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HBCUs getting serious about preparing their students for esports future

MEAC, SWAC see esports as a varsity sport, part of STEM education, graphic and gaming design

With much to gain for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) by delving into the esports space, then owning it and making it theirs, conferences are taking a leadership role.

About three years ago, commissioner Dennis E. Thomas of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) broached the idea of researching whether the conference should get involved in esports. Sonja Stills, now the MEAC chief of staff and chief operating officer (and future MEAC commissioner in January 2022), volunteered to spearhead the project. “It was important,” she said, “that we be in this space to create a pipeline for minorities into the gaming industry.”

Stills said the MEAC “started [its esports endeavors] when the [coronavirus] pandemic hit. We were looking for another revenue stream. We started so students, bands and alumni could come together and play. But it evolved going into the fall of 2020 into building an esports ecosystem or community amongst the MEAC institutions.”

For Stills, the goal is to treat esports like other varsity sports. “What we’re trying to do is build an esports ecosystem for the MEAC,” she said, “and for it to be [a future varsity sports program]. And so, this fall we have just started our conference play, and so what we’re trying to do is evolve the clubs into varsity programs.”

The MEAC is holding esports competitions in four games — Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Splitgate. Play started in early October and the playoffs begin Saturday.

The NFL just announced its second annual Madden NFL 22 x HBCU tournament with EA. The single-elimination qualifier tournament will be held on Dec. 5, with the top 16 finalists advancing to compete in the NFL Madden x HBCU Showcase during Super Bowl week in Los Angeles.

The MEAC is combining esports competition with pedagogy tailored to students who want to make a career in esports. Stills said schools are ramping up to have “that educational piece where the institutions are developing esports degrees or classes on their campuses so that the ecosystem continues to build. That’s going to set the MEAC conference ahead of any other conference in regards to esports.”

The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) is engaged in similar work, instituting conferencewide esports programming in September 2020 that allows students to compete in games, while also facilitating a deeper integration between games, curriculum and on-campus facilities. In December, the SWAC is holding competitions in Rocket League and Fortnite.

There is also the HBCU Esports League on Twitch, which had its inaugural season in 2020. It is providing student gamers at HBCUs opportunities to compete in a sponsored league.

Stills said that MEAC institutions are focusing on three tentpoles — competition, career and education. “For the career part,” she said, “we want to be able to be a pipeline for minorities into a gaming industry. We want to be able to not only have the gaming side for the gamers themselves, but looking at those who can be broadcasters behind the scenes, creating the music for the games and coders. We’re trying to find different ways to push more minorities into gaming.”

Jalen Mitchell, a student at Howard University who is having much success in MEAC play across the four titles the league competes in, worked with Cxmmunity, an organization dedicated to increasing minority involvement within esports, to help build a program at Howard. “Building this program has helped me see how powerful I already am and how impactful I can be,” he said. “I no longer have career dreams that I can barely fathom myself accomplishing. Now I know I am capable of building something special, and as long as I continue to work hard and be creative, there is nothing I cannot do.”

Charity Philips, a North Carolina Central student, does broadcasting for MEAC HBCU esports events involving the Eagles and Howard, Coppin State, Morgan State and Maryland Eastern Shore. She finds her school’s esports involvement to have greatly benefited her: “I would have never thought that I could be a broadcaster. It has taught me public speaking, and so now when I am asked to do panels I am not as nervous as I used to be.”

Ben Baxter, associate commissioner for strategic marketing and external operations for the CIAA, is shepherding these efforts for his conference. He sees esports as fertile ground for providing students an enriching college experience that can lead to successful careers. “There are,” he said, “a lot of career opportunities within the STEM field associated with esports and gaming, so that’s on the high end, that’s the bigger picture for us — identifying opportunities for our students and institutions to be involved within the STEM space driven through esports and gaming.”

“There’s a lot of different resources both monetary and otherwise that can directly benefit our schools,” Baxter said. “I always tell our schools to take advantage of the opportunity that’s out there. It’s an opportunity to bring to your school different programs, bring in more students and as well as a different way to engage them outside of the traditional ways, i.e., homecomings and things of that nature. So it’s just another opportunity to continue to grow the institution across various platforms.”

Shaon Berry, CEO of Metro Esports, who has partnered with the CIAA to develop customized gaming events for the conference, wants to bring more awareness to underrepresented minorities of the various career opportunities inside esports.

“If you have a technology-based interest,” he said, “there are a number of programs in the CIAA that focus on math and science and engineering. But more and more, you’re seeing courses and curriculums around game design and game development. We want to continue to build an awareness around industry, particularly for the Black and brown community, and let them know that there are so many tech education and professional opportunities available, so it’s really about exposure and awareness.”

HBCU conferences are making the connection between a successful future for their member schools in this massively successful industry. “I think it’s going to be extremely important,” Stills said. “Gaming is a billion-dollar business and certainly businesses want to connect with the African American population, and one way to do that is through esports.”

And although technology is the driving focus, conferences don’t just see this as a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) play. Baxter said, “We look for career opportunities where we can engage the graphic design student, the art student, the digital design students, those different types of related majors, to where they can utilize those skills in a practical way. We look for those opportunities to engage our schools, and our students, [so] they can use [esports] to build their resumes.”

Berry also sees students with an artistic bent as ones to bring into the esports tent on HBCU campuses. “Something like 97% of all kids play video games, but when you think about kids that have artistic or creative abilities, being able to design the games that you play is a phenomenal career.”

Bringing in corporate dollars is key to the success of what conferences are seeking to accomplish. “We’re looking for corporate partners who are looking for impact investing,” said Stills, whose conference has already partnered with Coca-Cola for an esports-themed tour with rapper Cordae. “Not some company that is just going to drop money and then walk away, but we’re looking for corporate partners who are going to be there as we’re building the esports ecosystem from the ground up. We’re looking at those companies who are going to help with the sustainability of the program, and so you have to be invested on the ground up with the infrastructure.

“I am ecstatic at where we are from where we were a year ago because we literally are starting from the ground up,” Stills said. “Last year, we had maybe a couple institutions who had actual teams to you know, almost all. Out of eight schools, I think six of them have esports teams or clubs and five of the institutions have esports labs, so compared to where we were, I am so ecstatic with the progress that we’re making.

“In the future,” Stills said, “I want varsity esports programs on each of the campuses. I want all the campuses to have esports centers or arenas so that everybody is playing on a level playing field. I want to see that each of the institutions has everything that they need to sustain their esports program.”

“We’ve been in this space not even two years,” Baxter said, “and there has definitely been a lot of opportunities for us to benefit our schools while growing our awareness.”

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.