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Staffordshire University Esports Degree Gets Boost from NDI and VMC1

February 21, 2020 by Matt Allard

Staffordshire University is renowned for digital excellence, being one of the first universities to adopt computer studies in 1965, and since then has become the number one place in the United Kingdom to study for anything to do with gaming technology and design.

Known for being the connected university, the staff are always looking at how they can continue to develop their curriculum. Every year they look at what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s coming up, and where the jobs are. As Rachel Gowers, Director of Digital Institute, Staffordshire University London puts it, “It’s really important that we are preparing graduates not just for careers now, but for careers of the future.”

Staffordshire started to create an Esports degree about two and a half years ago working alongside employers from games design and esports companies discussing what they thought were the skills that were missing and what they thought the jobs of the future would look like. When the degree was launched there was a lot of media interest because it was the first full undergraduate Esports degree anywhere in the world.

Students at Staffordshire University's Digital Institute London earn accredited degrees in Esports Management.  Rachel emphasizes, “Students are taught about teamwork, problem solving, and decision making in exactly the same way they would learn with any other business degree. Therefore, the Esports degree equips people to work in all industries, not just esports.” Photo courtesy of Bradley Austin.

The Esports degree is a combination of curriculum from the Business school, but also from the computer games area as well. Students learn about human resources, marketing, finance, and they learn a lot about event management and all of the different skills that they need to make an event work. Students are taught about the entire esports ecosystem and all of the things that feed into that. This includes the design and production of games, building communities to follow particular games, apparel that people want to wear and buy to follow their teams, social media following and influencers, the marketing of players and teams, and how to create a marketing campaign for launching a new game.

The students also learn about the ethical and legal facets of esports including illegal gambling, doping, regulation, and policy, so that they have a good awareness of issues that confront the industry. They also learn how to put teams together and manage them. An extremely important aspect the students learn later on in the degree is about data analysis, as data manipulation and being able to interpret data applies to every job of the future. Rachel emphasizes, “Students are taught about teamwork, problem solving, and decision making in exactly the same way they would learn with any other business degree. Therefore, the Esports degree equips people to work in all industries, not just esports.”

The other significant element that students get right from the start of program is the technical side of event production. They are taught to operate the broadcast and production equipment required to make really exciting tournaments, and they also acquire the skills for video and audio mixing, camera usage, lighting, and directing to make sure that they know how to get audiences really involved with the events.

The Esports degree is a combination of curriculum from the Business school, but also from the computer games area as well. Students learn about human resources, marketing, finance, and they learn a lot about event management and all of the different skills that they need to make an event work. Photo courtesy of Bradley Austin. 

The degree began in 2018 in Stoke-on-Trent with 120 students, and in 2019 that number has grown to 150 students. Esports has become one of the most popular degrees at the university alongside computer games design, which is an area where they have a thousand students. The University needed to think about expansion. The Stoke-on-Trent campus is really vibrant, but they wanted to grow even further, and also make opportunities for students in other locations. A lot of the companies in the industry they speak to are based in the London area, so being based in London offers a lot more opportunities for students.

The University settled on Here East right in the center of the Olympic Park. The benefit of being in Here East is that they are among lots of other technology businesses. There are lots of computer game design companies based in the area as well as cyber security firms. The facility is classed as an export cluster, so many students will have opportunities for work placements, and obviously for employment at the end of their course as well. Industry personnel come and hold business surgery sessions where they talk about their business challenges. The University expects by 2020 that they will have 150 students in the Here East facility studying Esports and will cover computer games design as well. Next year they will launch a brand new degree in Games PR and Community Management, which is going to mean that they will be training content assistants, content creators, and people that want to create communities for the games industry from next year onwards.

Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent has a broadcast news room, a television studio, radio studios, and an esports hub, and when the technical team there were tasked with planning out the London campus, they knew it had to be cutting edge. They looked into different technologies that could be used, and the NDI® protocol was determined to be the best solution. Technical specialist Matt Lewis states, “We could have gone for the old way, the old traditional way of SDI, but we knew that that is not the way forward. And we knew that there had to be a different way, and that way is NDI.”

The staff recently did an upgrade to the television studio in Stoke that was about 10 years old in terms of its technology. The studio is now NDI-based and the SDI cabling is redundant and no longer required compared to the huge amount of SDI needed 10 years ago. Now just several Ethernet cables run around the studio for all cameras and control surfaces, and that is why the technical staff chose to go with NDI.

The 44-input NewTek VMC1live production system serves as the central hub of epsorts productions at Staffordshire University's Digital Institute London campus. The VMC1 is designed to handle NDI as well as SDI inputs. Shown here with 2-stripe control panel

The University technical staff found using NDI to be really straightforward. There was very little setup. They were able to use new or existing IT network infrastructures within the University. Based on the experience of the facility in Stoke, working out a system that serves the needs of the students and for the Esports course, the technical staff transferred all this knowledge to the Staffordshire University London, Digital Institute project. The transition was really seamless as they replicated the set up and were up and running straight away. Matt declares, “We were able to hit the ground running with NDI. NDI has made our workflow a lot more straightforward.”

The Digital Institute facility in London, is centered around a NewTek VMC1 digital media production system connected to all the input sources with a “two stripe” control surface. There are three Panasonic studio cameras and a Panasonic PTZ camera to give an overview of the all the gaming stations which consists of two banks of six systems. Each system uses the free NDI Scan Converter tool that sends the computer signals directly to the network as sources for the VMC1 along with other NDI sources such as cameras.

Rachel emphasizes, “Students are taught about teamwork, problem solving, and decision making in exactly the same way they would learn with any other business degree. Therefore, the Esports degree equips people to work in all industries, not just esports.”

During productions, there are presenters at a desk and each of these presenters has a mini PC situated at their position. The PC’s are part of the NDI network so the presenters are able to choose any NDI source connected to the VMC1 and pick and choose on the preview or program outputs any individual in-coming source. Switching out the non-NDI-based equipment is something the staff looks forward to in the future. A separate spectator PC can display the output of any of the 12 different gaming systems along with a separate output as well that provides a view of the gaming going on from a third person point of view. Events are streamed out directly from the VMC1. The amount of streaming capabilities has far exceeded their production requirements and they can stream to several places at once as needed to destinations including Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook.

A single standard Netgear managed switch pulls all the streams together. All of the NDI sources including the cameras, the PC’s, and the VMC1 connect to this central hub so everything communicates directly to each other straight away. The staff implemented their own internal production network to keep away from the usual university traffic apart from when it goes to streaming outputs,

NDI KVM is something that is being planned for. The KVM functionality will help from a teaching point of view because traditionally they could only teach a small handful of students around the control surface and user interface of the production system. The KVM will permit instructors to send the interface output to a separate device such as a PC that is connected up to a projector. Instead of teaching a small number of students, instructors will be able to teach a whole class and show them how to operate the VMC1 production system.

NewTek Spark devices sitting on top of these Panasonic cameras convert SDI signals into NDI which can then be transmitted over the local area network into their NewTek VMC1 live production switcher

NewTek Spark converters pull in feeds from games consoles to connect straight into the network. They are also used because the Panasonic cameras are limited to 1080p, whereas the Spark converters take the HDMI out to provide a 4K UHD feed.

NDI has really helped the technical staff to improve the production values of their streams, which includes using the VMC1 with internal graphics and virtual sets. Having everything integrated together really helps to lift up their production quality. Matt explains, “There’s a lot that goes into what we do. And NewTek with NDI just fits hand in glove with what we teach.”

Feature photo courtesy of Bradley Austin.

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