Esports Teams Help HBCUs Increase Enrollment, Retain Students and Create STEM Opportunities

The holiday gift that keeps teenagers on the sofa with game controllers in their hands may help parents pay their college tuition. For some, training to compete in cyberspace contests like Fortnite and NBA2K could soon replace training for team sports — and create a new scholarship pipeline and professional opportunities after graduation.

Gaming and esports are becoming sources of camaraderie and competition for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Three of the four HBCU athletic conferences have corporate partnerships with developers of gaming platforms that allow students to compete against their on-campus peers and against others at schools who share their conference affiliations. And this popular form of social entertainment is quickly becoming more than just a docile recreational activity for couch potatoes.

“Having an esports presence is very important to our institutions in the future,” said Southwestern Athletic Conference Associate Commissioner Jason Cable.

Fortnite is a wildly popular videogame whose best players can compete for college scholarship money. (Epic Games)

Esports teams and individuals compete head-to-head in live, online competitions. The industry had already generated over $1.1 billion by the end of 2019. Today it appeals to millions of fans and competitors across the United States and around the world. The participants are males and females of every generation, crossing races and ethnicities.

Most conventional sports franchises took financial losses last spring as American sports leagues postponed events and slashed their schedule as the COVID-19 pandemic gathered steam. Esports tournaments picked up the slack through sports network TV. College and high school students looking for new ways to live, work, learn and play turned to competitive video gaming more than ever, making esports a cultural force.

America’s 101 black colleges and universities suffered through an enrollment drought during the 2018-19 school year; school administrators see a new way to recover.

“Our institutions are looking to increase enrollment and retain students and Esports gives them a chance to do both,” Cable said.  “It’s the next big thing.”

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. said that “the move into esports aligns with the educational experience in STEM and overall strategic plan that remains consistent with efforts to continuously grow our brand and advance our students.”

McWilliams’s athletic conference is one of three dedicated HBCU sports leagues that have attracted corporate sponsorships for competitive gaming platforms and tournaments while athletic sports remain on partial hiatus.

Gamers can compete in tournaments for scholarship money and for the attention of professional sports franchises that may hire the esports movement’s most talented competitors. There were 500 known esports franchises that earned between $95,000 and $36,000,000 in tournaments by the end of 2019, according to Esports Earnings, which tracks the flow of money through the nascent industry. Some socially distant tournaments award as much as $750,000 in prize money.

Educators are more excited about the impact on black students’ professional opportunities when they embrace STEM fields as part of their immersive gaming experience. Programming, software development and viral engineering can give them the inside track on lucrative career paths.  Some are groomed through academic programs as early as high school, preparing them for “athletic” esports scholarships.

More than 100 U.S. and Canadian schools offer esports scholarships, following Robert Morris University’s lead. The Chicago college offered subsidies for members of its first varsity-level Sports League of Legends team in 2014. Some packages today can be worth as much as $76,000 over four years of competitive eligibility.  The most talented gamers can defray half of their tuition, room and board costs.

HBCUs aren’t offering scholarships but want students to think outside their Xbox. HBCU Heroes, launched by former NCAA and NBA champion George Lynch and business partner Tracey Pennywell, raises money to help those schools level the playing field with competitive scholarship offers to student athletes. Now that platform includes esports.

The most talented gamers in America can earn college scholarships that cover half of their tuition, room and board expenses. (campuspartymexico/CC)

Larger universities have seemingly unlimited funding, sponsors, and alumni support.

“My experience at [the University of] North Carolina was on a whole other level,” Lynch said.  “We played in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference], who had the big TV deal, then went to the Final Four and brought back millions of dollars to subsidize the Olympic sports. But most of the traditional HBCUs that we played when I was coaching didn’t have the funding in the athletic department to support the student-athlete’s needs.”

Lynch saw how tight budgets held back athletes at small black colleges while he was head men’s basketball coach at Clark Atlanta University..

“We learned that STEM [technology] and cyber security is part of gaming,” Lynch said. “Our goal is to fund 12 labs at HBCUs where students can have a curriculum in STEM and develop their skills that give them options other than [major colleges] to learn about them.”

Under the leadership of the interim Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the College of Education Dr. Kenyatta Cavil, Texas Southern University in Houston has extended its sports management program to include an esports curriculum. Their interdisciplinary approach is focused on the management side of staging events, designing games and sound and acoustic development.

“We want the students to get out of the mindset of just being on the couch. We want them to know what’s on the other side of the games,” Cavil said. “We’re trying to be intentional about getting HBCU students into the business segment of the [esports] marketplace.”

(Edited by David Martosko and Jameson O’Neal.)

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