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Volume 23 No. 28
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Esports: Redefining access in higher education at HBCUs

When Hampton University received a $340,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security last July, outside of the school community, no one could have been more elated than me. My parents, godparents and younger brother Ben all attended Central State University, and my sister Kori attended Spelman College. I even attended two Historically Black Colleges and Universities — Tuskegee University and N.C. A&T State University — so it was great to see an HBCU like Hampton be in the position to finally dive into the world of esports!

I was privileged to broker the first sports retail partnership with a video game company in 2003 when I was the head of partnership marketing for athletic retailer Footaction. We fostered product placement in Activision’s 2003 Street Hoops game. Even at that time, I knew students at HBCUs actively played video games, but how many of them would find a way to monetize love for gaming and forge a career in that area? Today, there are more than 2.5 billion video gamers from all over the world, many of whom are on mobile devices.

Since 2003, the global gaming industry went from $32 billion to a staggering $139 billion, with a $300 billion expectancy by 2025. Esports has grown at an exponential rate of approximately 40% a year and will develop into a $2 billion brand or more by 2021. Esports is proving to be the breakout field in the world of sports.

Even with those astronomical numbers, only a handful of HBCUs have a plan to create an avenue for students in esports. There are over 1,800 esports teams/clubs and approximately 73 esports academic programs that exist on predominately white college campuses. Universities such as Becker College (the first college to develop an esports major), Boise State, Shenandoah and Ohio State have all created programs focused on esports, including one of the nation’s pioneer programs at the University of California-Irvine, which offers an esports management certificate. 

How can HBCUs increase enrollment with esports?

HBCU administrators will have to do their homework as they contemplate ways to increase enrollment by exploring various entry points and identifying enrollment gaps by interweaving those needs into each entry point.

The Collegiate StarLeague

The Collegiate StarLeague (CSL) is the first and world’s largest year-round competitive league for college students. Since 2009, CSL has awarded over $1 million in scholarships to student gamers from around the world. CSL is on 1,800 campuses, comprising 11,000 collegiate teams with more than 70,000 student gamers.

HBCU esports league

CSL announced the addition of a fifth league and the first HBCU league. According to CSL CEO Wim Stocks, the HBCU esports league will compete against HBCUs and culminate with an HBCU esports champion. The winner of the HBCU league will advance to play for the CSL Championship. In addition, the HBCU esports league will provide pathways for HBCU students to earn internships and apprenticeships with many of the esports and video game companies. 

Tespa

Tespa is a network of students, competitors and club leaders led by students. Over 1,350 schools and 40,000 competitors have competed in Tespa tournaments with over $3.3 million in scholarships awarded. Blizzard Entertainment funds student Tespa groups in the Tespa network by guaranteeing event funding and in-game rewards. Students in the U.S. or Canada can obtain free membership and compete in Tespa tournaments. 

NACE

NACE is the National Association of Collegiate Esports, and is the only association of varsity esports programs at colleges and universities in America. More than 258 colleges and universities make up the 5,000 student athletes awarded over $16 million in esports scholarships and aid.

How are some HBCUs entering the field of esports? 

The Southwestern Athletic Conference has a new partnership with the U.S. Air Force beginning this fall, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has partnered with Blaze Fire Games, and HBCU Heroes has donated laptop computers to over 20 HBCU athletic departments. 

What about academics and careers?  

Florida Memorial University in Miami hired me to create an innovative STEM and esports program that will provide students careers in technology, augmented reality, virtual reality, animation, sports, fashion, film, communications, entrepreneurship and marketing.

In addition, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania will launch an esports academic program as well as an esports gaming center for students to compete in numerous esports titled games. Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte will offer the first HBCU esports and gaming management minor to undergraduates and a noncredit certificate program this fall.

Will students get jobs?

This is the most-asked question by educators and parents concerning esports. The industry offers various high-demand job opportunities, including journalist, content creator, analyst, host, production assistant, social media manager, game developer, planner, designer, personal trainer, nutritionist, psychologist and lawyer.

Esports is a phenomenon that crosses disciplinary boundaries and will serve as a conduit for increased access and success in higher education. This kind of growth creates demand for professionals with the precise fusion of education, experience, expertise and passion for the gaming industry. Great support from STEM curricula, athletic departments, and business schools are the largest and best channels for aspiring pro players to get discovered. HBCUs are uniquely positioned to be among the most competitive esports academic programs in the world.

Marc Williams, Ph.D., (@docspitsfire06) is global scholar practitioner at Florida Memorial University, commissioner of the HBCU esports league, and has had a sports marketing career spanning 25 years.

Editor’s note: This column is updated from the print version.

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.

 

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com