‘This Is Our Moment to Be Ahead of the Curve’: What Esports Could Mean for HBCUs

It’s no secret that professional gaming has blown up. Kids are making $3 million playing Fortnite. By the end of 2020, the esports industry was projected to hit 1.1 billion in revenue. Add in the rise of video streaming platforms like Twitch, alongside the popularity of next-generation consoles, and the spectatorship around esports has reached new heights. So it follows that everyone from chart-topping rapper Swae Lee to professional sports athletes wants in.

Now, older gaming organizations like Evil Genius and ESL are competing against newer entities like FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves. And institutions of higher education have invested in gaming, too.

In 2014, Chicago’s Robert Morris University Illinois became the first school to offer varsity-level scholarships for competitive esports. A few years later, schools like Shenandoah University and Ohio State University became the first universities to offer esports majors. Over the past decade, universities and colleges around the nation have entered esports as well, thanks to organizations like Collegiate Starleague (CSL) and the National Association of College Esports (NACE). With budget cuts owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions have essentially been forced to reconsider developing programs, in part to compensate for heavy losses in revenue.

Contending with the same revenue challenges, a handful of historically Black colleges and universities spent the first year of the new decade attempting to enter the world of collegiate esports. In March, Johnson C. Smith University, a private institution in Charlotte, North Carolina, made noise by becoming the first HBCU to offer an undergraduate program in esports management. Months later, JCSU began a partnership with Riot Games, developer of ultra-popular games League of Legends and Valorant. Through the partnership, it hopes to provide curriculum support, guest lectures, industry consultation, internships, and more.

Since then, other HBCUs, including Southern University, Morehouse College, Prairie View A&M University, Alcorn State University, and Florida Memorial University, have made their own headlines for their approach to esports. Though many predominantly Black institutions are using different strategies in building their programs, all want to be known for more than grooming the next generation of Black professional gamers and industry leaders. This means preparing students for careers in other areas of the esports and general video game industries, from content curation to publicity to management. From a staffing standpoint, this requires individuals who not only understand the esports industry but Black culture as well. The initiative as a whole will affect the future of historically Black collegiate institutions. Through esports, HBCUs could have access to an emerging industry that’s set to explode over the next decade—and, by extension, direct and indirect revenue streams that would advance their educational agendas and position them to compete with a growing collection of schools across the country.

Black History Month 2021
Image via Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The degree program initiative

Before earning his Ph.D. in education, curriculum, and instruction from West Virginia University, Marc Williams was already a prolific figure in the sports marketing world. Working with brands like Footaction and Reebok, he was able to get product placement in gaming series ranging from Madden NFL Football to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (in addition to music videos and films). Williams even co-founded Saint Peter’s University’s esports and business program. Now, after turning down nine predominantly white institutions, he’s taken his expertise to Florida Memorial University to develop similar programs. He hopes to create a curriculum that extends past STEM.

“We focused on a technology AR, VR—you know, game design,” says Williams. “Then, in addition to that, there’s the communications, the marketing, the production, the arts, the music to it as well. Just think, if our young Black kids get a whiff of the opportunity of knowing that they can be part of this ecosystem, we can jump at it.”

On a competitive level, Williams also serves as the commissioner of the HBCU Esports Alliance in partnership with CSL. The organization is a diversity and inclusion initiative designed to significantly increase the participation of HBCU students, alumni, and fans in all segments of the esports industry. In December, the HBCU Esports Alliance held a virtual event featuring tournaments for both Madden and NBA2K alongside performances from Soulja Boy, Skooly, and RJ.

Risks and rewards

Williams sees esports coming to Black higher education as an investment in the future for schools, a play that will drive enrollment, retention, and overall excitement around them. But despite his knowledge of traditional athletics, gaming, and education, Williams’ plan for FMU is a gamble—even more so in the face of the unyielding spread of COVID-19.

“It’s really hard to quantify in a pandemic,” he explains. “So we’re not saying that the Florida Memorial is a standard, but we have someone in myself that is able to bring my friends and partners from the industry to help me. And when they do that, it makes us a place where people may want to come. And we’re in Miami, too.”

Though many HBCUs won’t see the fruits of their stake in esports for years, there’s clearly plenty of help coming from outside the collegiate sphere. Danny Martin, the Dallas-based owner of Esposure, an esports platform providing pathways for individuals and schools to learn and navigate the esports business, is among those contributing.

