‘Gaming is the gateway to the youth’ – interview with the first senior leader in education to bring an esports qualification to the Middle East

Baz Nijjar has more than a decade of experience in the education space, having moved from teaching in Durham to Dubai in 2015 to work with GEMS Education and big tech companies like Siemens, IBM, Microsoft on giving digital industry experience to students.

As Principal Advisor of Education Technology at GEMS, and the first to bring the Esports BTEC to the Middle East, Baz’s achievement was not without its challenges, with key school stakeholders needing to be convinced of the value of esports. In this interview piece for British Esports, Dom Sacco asks Baz how he did it.

Today, gaming is on an upwards trajectory in the Middle East. Multi-million-dollar esports tournaments like Gamers8, Gamers Without Borders, BLAST, and others take place there, and two of esports’ biggest tournament operators – ESL and FACEIT – were acquired in early 2022 by Savvy Games Group (SGG), a holding company owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

But prior to these major recent developments, hard work was being made at the grassroots level, behind the scenes in the education space. And just over two years ago, the first education institution in the whole of the Middle East brought the Esports BTEC qualification – first launched by British Esports and Pearson in the UK in 2020 – to the region.

Baz Nijjar is the man responsible for the move. But how did it happen, and what’s next for esports in the Middle East?

Before we answer this, let’s go back a decade, when the computing curriculum changed how teachers and students saw IT.

From Durham to Dubai: A background in teaching and leadership

Baz Nijjar
Baz Nijjar

With a computer science degree, plus a Masters in management, Baz Nijjar’s background in coding and programming – and love of gaming – also saw him develop games on a smaller scale.

He then turned his attention to teaching in 2011. Originally from Middlesbrough and residing in the Stockton-on-Tees area, Baz became a secondary school and sixth form teacher at Durham Sixth Form Centre.

“Computer science was brought into schools at around the same time I gained my PGCE and QTS, and there was a huge shortage of computer science teachers,” Baz explains. “In addition to my computing experience, I tried to utilise gaming to encourage and engage the disadvantaged youth. Back then there was no real esports, so things happened more in the background, using Xbox’s, PlayStations and PCs and running clubs to engage with students and build positive relationships that could be taken into the classroom.”

Baz also worked as an associate officer for the Durham local education authority. He was selected as a leader to support the development of computer science in Durham county. His endeavours in the computing space then led him to a leadership role at a different school in Stockton.

“My gaming and esports background didn’t really travel with me into this role, as there was no space for it: all schools at the time had to focus on meeting the demands of delivering a computing curriculum,” Baz says. “Options like Minecraft weren’t utilised as much in education back then, compared to how it is now.

“I then moved to Dubai in 2015, and things started to change.”

Baz worked as an innovation leader and computer science teacher at a top-rated school: Jumeirah College, which is part of the GEMS Education network of schools, one of the world’s largest K-12 private education providers. After three years, he moved to GEMS FirsPoint School and became the assistant principal of specialism and the head of the school’s centre of excellence for digital industries.

“I started exploring and experimenting, in 2018 and 2019. It was the first time a centre of excellence had been opened in the region, and our centre was focused on digital industries and industry links.”

Baz Nijjar, GEMS Education

“The idea was: can you link and bring in key skills from industry level down to school level, and give students experience of industry while they’re still learning at school?

“We did this in a number of different ways. We introduced the first internship programme in the region – that was a starting point for breaking the barriers of traditional education, working with the government, the local authority, and KHDA (Dubai’s equivalent of Ofsted).

Baz Nijjar brought an esports qualification to the Middle East

“I launched an internship programme with Siemens where sixth form students would spend one day of their timetable per week learning industry skills. It could be presentations, it could be about the ecosystem of a business, the various job roles that require transferrable skills… It was all centred around sustainability because that’s Siemens’ focus area and it was all about showcasing that students could balance industry education with traditional learning. I also launched the first local version of an internship programme with Emirati students – local students of affluent families.

“And then with the support of the Principal and senior leaders, we introduced digital qualifications, we brought in opportunities like the IBM Digital Nation qualifications, the Microsoft Imagine Academy qualifications, and these are usually for students who really want to go into the IT sector. At the time, you probably wouldn’t have taken these qualifications until you went to university or wanted a change of career. But what the likes of edX and Coursera and other organisations wanted to do was provide access to content traditionally only available to older students.

“So we brought that content directly to the students, and if they wanted to learn a particular skill, they could begin the learning process while still at school or college. Then we helped develop some of these programmes and modules by bringing them down to students for them to access at an earlier age. I connected with local and global organisations to bridge the industry skills gap at school level.”

The Middle East’s esports and education push

The Modern Academy Rocket League final
The first inter-school rocket league tournament in the UAE held at GEMS FirstPoint School

With the success of linking industry to education, Baz began to look into what students were doing in their spare time with their personal development and academic skills. And that’s where his work brought him back to esports and gaming, when he realised so many young people are gaming in their spare time, but that they may not always be utilising the time wisely or with a purpose.

“I noticed British Esports doing work in the space and reached out to Tom in the very early stages of the esports BTEC,” Baz says.

“I told Tom we wanted to do esports overseas – and that we had tried a few things already but that people needed to see more substance and outcomes from it, because the case studies and success stories weren’t as available then. British Esports did some great work, and one of the reasons I brought esports to Dubai was because their work was positive and the people supporting were so passionate about adding value to student outcomes. But it was a slow process for me, because behind the scenes, I was having to do the work in the Middle East that British Esports was doing in the UK. I had to build the knowledge base, build the awareness, get those early adopters on board to showcase the outcomes, without making too much external noise, as I wanted to ensure the foundations were strong and there was purpose behind the work being conducted.”

