Stanford University in 1972 hosted the first U.S. collegiate video game contest. Today, over 130 colleges and universities have esports teams and/or academic programs, with over $15 million in scholarships awarded during the 2016-2019 school years.
Esports, or electronic sports, which according to Wikipedia is video games competition under such categories as fighting games, first-person shooters (“Call of Duty” and “Doom”), team-focused games (“League of Legends”), and sports games such as Madden and NBA 2K.
However, as with more traditional sports, esports is mainly White and male.
This is hard to believe given the fact that over 80 percent of Black youth play video games, stressed Dr. BerNadette Lawson-Williams, an associate professor at the Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) Metropolitan College of Professional Studies. Her twin sons, who started playing at age seven, served as her unofficial consultants, she joked.
“I was amazed to see that it [esports] was a profession once I got into the field and started to research,” she admitted in a recent MSR phone interview. This later convinced her to add esports to JCSU’s curriculum: She heads up the school’s first esports minor, a 21-credits program slated to start in the upcoming fall semester. “We will have our first graduating class possibly by this summer [next year],” said the online sport management program coordinator.
“It seems more readily available to White students, and that is a challenge for recruiting [local] Black students,” Concordia-St. Paul eSports Head Coach Logan Hermes pointed out. “There is a stigma that Blacks can’t play.”
His last year’s eSports team featured one Black out of 22 team members. “They’re out there,” Hermes said of his recruiting focus. “One, can they play? Are they good at the game they want to compete in? If they aren’t, what can you add to the team for value’s sake? Are you a good communicator? Do you understand the game’s mechanics? That’s something the program can teach you.”
Florida Memorial University’s Dr. Marc Williams told The Esports Observer that esports can be a vehicle for reaching educational goals. He co-founded the esports and business program at Saint Peter’s University in 2018.
Both Hermes and Lawson-Williams emphasized that eSports is more than gaming. You have to have good grades, the CSP coach said. “We do offer scholarships based on grades and the skill level,” Hermes added.
Lawson-Williams pointed out that given esports’ projected revenue of $1.6 billion or more by 2021, “This actually is serious business in regard to the financial and economic side of it.” She said she wants to see the esports workforce more diverse, which is less than 20 percent Black. “That is what we at Johnson C. Smith University are working to change…to bridge that gap,” pledged the professor.
Lawson-Williams wants her program to be the blueprint for other HBCUs to create similar programs. “That esports trifecta is so important, because we know we have to get gamers into the curriculum to have the opportunity to strengthen and display their technical skills. They really need all three components to help develop not only a strong technical side, but also reinforce the soft skills in the classroom, how to negotiate, organize and manage tournaments.”
She strongly believe that HBCUs can lead the way to improving the esport landscape. “I’m happy to be part of that transformation. I am immensely proud and ecstatic to be a part of this esports and gaming legacy.
“We are now preparing students of color, particularly African American students, to pursue careers in esports through curriculum, their involvement in club and lab and being prepared.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.