Martin also owns the 15,300-square-foot Esposure arena, making him the only Black man in the country to own a fully functioning esports venue and content house. Competitively, Esposure has groomed significant talent, including professional NBA2K players Lord Beezus and Dayfr.

“We don’t even get marketed to; we don’t get targeted. We don’t get called for anything.” – HipHopGamer

“From an HBCU perspective, entities like ours are very critical for the development of talent for those particular schools,” says Martin, who went from running track during the day and repairing broken consoles by night during his undergraduate years at the University of San Antonio to rubbing elbows with Silicon Valley bigshots like Danny Leffel, co-founder of the ultra-popular workforce communications app Crew, with whom he worked on the defunct resale app Yardsellr.

Having an understanding of app development and management, Martin started Esposure through its first iteration, Geekletes. Now, Martin has become a leader in the esports community. With Esposure, he hopes to usher HBCU students into the esports industry either through professional gaming or careers in fields ancillary to it.

“What they learn from us is that you don’t just have to be a competitive gamer,” says Martin. “They can go to their same HBCU and ask them if they have a social media marketing team or videography.”

Esposure has already started work with several HBCUs, including Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. SU’s esports program general manager Christopher Turner started the program this year after successfully establishing one for their K-12 affiliate Southern Laboratory School. The program became a talking point in the esports community when student Troy Murphy last year dominated the High School Esports League Spring Major in NBA2K and became one of the best high-school-level players in the country. Turner hopes to build a pipeline between K-12 and higher education so competitive gamers like Murphy can continue their rise in professional gaming while establishing infrastructure for other aspects of esports with help from insiders like Martin.

“Recently, we had students from SU’s nursing school to show [gamers] various back exercises and stretches, alongside nutrition,” says Turner. “SU has one of the best nursing schools in the country. If a nurse has an interest in esports, this could be a pathway for them to do the same for a professional team in the future.”

Building SU’s esports program and continuing the work he’s done at Southern Lab, Turner believes HBCUs creating esports programs offer a low-investment model that’ll most definitely see a return over the next few years.

“If they’re here for the long haul and not looking for a quick return, the first couple of years are going to be enrollment,” Turner explains. “So it’s going to be a win-win for everybody. Do you want to make a relatively small investment now and build, or wait for the ship to sail and you find it harder for us as Black people to catch up?”

The Future of Black Gamers and eSports in HBCUs
Image via N. John Oubre/Southern University

The cost of competing

Despite being less expensive than traditional athletics, an esports program is still a costly investment depending on the games it focuses on.

“Let’s take a game like Overwatch, which is six versus six,” says Turner. “That means you’re going to need at least 12 gaming PCs, gaming chairs, mouses, keyboards, monitors, and headsets that are competition-ready. That’s going [to] run you around $40,000 to $80,000.” Nonetheless, he continues, “compare that to your average upper-tier football programs that cost millions, from training to equipment.”

Williams says that HBCUs will need to surmount obstacles in financing and building out programs. He mentions leveraging companies willing to support Black causes in light of recent civil unrest around police brutality.

“HBCUs are going to have to be creative,” he says. “You can’t just be like, ‘I got to hire all Ph.Ds.’ You can’t be stuck in your ways of worrying about accreditation. ‘I got to hire people who know sports management.’ You have to balance your Ph.D.s with people from the industry that have been here.”

Many HBCUs have focused on building competitive programs around top-selling sports sims like NBA2K and Madden. According to an Esports Earnings report recorded between 2016 and 2018, Madden NFL 2017 and NBA 2K18 earned a collective prize pool of around $1 million for professional play. That’s a longshot from the top 10 games like Dota 2FortniteLeague of Legends and Counter-Strike, for which the collective prize pools can reach eight figures, outside of offering more global competition.

According to HipHopGamer, a popular streamer and industry figure, the problem is rooted in the lack of representation across higher-tiered competitions, an issue that has plagued the video game industry for decades. Citing Quartz, TechCrunch recently wrote that, in less than 10 years, 57 percent of gamers in the US between the ages of 6 and 29 will be people of color, while the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) shared in its 2019 survey that less than 10 percent of developers identify as Black or Latinx. Ensuring diversity across various levels of video game development still seems like an uphill battle. 

