Growing up as the youngest child of four, Fernando Gomez would often pass the time by watching his two older brothers play the video games Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy while sitting cross-legged on his brother’s bed.
Gaming “kind of brought us together,” Gomez said. It also inspired him to create San Francisco State University’s first student-run esports program as an undergrad – experience he parlayed into a post-grad job as the digital content coordinator for the Portland Trailblazers. “That experience is 100% why I’m here today, doing what I do now,” Gomez said.
Professors and students are citing success stories like Gomez’s as they launch programs in esports – a form of competitive gaming – at colleges around the state. At least six Cal State campuses and nearly all of the University of California campuses have created esports programs since 2015, in which students host and compete in live tournaments, sometimes funded by corporate sponsors. Both Cal State Dominguez Hills and UC Irvine offer certificates in esports, which means students can earn credit for, yes, playing video games.
Educators who support the trend point to the jobs available in gaming and other forms of digital media, while students say esports clubs and classes have given them another way to connect virtually during the pandemic.
“Higher ed needs to evolve or die,” said Dina Ibrahim, the academic advisor of the SF State esports athletic club and a professor of broadcast journalism. “We need to be teaching students relevant skills, that’s going to get them jobs in a rapidly changing landscape.”
Ibrahim and other librarians, professors, and administrators from across California State University logged on to Zoom in late March for the university’s first ever Esports Unconference, and it wasn’t a typical virtual meeting. Attendees flooded the familiar Zoom grid with photos of their favorite video games, while a medley of video game theme songs played in the background.
In order to mirror their students’ ability to connect online, organizers set up a Discord account – a community-based chat app – to communicate during the event. The goal: to network, share knowledge and ultimately expand esports and gaming to all of the university’s 23 campuses.
Ibrahim shared the syllabus for her live stream broadcasting class, which she created after she noticed the effects esports and gaming were having on the field of digital media. In the course, students learn how to market a brand, monetize it, and develop live streamed events using Twitch – an entertainment site mainly aimed at gamers – and other platforms. For their final project, they help organize and market a live-streamed tournament featuring games like Overwatch, Valorant and League of Legends.
“What I wanted to do was just provide a venue for students who are doing it anyway, to get credit,” said Ibrahim. “And also not just focusing on the gaming community; it’s really gaming, plus content creation.”
Those skills could help students land their first media jobs, said Mark “Garvey” Candella, director of student and education programs for Twitch, a $15 billion company that draws 30 million, mostly younger, visitors to its website daily. Amazon Inc. bought Twitch in 2014 for $970 million. The company makes money by showing ads to viewers, selling subscriptions, and taking a cut of any money viewers donate to streamers.
“All the skills that you’re learning and using while you participate in gaming and esports are highly transferable and valuable skills in emerging new and digital media,” said Candella, who has helped universities establish esports curriculum that uses gaming as a vehicle to teach branding, management and hardware and software knowledge.
At Cal State Dominguez Hills, esports academic advisor Ruben Caputo says he’s seen 37 students obtain internships based on their work in the program this past year alone.
Rhomeozon Blankas, a student who helped start the esports program in 2018, said he saw a rise in interest during the pandemic, as students turned to Discord for connectivity.
“Over the summer of COVID, like a lot of people started trying to get more involved on campus, even though they weren’t on campus,” Blankas said. “So that was basically opening the doors into competitive esports for a lot of students.”
Like other collegiate esports programs, the one at Dominguez Hills started as an informal student club and is now a thriving organization that has obtained sponsorships with companies such as Microsoft and Level Up Esports Apparel.
The university is building a new $750,000 esports lab in the campus library, according to the student-run newspaper, The Bulletin. It will be divided into three sections: a classroom, an incubator and a competition area with rows of PCs.
Tournaments and scrimmages hosted by Dominguez Hills will be broadcast on the team’s official Twitch account as well as to a live audience there at the lab. Each student member plays a unique role in marketing the events, operating the software to live stream and playing in the matches.
Campus president Thomas Parham says the idea is to “meet students where they are.”