Benchmark and BUCS?
Yes and that's important. We are in independent team, we're essentially being incubated inside Benchmark Sport. And that's great because it means that we have access to support and cost savings that help towards sustainability. And it means what we create is authentic.
So we don't need to worry about going outside the organisation like a start-up would for support with finance and accounts, HR and payroll etc. We can use their shared knowledge and that helps us do things in a more sustainable way.
BUCS and Benchmark are on the board and involved, we are in constant dialogue with them. They've got fantastic insight, skills and experience to help us.
"In order to get university societies better recognition and support, there's a huge need to educate people on the size of the market and the future of the market - both gaming and esports."
What kind of investment have Benchmark put in?
I can't provide a specific figure, but we're not about to create a bubble where we pour millions of pounds into the university esports space. Not at all.
The amount we're investing is the right amount to take things to the next level.
The largest piece we're spending that investment on is development of our digital platform. We're also looking at events to support the competitions, compensating people for their time... it's not millions of pounds, it's the right amount.
Can you tell us about this platform you're working on and how it will work? What is this exactly?
We're building it. You'll be able to get it on your phone and in browser.
If I describe it as almost being a Wikipedia of university esports, you'd get an idea for how that might look and feel. But completely disregard that - it's not going to look and feel like that. But from a functionality point of view, it'll do pretty much the same thing.
For a student participating in school competition who wants to go to university and is getting excited about university esports, it has all of that info served up to them in a single place. You can see which players move from a university competition to a professional competition.
It's also important to us in terms of us supporting the societies, that's a key pillar of what we're doing. There's a lot of tools we can provide to do that.
When we were doing the research on Belong - and this won't be a surprise - when you go out and talk to people about their aspirations in esports, most of them don't want to be a pro gamer. They have so many aspirations. Some want to be journalists, tournament administrators... I've spoken to people who want to become physiotherapists - their esports goal is to be an esports physiotherapists.
So if we were just about competition, we'd be serving less than 50% of the people and that's not right. One of the other key ideas around the platform is we're providing routes for those guys to get noticed, get attention.
Benchmark has amazing connections across media, so this is something we can get major media involved in as well. I'm purely speculating but you might find that if you write an article or match report and it's published on the platform and starts to get a bit of attention, it's then skimmed off to a major media outlet who work with you.
When you first said platform, I thought it would be your own tournament platform. But, it's a hub.
Exactly. We wouldn't build a tournament platform and the reason is, why would we invest money in building something that someone else can do better? There are platforms out there where people are spending millions of dollars on, and it would be naive of us to think we could come along and build something that would deliver a better experience straight away.
So what we're actually doing is working with those platforms to tailor their existing services to work perfectly for the community. So we're not dumping it on somebody else's platform, we're working with them to make it as seamless as possible.
We're focusing on the hub bit, they're focusing on the tournament bit and that helps us create the best possible experience. The management of the tournaments will be us, we'll be using someone else's platform.
"We're not here to compete with other tournament organisers and I think they know that. We're here to deliver the best possible experience we can to students and that means working with them, not working against them."
It sounds similar to Liquipedia in a way. Is that fair? So if I want to see who the top-laner is for the University of Warwick, or more info on a student player who's gone pro, I can find it on there?
Absolutely, that's where we want to end up. It might be a little less granular in the beginning, you might not be able to find in-game stats of 300 people playing at universities, but it will let you quickly build a real understanding of the community and history of the competition.
When will the platform be ready? Will it be available in time for your tournament in October?
It will absolutely be ready for October. We're aiming to get a first version out in August, that may end up being September because of the way these things work.
We're excited about this. And to go back to NUEL comparisons, we're excited because it's something that's new and could have a serious benefit.
You mentioned the National University Esports League (NUEL) and that will be the question on many lips: how do you differ from the NUEL and do you feel there will be room for both of you?
It's obviously a great question. The answer is, to start we've been in dialogue with the NUEL. We haven't come out of nowhere and done something. We've spoken to the NUEL extensively to try and figure out how we can best work together for the benefit of everyone.
Unfortunately at the moment we've not got anything, but hopefully that might change in the future.
As far as differentiation goes, it's a small market, so there's a limited extent to which we can differentiate.
The key thing for us is that platform like I mentioned, I think that will create new value and it's something we'll need to move forward, so we're excited about that.
There will be some overlap but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of competition has benefits. It's going to drive us to deliver more for players and societies, and keep us both honest as well.
It seems we're seeing a stronger 'path to pro' in the UK that goes from school to college to university, grassroots esports tournaments and weekly cups and so on. How does it feel to be a part of that ecosystem and knowing that the UK esports stars of the future may have progressed using your tournament and platform?
It's awesome. For me that's why I think this is so great. It's all about accessibility. The reason I'm personally interested in this space, is all the work we did on the research with Belong: Why are so many people interested in esports and so few actually participating?
That's what we're trying to solve with this and why it's so exciting.
"We'll be giving a keynote on the final day of BUCS' national conference in July, on stage in front of 400 senior university staff."
One of my frustrations around grassroots UK esports is the people within it love it, but not enough outside know about it or are interested in it. We don't have the culture like the US does, where collegiate esports is bigger. Do you see that as a challenge?
We don't see it as a challenge, we see it as a massive opportunity, and that's part of the reason that NSE exists: it's all about education.
In order to get university societies better recognition and support, there's a huge need to educate people on the size of the market and the future of the market - both gaming and esports. Some don't understand gaming.
So, how do you educate? Some tournament organisers maybe don't market themselves as widely as they could do.
Throughout this event we've had student leaders and guests from industry across marketing, brands etc, we've had them coming in doing short interviews. We're packaging all that up and distributing it to societies, so they can use it in conversations that often become challenging with their student unions and university management teams who might not understand esports.
More than that, we'll be giving a keynote on the final day of BUCS' national conference in July, on stage in front of 400 senior university staff.
Within that presentation, the interviews and videos we've shot [at our launch event] today will be shown.
When you have the chief executive of a multi-million dollar advertising and marketing agency tell you esports is relevant, event though you have no understanding of it, you start to listen. So that's the way we're approaching that education piece, and also making use of the genuinely valuable assets BUCS can provide to the university space to help us grow.
Those sceptical may say that as a commercial entity, Benchmark are only doing it for the money. Will you be rivalling the likes of the ESL Premiership and Gfinity Elite Series? What are your thoughts on that and what are your ambitions?
We don't have ambitions of expanding outside the university space. We're having conversations with every major player in the UK market on how we can play together, create connections with our competitions and support each other from a marketing perspective.
We're not there to compete with them and I think they know that. We're here to deliver the best possible experience we can to students and that means working with them, not working against them. We have no intention of expanding, because why would we? It wouldn't help the community.
We can work with those guys to create genuinely meaningful opportunities.