“This is our moment to be ahead of the curve Culture is going to actually pivot to where we are able to be the leaders in this space and make sound decisions in this space.” – Danny Martin

“Those other games [like Dota 2Counter-Strike and League of Legends] aren’t seen as cool in mainstream Black culture, and the reason is that they don’t see themselves there,” HipHopGamer tells Complex. “We don’t even get marketed to; we don’t get targeted. We don’t get called for anything. And when the NBA2Ks or Maddens come out, every PR company, every marketing advertisement, whatever, you’re going to reach out to rappers and everything that’s Black and cool. They’re going to be talking to us to make sure we moved that.”

Higher-paying games like Fortnite have managed to tap into Black mainstream culture whether through Travis Scott performing a virtual concert or hosting forums on racial injustice with Van Jones, Killer Mike, and Jemele Hill. Though the popular battle royale game is available on just about everything from consoles to mobile phones, competitive play still requires a more expensive gaming PC and a monitor with a high refresh rate.

The future of Black gamers and grads

Still, while the video game industry has a long way to go in guaranteeing Black people opportunities, esports has also become an area in which Black women have thrived, becoming big names in the esports world. This includes figures like two time TEDx Speaker Keisha Howard, who recently appeared on a ComplexLand panel on Esports, and Nicole LaPointe Jameson, who was recently appointed CEO of Evil Geniuses, making her the first Black woman to lead a major esports team.

Keshia Walker, founder of the Black Collegiate Gaming Association (BCGA), started the organization after the murder of George Floyd. She was introduced to esports through her nephew. The BCGA hopes to be another support system for HBCUs to succeed in both the gaming and esports industries. Once schools establish degree and competitive programs, these investments could raise enrollment and further modernize HBCUs. Most importantly, that support system extends to Black women.

“Black women and women in general do very well with things requiring high mental capacity, so I think this is the perfect space for us,” Walker says. “I think the bigger opportunities, too, because a lot of times people automatically think about playing the game and not what’s behind the scenes. Women can be a part of other things, like finance, production, and the other 45 different job opportunities there, so the sky’s the limit.”

One of the corporate partners both Walker and Marc Williams use to further HBCU esports development is streaming giant Twitch. Mark “Garvey” Candella, who serves as Twitch’s director of student and education programs, assists with various programs for HBCUs (with the intent to reach institutions of higher education across the African diaspora) through Twitch’s “three Cs” approach, which refers to community, competition, and career. Most recently, the streaming giant partnered with Cxmmunity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit helping to increase minority involvement in esports and the gaming industry.

“I don’t want people going out and just trying to pay off their student debt by getting the first job that comes along to them,” Candella says. “Either they find a job that’s appropriate by letting employers know what they’re missing and saying, ‘I could be of service to you,’ or finding some students that you worked well with, graduate, and create your own media company.”

Due to systemic issues that reach far back into slavery, Black professionals are normally seen as behind the curve when new industries are created. The power imbalance extends to the video game industry.

“Do you want to make a relatively small investment now and build, or wait for the ship to sail and you find it harder for us as Black people to catch up?” – Christopher Turner

Unlike traditional college athletes, though, gamers at that level own themselves as intellectual properties, meaning they can monetize everything from content to merch without violating NCAA rules. So far, over 200 universities have also given out $15 million in scholarships a year to gamers. With many live sports on the backburner due to COVID-19, schools like MIT and Brown are using esports as a way of building connections for students like incoming freshmen. HBCUs are beginning to take action to ensure Black people don’t get left behind.

“This is our moment to be ahead of the curve,” Martin explains. “Culture is going to actually pivot to where we are able to be the leaders in this space and make sound decisions in this space. That’s why it’s very critical for HBCU entities to build out their programs fast, to showcase that they have an alumni, come out of their platform and say, ‘Man, I just made it to the league.’ But, ultimately, it also comes down to making sure that we take advantage of the opportunities that the esports industry is providing from a job perspective and a skill-set perspective.”

Though HBCUs may find themselves a bit behind their PWI counterparts, there are professional Black men and women in the esports community dedicating enormous amounts of time to ensuring that catching up doesn’t equate to swimming upstream.

As a growing number of HBCUs and industry leaders see it, the opportunity, alongside the wider interest, is there. It’s a question of schools positioning themselves to take it. “To be honest, esports was always big,” says HipHopGamer. “It’s just that everybody else had to catch up to it.”