This story is the second part of a career & technical education series on esports and the video game industry supported by the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. Part 1, “No Translation Necessary,” was published in September 2021.
The digitizing of the economy is pervasive, whether you’re performing quality control in an automated manufacturing plant; undergoing a medical procedure; operating a container crane at a backed-up West Coast port; launching fabrication of a 3D-printed prototype; or putting the finishing touches on a breakthrough architectural design.
Could using our own digits, senses and synapses in the pervasive playing of video games deliver a competitive advantage to a world hungry for IT skills, systems thinking and interdisciplinary creativity? Video game development and competitive esports programs at colleges and universities around the world are counting on it.
Renee Gittins, Executive Director, International Game Developers Association
“Many colleges and universities are implementing esports programs as they see them as ways to generate school pride, increase engagement in student activities, generate revenue, and to provide their students with valuable experience and skills,” says Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). “Competitive game companies have also found creating collegiate leagues is a wonderful way to create additional excitement and engagement around their title. Esports gives many departments of these institutions an opportunity to exercise their talents in a real-world setting, from broadcasting to IT, and employers find this to be compelling experience in addition to their college education.”
“College esports programs are providing another layer of learning and career growth to students through passions and hobbies that they enjoy,” adds Silvia Christina Amaya, vice chair of IGDA’s board of directors. “These programs really allow students not only to experience disciplined gaming environments but build their body of work creatively, from creating tournaments to planning their team's involvement in LANS to helping gain partnerships and sponsorships.”
Real money can ensue, as collegiate esports athletes started well ahead of their (until now) hobbled physical sports counterparts in terms of being paid for their work. Prize money earned is prize money kept. Scholarships exist too: The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) has offered $16 million in scholarship money. Another esports league is Tespa, housed within the same Activision Blizzard company that was just purchased for nearly $70 billion by Microsoft. Within competitions around its three globally popular titles Call of Duty, Hearthstone and Overwatch, it’s corralled some 40,000 students and has awarded some $3.3 million in scholarships.
Jason Chung, Assistant Professor of Sports Management and Executive Director of Esports, University of New Haven
“There are a number of careers both in and outside the realm of esports for which our students are prepared,” says University of New Haven Assistant Professor of Sports Management and Executive Director of ESports Jason Chung, who pioneered the first esports business master’s program in North America and the first online esports degree program of its kind worldwide at that school’s Pompeo College of Business. “The esports industry requires skill sets that travel across the entertainment industry. Those students who are competitors and perhaps streamers can find careers within broadcasting, television, film, and graphic design. Our students will be in demand to work in diverse fields such as events, facilities, operations, marketing, communications and project management. There are careers on the creative side as well.”
Indeed there are. As one expert put it to me, comparing esports and video game development is like comparing the skills of a downhill skier to the talents of the designers behind the skis on her feet. They are separate and distinct fields. But you can’t have one without the other. They’re both booming. And they both need talent.
As with other industries, that means forming career pathways sooner. High school esports are big too: Intel recently signed a partnership with the High School Esports League (HSEL) to help schools across the U.S. establish programs and support leagues. The North America Scholastic Esports Federation registered 1,000 schools in February 2021, and the HSEL registered more than 2,100 partner schools and over 60,000 students.
Tina Zwolinski is a veteran marketing and branding leader who today is co-founder and CEO of Greenville, South Carolina–based skillsgapp, which is addressing faltering mid-level and soft skills in the workforce for manufacturing and other technical industries by using customized gaming apps that target middle and high schoolers, especially those in rural and inner-city areas. She uses the now familiar “gamification” model to reach her audience, and recognizes the power of the games themselves to further soft skills as well as careers in game design and engineering, data science, performance management and marketing.
“When looking at game strategies, they’re applying theories and formulas,” she says, the same type of thinking that could be focused on, say, making a product lighter and more efficient in the automotive or aerospace environment. But for her, “the biggest thing about esports is diversity and inclusion — a whole group who may have been outliers before who are quickly going to be moved to the very front in entertainment and sports.” Noting that both girls and boys play games, she says, “the social skills that come out of gaming have meant survival for a lot of people over the past year.” As for working life, she says, “Think of work nowadays. You work here, but the plant is in Germany.” Being able to communicate and work collaboratively from a distance — just like teams in multi-player games do all the time — “is a great advantage.”
Making Movies, On Location
Parallels with the film and television production economy are unavoidable and apt, as the creation of virtual worlds, digital twins and the metaverse itself unspools like a never-ending movie.