It wasn’t an easy task – Baz had to engage with, educate, and inspire decision makers to take a chance on esports and education.

“I managed to convince the GEMS FirstPoint School leadership at the time to become the first school in the whole of the Middle East to launch the esports BTEC and to lead on initiatives relating to gaming, such as tournaments, visits, workshops, etc. We had a supportive senior leadership team and a fantastic teacher to lead it,” Baz explains.

“We also launched the first ever creative media game design course at the same time, with an excellent teacher trained in Unreal Engine, so we had two pathways – in game design and esports. That’s a level 3 course, so the first students will graduate from both courses this year, with industry-level skills recognised by universities and organisations leading in game development.

“Even without the BTEC, we saw synergy with British Esports around gaming for good, and to add value to gaming.”

Next, Baz saw an opportunity to run short esports competitions at the school, and as a senior leader Baz was overseeing, supporting, and pushing this.

“I asked how we could scale this,” Baz continues. “I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon of focusing just on tournaments – I could have done that years ago. Besides, competitions weren’t at the scale of where esports in UAE and Saudi Arabia is right now.

“Within that year of us working behind the scenes, the Global Esports Federation had come along to launch a global tournament in partnership with EMG esports management. For me, the reason for supporting the competition and event was to look for the integrity and added value of having esports introduced at a professional level in the region.”

“While everyone else was looking to make announcement and make noise, we made quiet steps, we launched mini-tournaments, and looked at additional development skills you get from using esports as a gateway to engage the youth. And that’s what I call it – ‘gaming is the gateway to the youth’ and ‘gaming for good’ if it’s linked to a purpose.”

Baz Nijjar, GEMS Education

“The questions I asked of myself and others before committing to esports: How do we get to develop the personal skills of students through gaming? How do we link it to their communication, collaboration, problem solving and analytical skills? What type of activities can we do around specific games, rather than just playing? What games would add most value? Then we looked at how we could bring wellness and inclusivity in – all the things that exist now.”

Behind the scenes, Baz and his team did a lot of developmental work – selected students were given the chance to enter an esports and gaming environment, playing different types of games like Rocket League, FIFA, Valorant, and Minecraft. They tracked what the students were achieving in the build up to the mini-tournaments, they looked at their roles and how they solved particular problems, worked with each other, and overcame barriers and challenges.

Students gather to watch the Modern Academy Rocket League final
Over 1,200 students gather to support the finalist schools in the GEMS Modern Academy Rocket League final

“We looked at that as a kind of a baseline, analysing the impact it could have from an academic point of view as well as a personal development point of view. This was all going on in the background,” Baz says.

“There are so many opportunities popping up in esports now. In some cases, it’s becoming like white noise, and I didn’t want our structured and purposeful work to get lost within that. We worked hard behind the scenes and weren’t looking at it in terms of a commercial competition; it’s about not losing track of our values and how we want to educate and develop young people, like focusing on personal development skills and the holistic development of each individual.

“Given we have found the right people and done all this work, now’s the time to launch competitions and tournaments with partners (around the UAE and elsewhere). We’ll link with other networks associated with gaming and esports. We’ll always ensure our foundations and beliefs can translate through these tournaments and competitions, as students do want the opportunity to compete in a safe and exciting environment.

“If a student is in a school tournament, they’ll also have to complete activities and skills that promote mindfulness, wellbeing, health and fitness, and all the areas we consider part of professional esports. That will get buy-in from parents and convince them that we’re not just pushing gaming, that it’s for a purpose and that gaming can be used to develop on a personal level.

“British Esports laid the groundwork in this space that other organisations are able to tap into now. I knew there was an end goal, an outcome I could utilise that would add value.”

The future of esports

Baz Nijjar with FaZe Clan's CSGO team
Baz Nijjar with FaZe Clan’s CSGO team

The GEMS Education network comprises 43 schools in the UAE and Qatar, as well as linked schools in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and schools globally. The aim is to focus on the whole esports ecosystem, but what does the future hold for this esports and education space in the Middle East, as well as the wider esports industry?

Baz answers: “I think in the longer term, esports will be bigger than ever, I think the top end will get stronger moving forwards. Right now, though, we’ll still experience a bit of a rollercoaster ride .

“From an education perspective, like any other sport, I think there will be more school teams playing against other school teams – that’s an area that will exponentially grow in the next 12 to 18 months.

“But if sponsors see the future of esports and where it’s going, then perhaps they should be investing in the grassroots and finding the next tier, the next talent for the next generation. Those who start now will be the ones that go into top-tier teams. I think you’ll see the player market stronger than ever, and I think more sponsors will get involved in the long-term, as more eyes will be on gaming and esports.

“I think the school and college space will continue to grow further, and the market will grow even bigger as a result. It always starts with schools, then as more academies come through, we may have the basketball route where students transfer between teams. The grassroots level needs to be recognised – and the money will follow at the top end. The UAE and Saudi Arabia will become global players in the gaming domain, and along with hosting top-tier tournaments, there will be more opportunities for youth and grassroots to be developed with strong foundations, and I’m excited to play a part in it.”

Baz has already talked with a few football clubs and schools in the UK and other countries who are either running the BTEC and additional esports qualifications, or have an esports team, to play against some of GEMS schools.

Baz ends with a final message around inclusivity, diversity, and student potential: “Esports and gaming can bring people together, regardless of who they are, because it’s based on your virtual character and skill level, and this is key to the global potential of connecting people through gaming.”

Follow Baz Nijjar on LinkedIn here and visit the GEMS Education website for more info here

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