Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

Video games aren’t just a hobby anymore! In fact, the number of esports fans is rivalling that of traditional sporting events – football, NFL, tennis, you name it. It’s said that esports viewership could even outpace sports audiences within the next decade…

62% of esports viewers are aged between 16-34 years, so it’s becoming increasingly important that university and college support staff, and all those with a duty of care to young people, understand: 

  • What esports are
  • The potential risks associated with esports and esports betting
  • Where students can go for help with gaming or gambling-related harm

Craig de Vos, Programme Manager at GamCare, for the Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme, breaks down everything you need to know. 

The Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme is delivered by GamCare together with YGAM. Founded in 1997, GamCare is the leading national provider of free information, advice and support for anyone affected by gambling-related harm. Their ultimate hope is to reach every young person across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so they have an awareness of the harm gambling could cause, how to stay safe if they choose to gamble, and where to go should they need support.

What are esports?

In summary, esports is a form of sports competition using video games. Esports often take the form of organised, multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between professional players, individually or as teams.

Technically, anyone who plays video games could argue that they are an esports player. But in reality:

  • Around 40% of players play casually or socially
  • 60% play in ranked matches or online tournaments
  • Just 0.00001% are professional players who are contracted to a professional team or are financially compensated for playing video games

Esports players are referred to as athletes and professional teams will often mirror what is seen in other sports teams, with dieticians, physios, personal trainers, psychologists, uniforms, etc. to help maintain the levels of concentration and the reactions required to be among the best gamers. 

Esports promotional video example

How are students and young people getting involved with esports?

Students and young people be involved with esports in three ways:

  • Playing (although only a very small majority of players become professional)
  • Viewing (watching others play in tournaments)
  • Betting (gambling on the outcome of an esports tournament)

While you need to be 18 to place a bet on esports, there’s no age limit on viewing, unless the tournament organiser sets one.

How popular are esports?

Esports attract a significant following. The popularity of tournaments and streams is often measured by their highest concurrent viewers count and total hours watched. 

To date, the highest live attendance for any esports tournament was recorded by the 2019 IEM Katowice event in Poland, who hosted 174,000 fans onsite (with 232 million viewers over the duration of the multi-day event). 

In 2018, a League of Legends tournament achieved 2 billion hours of footage watched across the length of the event. While the largest peak online audience for an esports tournament is recorded at nearly 5.5 million for the Free Fire World Series in 2021. The largest prize pool recorded is just over $40 million.

It’s projected that the esports global audience will grow to 577 million people by 2024. 

Growing popularity of esports betting

Gambling on esports is also experiencing significant growth – still smaller than other forms of gambling but on the rise. The gross yield for esports gambling in May 2022 was £4.6 million.

The pandemic and its associated lockdowns marked a turning point in popularity. Since more traditional sports could no longer be played in real life, gamblers turned to esports to place their bets instead. 

The gross turnover of esports betting rose dramatically as a result: from £1.5 million in March 2020 to £5 million in May 2020. 

Esports is becoming more and more mainstream and is now featured on BBC Sports. This has helped increase its popularity further. We could see esports betting start to become the norm in the future (similar to bets on football matches and horse races).

What are the risks of esports?

It’s worth noting that esports (and gaming in general) has benefits for students, as well as risks. They can provide a social lifeline for some and research has revealed many positives for young people with special educational needs in particular.

However, there are also potential risks to young people from the rise in popularity of esports (many of which are similar to gambling-related harms in general).

Financial risks

Money can be required to advance within certain games (or to get the best players, weapons, and even to create a ‘look’ that attracts attention within the game) and to achieve success quickly, can require spending a lot of money – posing a risk of getting into debt.

A young person could have aspirations to become a professional esports player. But the reality is that only a tiny number of gamers reach this level, which could impact on the finances of a young person and their family.

Those who engage with skins trading and betting sites have the potential to come into contact with large sums of money, but to lose large amounts of money too. 

There are also often incentives to refer others to these sites so students could be inadvertently signing up their friends and peers, who then become vulnerable to potential risks too.

Gaming disorder

To achieve success within a game can require a lot of time spent playing it. In some instances, this can lead to gaming disorder.

While gambling is about money, gaming disorder is about time. It’s defined as a pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

Developmental risks

Significant time spent playing a game means less time spent on other activities, which could impact on a students’ educational activity, exam and study performance and attendance levels. 

It could also mean they withdraw from other activities outside of their education, such as socialising, exercising, etc. 

Impact on relationships

More time spent on gaming and less on socialising can affect friendships, family and other relationships.

While some may feel they are bonding with other gamers, the competitive nature of gaming also has the potential to put a strain on friendships.

Spending money on esports can also impact a student’s relationship with their family or caregiver(s), especially if they have to provide financial support to help the student pay off debt. There are also stories of money being spent on games on a parent or caregivers’ card without their knowledge.

Impact on wellbeing

All of these potential risks can cause stress for a student or young person, which in turn, can impact on their wellbeing and mental health. Young people can also feel increased anger or frustration if their gaming or gambling aspirations are not met, or if they feel someone else is interfering with these.

There are risks to physical health too – caused by repetitive strain, dietary issues and general deterioration of health from too much gaming. As well as safeguarding considerations through the interactions that take place in the game or in a chat room.

Esports and other digital harms

Esports can be considered as a ‘digital harm’ – a term for an activity that is gambling-like or that involves elements of gambling.

Other digital harms that GamCare are concerned about include:

Loot boxes 

Loot boxes are in-game features that involve risking an item of value (usually credits earned, or require purchasing with real-world money) to open something that has an element of chance attached and remains a mystery until it’s opened, with the hope of winning something of value.

Loot boxes often utilise the same psychological techniques as popular gambling activities, like slot machines for example. Examples of these techniques include bright lights, enticing sounds, special offers, etc. and there is research emerging that links spending on loot boxes to people who have developed problematic gambling behaviours 

Skins betting

A skin is a virtual item obtained usually by opening a loot box or trading on virtual marketplaces (a skin could be a weapon, an item of clothing or anything that changes the appearance of a character or an item within the game). 

In the case of skins betting, it has been proven very easy for a young person to go through a number of steps with the ultimate goal of being able to gamble on unregulated websites that would otherwise be illegal in the UK.

Advertising and social media influencing 

Many gambling websites are using celebrities or other influencers to increase their subscriber bases and entice the next generation of gamblers. 

GamCare are becoming increasingly worried about the glamorising of gambling on platforms such as Twitch, where young people can watch their favourite content creator or influencer participate in gambling related activities or open loot boxes.

Trading, crypto and NFTs 

Social media content is also increasingly influencing the uptake of trading and investing and the purchasing of cryptocurrency and NFTs. 

Whilst not inherently gambling, nor regulated as gambling, there are many parallels and calls to GamCare’s helpline from people being harmed by these types of activities are increasing.

Where can help be found?

Help for students and young people

For support staff at universities, colleges and schools

  • GamCare offer CPD-accredited training free of charge to any professionals who work with young people, that can be tailored specifically to the organisation’s needs – contact hello@bigdeal.org.uk or craig.devos@gamcare.org.uk 

For parents

More information

Watch the recording from Craig’s presentation for more information:

You can also download Craig’s slides here.

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