In Georgia alone, Georgia State University’s Creative Media Industries Institute just announced it will offer a master of fine arts (M.F.A.) in digital filmmaking with a concentration in virtual production and visual effects, addressing the workforce needs of the growing film industry in Georgia. And Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) is expanding Savannah Film Studios, a 10.9-acre project that now will include a Hollywood-style film backlot, a next-generation XR stage for virtual productions and new soundstages. The college also is developing an XR stage near its other campus in Atlanta. SCAD operates a School of Digital Media with a strong focus on gaming and hosts an annual event called SCAD GAmingFest.
“The world’s greatest games unite two vastly important arenas of human invention: science and storytelling,” said SCAD President and Founder Paula Wallace last spring. “At SCAD GamingFest, students and gamers from across the planet explore and experience both the technical and the narrative magic of contemporary games, with panels and presentations on everything from artificial intelligence and photogrammetry to creating genuinely empathetic characters and backstories. SCAD is where creators go to learn, design, and join the ranks of the world’s great game innovators.”
They also go to Pittsburgh.
“Building Virtual Worlds” is the name of a renowned course co-founded at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) by the late Randy Pausch, a computer science professor who discussed it in his famous “Last Lecture” on that campus 15 years ago as he faced a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Carnegie Mellon alumnus and professor Randy Pausch inspired millions through his Last Lecture. Now, the entire campus community feels his impact every time they walk through campus when they see or use The Pausch Bridge, which connects one of the university's fine arts buildings, Purnell Center, with the Gates and Hillman Centers, the home for computer science at Carnegie Mellon.
Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon
Jesse Schell, Founder and CEO, Schell Games
“He was the reason I came to the ETC,” says Jesse Schell, founder and CEO of Schell Games, the largest full-service educational and entertainment game development company in the United States, based in downtown Pittsburgh. Schell’s accolades include award-winning work at The Walt Disney Company where he designed Disney’s Toontown Online — the first massively multiplayer game for kids — and led the design of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” virtual attraction at Disney’s theme park, among many other projects. He met Pausch when the straight-up computer scientist — “There were days he was Sheldon on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ” says Schell — did his professorial sabbatical at Disney, irresistibly attracted by its interdisciplinary nature. “I was assigned to keep him out of trouble,” Schell recalls with a smile. Pausch in return introduced Schell to the world of academia: Schell has been teaching the “Building Virtual Worlds” course since 2006, carrying on that interdisciplinary tradition.
“He was so passionate about interdisciplinary work,” Schell says of Pausch, especially the kind that isn’t handled by one polymath but by a many-sided team. “He had tremendous respect for people doing things he wasn’t good at — that was really his power and his legacy,” Schell says, placing value not on what one person brings to the table, but on “what we could do together. That was the center of his philosophy and continues to be the core of ETC. And it’s the magic of what makes video game development go, the recognition that that’s an art form unto itself.”
What can institutions do to cultivate this career field? Interdisciplinary innovation is priority No. 1.
“Create situations where people from different disciplines are working together to solve problems,” Schell says. “With the iPhone, people talk about what an innovation it is. Engineers couldn’t have created it, because it’s too beautiful. Artists couldn’t have done it either — it’s too technological. The only way that could have happened is artists and engineers know each other and respect each other. Create classes, programs and situations where people can come together and collaborate.”
Programs cultivating and exploring the many sides of video games and esports are blooming on campuses across the nation, I learned over the past year.
Some schools see esports as one more portal for building community and global connections all at once: The University of Kentucky’s UK Student Success and Education Abroad & Exchanges have teamed with the school’s esports partner Gen.G and International Studies Abroad to offer a four-week esports immersion experience at Hanyang University and Korea University, two of South Korea’s top research universities. Gen.G owns and operates top teams in South Korea, the United States and China and was ranked No. 6 in the inaugural Forbes list of the “World’s Most Valuable Esports Companies.”
“This program is unique in that it gives our students a chance to experience esports and gaming through a cultural lens,” said Katherine M. McCormick, associate provost and associate vice president for UK Student Success, when the program was announced last April. “Gaming is a $180+ billion industry, and esports specifically with $1 billion in gross revenue, are sectors where jobs are developing quickly across multiple disciplines: computer science and engineering, communication, marketing/social media, accounting, event promotion and facility management.”
Buckle up for a quick tour of a handful of locations where the metaverse is taking hold and turning out very real skills and talent.
Demetrios Roubos, information security officer and computer science adjunct faculty member at Stockton University, serves as program manager for Stockton Esports, which has been around since 2018, routinely partners with K-12 and other college teachers to introduce esports in their institutions and sports the country’s No. 8-ranked team in Rocket League. The school is partnering with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (which is contributing staff support and $200,000) to launch an esports innovation center in Atlantic City. He likes the idea of the decentralized online modality of esports helping to revitalize the workforce in the area’s underprivileged communities, in a city hit hard economically after the 1990s.
