Is E-sports The Next Big College Degree?

So here is something to keep on your radar and  consider the long term implications – Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest names in video gaming, donated $25 million to the University of Michigan to help them launch an esports team.  If you are not familiar with esports it is basically teams of people competing against each other on some of the marquee video game titles.   The competitors may be sitting down, but reflexes, timing, strategy, leadership and teamwork are significant determinants in success.

It is already fairly widespread and lucrative as hell which means it will inevitably continue to expand. Especially if Covid or other pandemics continues to be prevalent because the teams communicate over headsets and can therefore be easily isolated from each other.

So it is no surprise that universities are beginning to get on board. Not only is it an area of interest for students, some of them are already competing professionally.

Kotick’s enthusiasm to establish esports at Michigan is part of a bigger movement that has legitimized gaming as a path to a college degree and career.

There are nearly 200 colleges and universities nationwide with varsity esports programs and more than $16 million in scholarships is awarded to esports athletes each year.

The growth of collegiate esports allows institutions and their students to tap into a market that is expected to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, per Esports Ecosystem Report.

Not only do video games present competition for live performance, (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said video gaming was a bigger source of worry for them than Disney & HBO streaming services), but also a potentially expanding source of employment for creatives.

The small university in southern Ohio at which I worked three years ago had long been recognized as a top 10 video game design program. It taught both programmers and artists and included classes in composing and designing sound/music for video games. There wasn’t an acting for video games class, but it did have a motion capture studio and independent companies in town were working on related technologies.

It is a lot more difficult to design and program for video games than most people imagine. Increasing demands for realism mean serious calculus for the physics and intense execution of detail in the art. As computing capacity and processing improves, it is only going to get worse–or better if you are a highly skilled creative being sought after by gaming companies.

After realizing their professors were right and enjoying playing video games does not translate into being able to create them, many students would change the focus of their majors. But they were still pretty adept and enthusiastic video gamers. And so 3-4 years ago, that small university in rural Ohio started an esports roster alongside their athletics teams.

Now there were other universities that started esports teams a few years ago as well, but the fact that a small university could have an organized a roster of ~50 competing on 6-7 game titles for years while the University of Michigan was operating at a recreational level provides some indication about the shifting dynamics of who is and can participate in esports.

Things Getting Better For Virtually Singing Together

An article on FastCompany recently caught my eye that suggests a company in Sweden is helping to solve a big problem in collaborative virtual concerts. One of the big impediments has been getting music and vocals coming in from different video/audio streams synchronized.

The article quotes San Francisco Opera general manager, Matthew Shilvock, who says his organization has been using the tool called Aloha, which marries low latency technology with now very familiar video chat interfaces:

It allows a singer and a pianist to essentially be in the digital space together making real-time music—which is just transformational for us,” Shilvock tells Fast Company. “A pianist can now hear a singer breathe, and that may sound very basic, but those breath cues are the things that allow the pianist to really mold their sounds to what the singer is doing.”

“To see the emotional reaction of a pianist [who is] now finally able to hear those cues is just amazing,” he adds.

While the software is still in beta, some music schools in Sweden have been using the technology for classes since last Fall. Even if everything goes back to full in person performances that existed before, tools like this might expand the window of rehearsal periods and cut down on the travel and housing expenses previously associated with live productions.

Looks Like Streaming Is Here To Stay A Bit Longer

I saw on FastCompany that Live Nation is wiring some of their venues for livestreaming and wondered what, if any impact it may have on the way performing arts venues operate in the future.

This is potentially a brilliant business move, because not only will livestreaming repeatedly capture superfans who would happily spend an evening and $120-$600 on tickets, but it will increase access for fans whose towns and budgets do not align with tours. Perhaps more critically, it will reach the many (many) semi-fans who would not tromp through crowds to see Pink, but would totally pay $15-40 to project her onto their living room wall.

Here are some of the things this got me thinking-

Pretty much at every community in which I have worked, people will complain there is too much they want to participate going on at the same time and they wish organizations would coordinate their calendars. (Of course there is often an overlap with the people who say there is nothing to do in the community.) Am I going to be in a position where I not only have to worry about what is going on in immediate area, but also a big event 300 miles away that people who live in a 10 mile radius of my venue are staying home to see?

There is plenty of precedent for this in relation to college sports. I have frequently been advised not to program during home football games of universities 200 miles away, during NCAA finals and similar events. Now granted, I don’t have empirical evidence this is a factor since it is difficult to survey people who chose not to come, but these events are frequently cited as a reason for low attendance.

Another concern is that performers may see less of a need to tour so extensively if they feel live streaming is extending their reach to people who live in the spaces between major markets, but won’t travel that far to see the show. Touring isn’t cheap or easy so it isn’t inconceivable that performers will skip places that may have gone in the past, especially if any sort of formal or informal social distancing conventions persist in the coming years. That decision will rob many communities of the economic impact of those tours.

The negative impact of casinos showrooms on performing arts venues has been widely acknowledged due to their ability to pay performers extremely well and require non-compete clauses over a broad geographic radius. I am not sure that Live Nation venues would require similarly large radii given the appeal of livestream broadcasts are not geographically bound, but performers feeling satisfied they are reaching who they need to reach via livestream may inadvertently have the same effect.

Now granted, this last hypothesis while possible, may not manifest. If there is enough perceived demand in smaller markets, touring groups are likely to make more money with a live performance than they would from streaming it 200 miles away. In fact, the streaming may increase the interest in seeing the liveshow.

As with so many things, its the unanticipated impacts of trends for which one needs to remain alert. Even if you don’t see your operation as being on the same scale as those of Live Nation’s, the ripples may impact you just the same. I can see plenty of positive potential as well as other performers move to fill in the gaps and find themselves thriving.

What Impact Can Guaranteed Basic Income Have On Art?

In case you missed it, somethings to keep an eye on over the next two years or so are the guaranteed income program for artists that have been established in St. Paul and San Francisco.  The NY Times reported on these efforts today. In San Francisco, 130 artists will receive $1000 for the next six months from the city  In St. Paul, Springboard for the Arts will be providing $500 to 25 artists over the next 18 months.

An article on MinnPost has more details about the St. Paul program:

Springboard’s pilot program will provide direct, no-strings-attached cash support to artists affected by the pandemic. It will explore the impact of guaranteed income on artists, culture bearers and creative workers at a neighborhood level. And “it gives us the opportunity to demonstrate and advocate nationally that culture makers need to be included in the work to make our economy more equitable and just,” Springboard Executive Director Laura Zabel said in a statement.

Recipients will be selected at random from an eligible pool of artists who have received support from Springboard’s Emergency Relief Fund. At least 75 percent will be Black, Native and/or people of color.

Just last month the results studying the first year of Stockton, CA efforts at providing $500/month to 125 residents for 24 months were released. According to the NPR story,

Among the key findings outlined in a 25-page white paper are that the unconditional cash reduced the month-to-month income fluctuations that households face, increased recipients’ full-time employment by 12 percentage points and decreased their measurable feelings of anxiety and depression, compared with their control-group counterparts.

The study also found that by alleviating financial hardship, the guaranteed income created “new opportunities for self-determination, choice, goal-setting, and risk-taking.”

Obviously, it will be interesting to see what the results of providing creatives with a basic guaranteed income over a period of time. One obvious positive benefit would be if it encouraged the same risk-taking that it did with participants in Stockton’s program, though with artistic choices moreso than life decisions.

I am sure there will be some unanticipated outcomes as well. Stockton’s program was described as having a ripple effect because it general improved and removed pressure from the lives of those the income recipients depended for food and other necessities.

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