The eSports industry continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. It is estimated that by 2020 it will be worth around US$1.5billion, a third of the size of the NBA and comparable to France’s Ligue 1.

Ilias Pajoheshfar, a BA (Hons) Football Coaching & Management student at UCFB Wembley, is an eSports fanatic and advocate of the positive impact it can have on participants. Here, the Next 25 scholar shares his thoughts and experiences of the one of the world’s fastest growing industries…

How did you get into eSports, and what is your favourite aspect of it?

I got into eSports through gaming. I was quite good at games but also really passionate about helping people. I went through a difficult period in my life when I was dealing with sports injuries, bullying and mental health problems; video games served as an escape and eSports gave me hope. I wanted to be involved in eSports at the highest level so I spent years studying the scene, becoming the best player that I could be and working on myself. I imagined a future where my life would revolve around eSports in a healthy way and worked on bringing that dream to life. It excited me and motivated me to keep going. After playing for a long time I began coaching eSports and became very successful in the field, eventually coaching Pakistan in the 18th Asian Games, which is an Olympic event, but that’s just the beginning! I want to further develop eSports in London by creating a space where competitive and grassroots eSports meets psychology and coaching.

I can’t really decide on one favourite aspect, so I’ll give you two! The first is the sense of community and belonging. If you’re an eSports fan, you are part of a worldwide community in which everybody instantly has something in common. eSports brings people together from all over the globe and will continue to as it grows. I have met people through gaming who have been my best friends for over 6 years now, some of whom I ended up meeting and becoming even closer with! The second aspect links back to the first, and that is health. eSports is not just competitive video gaming. As neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, PhD (from Neuroscape) states, technology, specifically video games, can be used to improve brain function. I’m not a neuroscientist but, as an individual who has been in the eSports scene for the best part of a decade, it is clear to me that gaming, and eSports, is the key to helping many young people, not just to battle mental health problems but also to avoid a life of mediocrity by putting emphasis on things required in both eSports and life in general.

How do you think eSports is viewed around the world?

I think that eSports is being seen in an increasingly positive light. There will always be the comparison to traditional sports, but the most important thing is that we are all open-minded and willing to learn about both the positives and negatives of eSports, how it impacts young people and how we can use it to benefit society.

Does more need to be done to make older generations realise it’s a viable career path like ‘traditional’ sports?

I don’t think so. More needs to be done to make young people aware that eSports is a viable career path. The truth is, many people still don’t see sports as a viable career path. With the emergence of any new industry comes the scepticism of something new, usually from the older generations. I believe we are quite fortunate to be living in a society where many among the older generations are quite open about new things, but the important part is that they become informed and mould their own opinions rather than going with the general perception of those around them. This is something that everyone should learn from a young age. It is important for young people to know that if they are passionate about eSports there is no reason why they shouldn’t pursue it. If money is a motivator I’d want people to understand that you’ll make more money doing something that you love and are brilliant at than doing something that you don’t care for, and to be truly great you have to be passionate. Most of the people I know who work in eSports would do it for free, you have to love your job that much. If you wouldn’t do it for free, you shouldn’t base your life on it.

How has eSports helped you in your life?

eSports gave me hope, purpose and helped me to keep going when things got really hard. I was far too anxious to socialise and had a difficult time leaving my room when I was around 16 years old. eSports allowed me to develop my social skills without fearing judgement, and let me build meaningful relationships without really risking anything. I learned a lot about myself and it helped me to build my confidence too. Making friends through eSports made me realise that my completely negative self-perception at the time was false and that certain stereotypes and stigmas surrounding certain types of people, which had been enforced as I was growing up, were also false. I could honestly credit where I am now, especially my scholarship and my ambassador role with Kick It Out, to eSports.

UCFB graduates Brandon Smith & Richard Buckley are successful FIFA eSports commentators who work on FIFA events all over the world

There’s a whole new generation of people involved in eSports in different capacities – what do you think makes them so engaged with the sport?

I think that eSports is extremely relatable for anyone who plays competitive video games. I believe that one of the most appealing things about eSports is the idea that you can one day be in the shoes of the person you are watching. That dream drives many players to keep going. Watching eSports is entertaining, even more so if you play the game at a good level; you may have a better grasp on how skilful these players are, or alternatively, you may see many similarities with your own gameplay and believe you deserve to take their place. Either way it is both educational and entertaining. Seeing teams work together to defeat impossible odds, dramatic last second comebacks or even working so well together that they stomp their opponent is entertaining in a similar way that watching football is! Players and teams have fans, league tables, prizes, transfers and all of the drama that amplifies the importance of every action on the playing field, just like in football except in a more detailed way (as its all code and has far more variety).

What does the future of eSports look like to you? Olympics? Live Super Sunday-style events?

Well, in the UK, the future of eSports would be what is already happening almost everywhere else. eSports degrees are already very popular in the US but I personally believe that they can be broken down and made into several courses similar to what UCFB have done with football/sports. They can run on their own and/or be implemented as modules into several other degrees such as eSports analysis, events, business, casting, IT, sports science, sports psychology, coaching, film and even streaming in media or broadcasting courses. There is a £220million eSports town in Yangzhou, China. There are eSports hotels in Korea. There are eSports arenas, cafés and even eSports hospitals! I still find it hard to wrap my head around that but it’s unsurprising. South Korea has been at the forefront of eSports for a long time too. You could really think of it as an eSports arms race. The race to enable your country’s citizens to become the next generation of eSports athletes. The UK has a brilliant gaming culture and can easily reap the rewards from eSports ventures if more funding went into it. We need to build the grassroots eSports scene in the UK. The demand is everywhere.