Students matriculate on the campus of Stockton University in fall 2021.
Photo courtesy of Stockton University
“By and large the work in the industry can be done remotely. For the geographically or economically disadvantaged the barrier is not super high. There is a perception that you need $10,000 worth of equipment to be successful,” he says. “But in reality, all you need is a relatively decent computer, a camera and a microphone.”
That said, bandwidth (how many megabytes per second) and latency (how long each electronic request takes) are crucial factors in competitive game play. It’s why playing massive online games with opponents in Europe or Asia is difficult (and hence why big esports arenas host global tournament finals). “Being close to New York and Manhattan is good from an infrastructure perspective,” says Roubos, echoing similar observations from executives in the region’s financial services and data center industries when it comes to facility location.
The school’s esports community not only captures a diverse cross-section of the student population, but attracts people not drawn to the usual hangouts and a fairly even gender balance: At a recent Pokemon Day event, 85 attendees were male and 70 were female. (Stockton’s esports student leadership team includes a DACA student and a transgender individual). There are 75 competitors across eight esports, and roughly 500 people in the community as a whole, a 150% increase from the year before, Roubos says. The school’s esports facility saw 15,000 hours of game play in fall 2019 by 250 unique players — about 1,000 hours a week on computers put together by the students and facilitators themselves.
Roubos says Stockton University President Dr. Harvey Kesselman has been vocal about staying in Atlantic City. “This innovation center marks a return to Atlantic City in terms of our business program. We built a campus there just a few years ago, and this is just another thing we can add to the portfolio. Hotels and casinos also dipping their toes in the idea of esports, and in general around content creators.”
Alexander Rodriguez, a recent graduate who was one of the Stockton program’s founding members, works part-time for the university as an information security analyst in addition to his cybersecurity job in the healthcare industry. He’s played games as long as he can remember, and really got into them in high school, competing in League of Legends and Counterstrike tournaments. As competitive esports rose in popularity, he remembers early collegiate programs such as a strong League of Legends program at Robert Morris University coming onto the radar.
Rodriguez says a lot of his friends have gone into the IT industry. One fellow League of Legends player is pursuing an early childhood education career, while another has gone into business management. He sees mental skills from gaming proving as meaningful in the workplace as the mechanical aptitude. The idea, he says, is to keep a cool head and not get tilted (angry or sour from losing). “That can affect your decisions and cause your team to lose,” he says. “If you’re getting tilted within a match, the game is practically over at that point. How to manage those emotions is a huge aspect.”
Roubos says we’re moving into a cyber-society, and gamers are ready to man the controller, starting with such hot fields as job training itself. “Twenty years ago you didn’t have a programmer creating games for training,” he says. “Now gamification has blown up in the training vertical. They realize they can capture and retain attention longer if they make it into a game. There are opportunities for programmers and content creators across the spectrum.”
He also sees a shift in perception among parents of gamers.
“When I grew up, my parents were constantly telling me, ‘Do your homework. Stop gaming.’ Nowadays, we’re seeing parents saying, ‘Get back in your room and keep practicing.’ Parents are a lot more accepting now of the online cyberculture.”
As Rodriguez continued to help grow the Stockton program, he grew passionate about the video production, marketing and management aspects of the activity, in addition to the more technical work. Even some professional esports teams, he says, are “starting to recruit players that aren’t necessarily the best players, but have a large social media following, and have a really good production online.”
In other words, parents, there might be a future in all that TikTok-ing too.
Fernando Montilla is executive director of the Creative Technologies Studio (StudioLab), and academic leader for the Animation, Visualization, and Interactivity Program at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart University) in Puerto Rico. His program has more than 100 students, and 3D graphics are their bread and butter.
“Esports, video game development — and add to that the metaverse — are platforms that consume interactive 3D graphics, which is precisely the type of knowledge area we experiment and develop with,” he tells me by email. “This type of content is highly sought after both on the demand side and the supply side. Clear evidence of this is the explosive growth of companies like NVIDIA which make the processors that drive most of these graphics. Couple that with the content providers like Netflix, Disney and Facebook (Meta) who are going all-in to make these immersive 3D animated worlds possible. Plus, there are the software development platforms like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and Unity 3D that are freely distributed, leveling the playing field somewhat and allowing indies to join in.
A student makes use of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine at the Creative Technologies Studio (StudioLab) at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón) in Puerto Rico.
