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Historically Black colleges expand esports imprint by adding teams and places to play — Andscape

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Morehouse College student Kaleb Howard said the Maroon Tiger Gaming group he co-founded at the university started with five friends who had nothing to do during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The bored freshmen at the Brazeal House dorm at Morehouse entered a Call of Duty tournament for students from historically Black colleges and universities on a whim. The group grew into the second-largest student organization on campus.

“At that time esports was nothing more than having fun with my friends at that moment, because I didn’t know much of what it actually was apart from some people competing for money,” Howard said. “In the last three years the scope of esports has really changed for me. I’ve always played the game, and now it’s kind of this newfound avenue in life and something you can really capitalize as everyone plays games.”

The days of the old Atari video game are long over. Video games and streamers are the norm. A 2022 market report by games data firm Newzoo found global esports revenues hit $1.38 billion in 2022, the last time statistics were available – and that growth is prompting HBCUs to jump into gaming. Since 2020, the number of HBCU esports teams has grown to more than 50, said Julian Fitzgerald, executive director of Cxmmunity, a nonprofit that holds tournaments and provides opportunities to youths and students in esports and gaming.

The Morehouse gaming group has expanded to include more than 250 members, with eight teams that compete in HBCU and other tournaments. In 2023, two students received a $50,000 Call of Duty contract at the Mtn Dew Real Change Challenge tournament, besides the $20,000 the team won for finishing in second place.

The group will begin this year’s season on Feb. 4 at an HBCU Fortnite tournament. Then it’s on to the College Call of Duty league, which includes students from outside of HBCUs.

“This is life-changing money for a student, and they’re now in the professional world [of esports],” Howard said. “This is something they always dreamed of but not something they thought were attainable. For them to do that, it inspired other people to join the club [and] other people to come to Morehouse just for esports, because they know that their dream may come true.”

The growth in esports’ popularity at HBCUs has allowed students to continue the friendly rivalries between schools. But what excites Cxmmunity’s Fitzgerald is that over a dozen historically Black colleges are offering degrees or courses students can use in esports, from game development and design to a few esports majors.

“It’s really about giving students the ability to engage in an ecosystem that’s growing rapidly,” Fitzgerald said. “Esports is headed to be a $2 billion space. But that is a subset of the larger revenue within the gaming ecosystem. Without being involved in esports, you really have a harder opportunity of being exposed to the world and ecosystem of gaming.”

Actor Khleo Thomas (left) and Ahmad Whitaker, president of Howard University’s esports association, at the university’s esports lab.

Howard University esports team

That’s why Sinclaire Hoyt, founder of the Spelman College esports team, plans to focus her master’s research on increasing the number of women in gaming.

“It’s very important for Black women to be in the space, because you can only tell your story from your perspective,” Hoyt said. “You can’t have somebody who’s going to try to design how you look, talk, how you move.

“It’s very important for us to get not only in front of the camera but behind the camera, not in front of the controller but [also] behind the controller. You have to have the perspective of a Black woman playing or developing a Black woman [to do that].”

At Morehouse, the Maroon Tiger Gaming room opened in December 2023. The two rooms contain four 40-inch televisions, another 60-inch TV with couches, and a school sign on the wall in the front portion. The second room is focused on the esports teams’ advanced competitions and where they practice. There are five PCs on each side and three additional TVs with couches. Separately, there’s a middle island for people to watch.

The facility took a year to build.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it was something we dreamed of,” said Howard, who helped to plan the entire area, which entailed securing a former campus game room to retrofit, designing the facility and making a pitch to Intel to secure the computers.

“In order for us to succeed we needed a central space,” he said. “You have to have face-to-face interaction. We’re a completely student-run organization. It was a big hurdle, but I’m glad we got it done.”

Howard University’s esports association, now led by president Ahmad Whitaker, has about 420 members who play tournaments in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference esports league and Cxmmunity. Last season, team members won $80,000 in the Mtn Dew tournament.

Many of the students were much like Whitaker, who joined the team in 2022 after having a hard time adjusting socially after the pandemic.

“There have been some really crazy stories of people just finding us at the perfect time,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said because the university is so large, the esports team gives Howard students a sense of place and belonging. Howard’s Electronic Sports (Esports) Lab, launched in 2022, is used for team practices, scrimmages, game day matches and other activities related to science, technology, engineering and math sanctioned by the university.

“Some students at Howard don’t go out to parties, don’t do social stuff. They just don’t feel like it’s them,” said Whitaker, who will be an adviser next year. “So Howard esports gives them that space to say, ‘Hey, I have friends and I am not doing those things, and I don’t feel the need to do all these things.’ They really feel that sense of camaraderie, and they really love coming down to the lab and talking to everyone and being a part of it.

“It’s a really sweet thing to see students feel supported and feel like they have people in their corner.”

Hoyt developed the esports team at Spelman as a passion project. As a Bonner Scholar, she was required to create a capstone project, which led her to launch the team a year ago.

Hoyt, who has 20 members on her team, said there wasn’t a place to “learn how to come together and compete” in the Spelman Innovation Lab until last year. The lab, which opened in 2016, is now a place where creators, animators, software engineers, gamers and streamers come together every Monday and Friday to play games.

So far, Spelman has three teams playing Fortnite and Overwatch Call of Duty that participate in Cxmmunity’s HBCU Esports League and the Georgia Esports League.

“Esports team means a lot to me. This is something that I’ve been thinking about ever since I’ve been in high school. I’ve always wanted to compete and play on a team,” Hoyt said. 

“It means a lot to create spaces for people that have similar interests. Anything that they want to do, this is a space for them to come and be able to do it.”  

Darren A. Nichols, a 30-year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.





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