Photo courtesy of StudioLab
“People want real-time 3D content, and someone has to create it,” says Montilla, a three-time Suncoast Emmy winner for work integrating video game technologies into animation productions. “The potential is huge! We are seeing a shift in student projects, from animated shorts to interactive storytelling via games, VR experiences and virtual production techniques. We recently created a video game in conjunction with Banco Popular Innovation Group integrating their character Populoso, and also co-developed a prototype VR Personal Banking demo to explore new ways of banking interaction using Oculus Quest.”
Montilla says StudioLab is one of a handful of institutions that are fighting to propel the entertainment sector on the island and “demonstrate that real-time 3D graphics have a role in content development, not only for movies, and games, but in geospatial data visualization, simulation, and new immersive mediums. We have the expertise, a bilingual and very professional workforce in the production of entertainment properties that's world class. This is one of the reasons you see mainland productions seeking Puerto Rico not just for the attractive incentives, but for the seasoned crews and technicians. Real-time 3D graphics is the next level, and we are strategically positioned to be a leading force in this sector.”
HBCUs Lead the Way
A total of 67 out of 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities have esports programming, said Elizabeth M.H. Newbury, director of The Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, at the organization’s “Esports & Education: How HBCUs are Leveling the Playing Field” event last year. Sedika Franklin, associate director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, observed that through her team’s work aligning industry partners with HBCUs since offering an esports and data analytics track at an annual conference in 2019, “a number of HBCUs have positioned themselves inside that offering to become global leaders in developing esports and the esports talent pipeline.”
Here are a few snapshots from leaders on those campuses, many of whom are just starting up a new competitive season through the HBCU league organized by Atlanta-based Cxmmunity:
“Atlanta, Georgia, is one of the top esports and gaming cities in the entire country. So many different esports companies are coming to town and they’re looking for talent. We want to be that pipeline to educate students to be the talent they need. So we created Georgia’s first esports performance certificate program. There are two tracks: one for high school juniors and seniors, and a 24-hour bachelor’s degree track in global business management and applied leadership with a concentration in esports. Both of these programs have been approved by the state and by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges, our accreditor. Morris Brown is back.” — Dr. Kevin James, President, Morris Brown College, Atlanta, Georgia
“We will be looking at esports in a different capacity. We will look at it as an interdisciplinary offering. As a liberal arts institution for women, one thing we are looking at is social justice and technology. When think about esports, women sometimes are not highlighted in the best manner. How can women have a more equal playing field, and feel more comfortable with gaming? With esports on campus, we’ll look at how women are viewed and used — literally and figuratively — in gaming.” — Dr. Laura Colson, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina
“Our students are absolutely aghast that they can actually game from a leisure standpoint and link it to careers. We’ve actually seen it augment enrollment. The most profound aspect is the partnership, with Wyatt Games in particular. We aren’t just talking about careers, we are leading them down the pathway to those careers. Gaming is one of the few self-developed industries. If a child starts at four or five years old, by the time they get to high school or college, they’re already ready to go into the workforce. Our challenge is more the soft skills such as oral and written communications … They’re already passionate about esports, so we are just adding on that extra layer of knowledge.” — Dr. BerNadette Lawson-Williams, Professor of Sport Management; Advisor of Esports and Gaming Management Program, Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina
“I am from a generation that would basically punish you for esports. I’m before Pac-Man. All of a sudden I woke up to a whole new digital literacy STEM world, and I didn’t find underserved populations, minorities and Blacks in that world. I’m old enough to do something about it. We took a whole year investigating the world of esports … TSU offered the first graduate level course in esports. Why grad level? Because you have people like me who have an attitude about esports. So I gathered up principals, presidents and provosts to let them know esports crosses all disciplines. We have to look at this as an opportunity to pathway into our programs … When people come into my office, I make sure they see my academic qualifications, but also they see my game control unit. This fall I’m pleased to announce TSU will have a physical esports arena, E-Blue Esports Cafe. We will learn, we will play, we will be entrepreneurs, and we will help create these games. — Dr. Robbie Melton, Associate Vice President - SMART Global Technology Innovation Center; Dean - Graduate School - Graduate Professional Studies; Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tennessee
Tennessee State University’s Dr. Robbie Melton has been working alongside Apple to bring coding and creativity to HBCU peer institutions, with goals to reach every HBCU.
Photo courtesy of Apple
“Southern is the only HBCU in the country that has a system. We have the Baton Rouge land mass with a lab school of pre-K-12. We have Southern University Law Center. We have Southern University in New Orleans and Shreveport. I started an esports program at Southern University Laboratory School and ended up launching the first esports lab and room at a high school. I took on the role at Southern in September. Since then we’ve had some national championships. I had the third highest player in Madden in the country, and we had over $40,000 in scholarships last year. The law school launched a virtual gaming and esports institute, where I helped to launch a summit this year. You need law in every arena, but especially in esports. We have plans to build out an esports and virtual reality space at our campus in Baton Rouge … Gaming itself is bigger than the NBA, NFL, MLB and movies and music combined. We’re going to implement esports throughout the college. Google ‘esports career maps’ and look at how far that net goes. I envision using esports as a catalyst to build innovation hubs on HBCU campuses. I see our students being the next publishers of games.” —Christopher Turner, General Manager and Head Esports Coach, Southern University and Southern University Laboratory School, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Julian Waddell, Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems, Oakwood University, and Executive Director of Oakwood’s Launchpad Entrepreneurship Center, Huntsville, Alabama
Among the panelists at the HBCU event was Oakwood University Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems Julian Waddell, known for not only his esports engagement, but his thought leadership in cybersecurity and startup strategy as executive director of Oakwood’s Launchpad Entrepreneurship Center. He also recently authored the book “Tales from the Greenwood District: A Peek into Black Wall Street … Before the Massacre,” about the thriving Black entrepreneurial community in Tulsa before that horrific event 100 years ago. He has a lot of irons in the fire, which blends nicely with the approach by his university that resonates with Carnegie Mellon’s clarion call.
“Interdisciplinary focus is one thing Oakwood is doing, as well as training in entrepreneurship,” Waddell told the audience. “One thing we focused on when we started was researching our area in Huntsville, Alabama. One of the largest research parks is there. A lot of these government contractors, if you look at their job positions, one requirement is game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine.”
The jobs related to such certifications range across the medical, art, film and research fields, Waddell said. “When you research these different game engines, you see they are applicable to all of these industries. Students see a pathway that not only allows them to compete, but to get a job.”
“I have been a gamer since I was a kid,” he tells me. “We’re talking about all the way back to Oregon Trail. Video games got me into my actual field of IT. From a professor’s standpoint, one of the things that stood out to me was the fact gaming had so many applications. I was able to teach hard-to-understand concepts by using gaming mechanics. On a third level, and something I don’t talk about a lot, I’m really into professional gaming, especially Brawlhalla,” a title created by Blue Mammoth Games, a Ubisoft studio in north Atlanta. The Oakwood team of 20 encompasses majors from dietitian to computer science to journalism.
Oakwood is one of just 11 schools nationwide that are authorized training partners for the Unity game engine, which can be used for animation, design, architecture and film among other applications. Last summer, a medical school in California that had heard about Oakwood reached out because they wanted to train some of their teachers on Unity so they in turn would be able to train medical students to learn via virtual reality.
“A lot of mechanical schools are using tools like Unity to train mechanics to learn the ins and outs of a car,” Waddell notes as he sits outside a Firestone in his car. “It’s not about the game elements, but the ability to integrate the interactivity to make something that is not there real, to be able to learn without having to be limited by what you can put your hands on.”
Waddell, whose Twitter handle is @ideawingman, sees applications of video game creation and play across the spectrum of disciplines, from a biology major who helped launch Oakwood’s esports program using VR to study the human body to a marketing student using a game to increase the profile of a product. It can help in the humanities too. “One of my favorite games of all time is Metal Gear Solid, created by Hideo Kajima from Japan,” he says, which he learned about through the Book It reading contest once sponsored by Pizza Hut, where they would give out demo games on discs. “It integrated real history with historical fiction,” he says. “I was one of those kids who loved reading the encyclopedia. There was something about that game that made me feel like I was experiencing things in books. It made me personally invested in history.”
Waddell says a number of the paths he’s followed in history, gaming, reading and ideation come from one personal hero: LeVar Burton. “I was a huge fan of his, not just from ‘Reading Rainbow,’ but ‘Roots’ and ‘Star Trek.’ I look at the things I learned and LeVar Burton was the epitome, at the center of it all. Think about history, and the Holodeck on ‘Star Trek.’ He was the one making sure things worked.”
Entrepreneurs are the ultimate in personal investment. “Entrepreneurship at its core comes from how to deal with failure,” Waddell says. “You’re expected to fail, and you’re going to learn from those failures.” The connection to gaming is evident: “I’m going to keep on playing this until I beat this level. You learn from your mistakes and keep on going.”
This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The fellowship supports new reporting on issues related to post-secondary career and technical education.