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‘Bridge the gap': How North Carolina HBCUs use video games to increase diversity in esports

Roy Hunt (left) and Tyrek Barrow compete in an esports tournament at Winston-Salem State University.
Matt Ramey
Roy Hunt (left) and Tyrek Barrow compete in an esports tournament at Winston-Salem State University.

A group of college students are cheering around a set of televisions at Winston-Salem State University.

One half of the group has their eyes glued to a NBA 2K video game, while the other half intently watches a head-to-head Call of Duty match. A prize pool worth $500 is up for grabs, with the first-place winner of each competition taking home $150.

The competition, a first of its kind at WSSU, lasted for four hours.

Jayden Daniel, who's in his third year at WSSU, stands off to the side around 5:30 p.m., waiting for his turn to play in the basketball tournament. Having played video games ever since he was a child, NBA 2K is one of Daniel's favorites.

Daniel said he’s never experienced an atmosphere on campus like this before.

Jayden Daniel competes in an ESports tournament put on by Cxmmunity at Winston-Salem State University.
Matt Ramey
Jayden Daniel competes in an ESports tournament put on by Cxmmunity at Winston-Salem State University.

“It means a lot, because it just shows you Winston is trying to get students more engaged in campus,” Daniel said. “And I feel like if you get more students engaged, it's going to also result to the classroom.”

Rennae Stowe, an associate professor of sports management at WSSU, shared this view. She researches the benefits of having robust esports programming on college campuses.

“(Students) have the opportunity to win scholarship money, travel, even brand recognition. Some of them are really going professional in esports,” Stowe said. “But then on the academic side, they can be prepared to work in esports management as well.”

There’s a big gap in representation when looking at how many students of color play video games versus how many work in the esports industry, Stowe added.

A study from the Pew Research Center found that 83% of Black teens play video games. However, Black game developers only make up 5% of the industry, according to a study from the International Game Developers Association.

“Like in other areas of society, when we see the consumerism, but they don’t influence the actual industry, then it’s important to grow that diversity,” Stowe said. “So, the more we can expose students and give them the opportunity here on HBCU campuses, the more they have the opportunity to move on in the professional space.”

Rennae Stowe, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Sports Management at WSSU, poses for a portrait with students participating in an ESports tournament.
Matt Ramey
Rennae Stowe, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Sports Management at WSSU, poses for a portrait with students participating in an ESports tournament.

Winston Salem-State University is not alone.

Many North Carolina Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs, are bolstering their esports programming to address the lack of diversity in the industry. Schools are doing so by launching esports clubs, building lab spaces and hosting video game competitions.

One of the leaders behind these events is the Gaming Cxmmunity Company, a nonprofit based in Atlanta, Georgia.

The organization’s mission is to help more students of color enter the esports industry. They provide scholarships, mentorship opportunities and help students gain career skills in STEAM, science, technology, engineering, art and math.

They are also the creators of the HBCU Esports League, an organization that specifically focuses on esports programming at the collegiate level. Since launching, the group has hosted three competition seasons, provided over $1.3 million in scholarships and built 12 esports labs at HBCUs.

“This is a way to bridge the gap,” said Michael Wisnios, Cxmmunity’s director of operations. “Giving kids the opportunity to not only afford college, but having access to technology they might not even have. Most of our tournaments and events are around making sure to build out these esports labs so they can be multiuse and functional for other educational purposes.”

Cxmmunity is in the middle of its fourth season, the Campus Clash Tour, where they visit HBCUs across the country.

The tournament has had three stops at HBCUs in the state, first at North Carolina Central University, then North Carolina A&T State University and finally Winston-Salem State for that school’s first esports competition.

When N.C. Central had its tournament in mid-August, and back in February the school hosted an event with the Black Collegiate Gaming Association called Black College Con.

The event brought in over 200 participants of all ages, where students and community members played against each other in video game competitions. The students also had a chance to meet with executives in animation, management, marketing and other parts of the esports industry.

James Leach, associate director of recreation and wellness, said the event exposed both students and community members to the business side of gaming.

“A lot of times the gaming industry is not well known in the African American community,” Leach said. “So, that was a great opportunity to say, ‘hey, it's more than just gaming, it's a career in this.’ It’s more than just pressing the buttons; these people control what those buttons actually go to.”

N.C. Central has been building its esports programming for the past three years. In 2021, the school partnered with Cxmmunity to launch an esports lab. It’s now known as the esports lounge on campus, where students can play video games, pool and foosball.

Isaiah Taylor recently visited the lounge. He said the school’s programming, like Black College Con, has opened his eyes to different fields in the esports industry.

Students sit in gaming chairs while playing video games against each other. They are in a room with computer screens, gaming consoles and a red wall. On the wall are three televisions and the one has a football video game showing the Kansas Chief's field.
NC Central
Submitted Image
Students compete in an esports tournament at North Carolina Central University's esport lounge on Aug. 14. The school was the first North Carolina stop of Cxmmunity's Campus Clash Tour.

“It really made a big impact on me,” Taylor said. “I got to see the higher-ups and what they do in different aspects of gaming. I got to see it’s not just controlling the player. It’s the music, the graphics. I feel like every kid should be able to see that.”

Now Taylor is working with the recreation and wellness department as a competitive sports supervisor while he continues his studies. Part of this includes supervising the esports lounge.

Over time, he said he’s seen how the space has given a sense of security to students on campus, including himself.

“College is very stressful,” Taylor said. “So, when you can just get away from it, come in here, relax, you know, play the game. You know, it's a very, you know, impactful thing, because it takes you out your element.”

The next stop for N.C. Central’s esports programming is the classroom. Recreation and wellness director Tiffany Lomax said it could involve partnering with the art and design department’s new animation and illustration track to exploring the legal side of gaming within the law school.

“So, being able to bridge the gap of all of these different departments on campus that all play a role in the gaming industry,” Lomax said. “There are a lot of different aspects that I think (students) know happen in gaming but aren't aware of the career aspects of those roles.”

Rennae Stowe said Winston-Salem State University is also looking into involving esports in academics, possibly though an esports management minor or concentration. The hope is to also open up an esports lab in the near future and to keep putting on more tournament events, she added.

“Having this type of event here where the students can come together in person, it really does build the engagement and sense of belonging here on campus,” she said.

Jayden Daniel couldn’t agree more. He said he’s already seen how this one tournament has brought more students together. Although he didn’t win the 2k game, he hopes to see more events like it in the future.

“This is a big event for us,” Daniel said. “I never, where I’m from, never experienced nothing like this. Win or lose or draw, it's just bringing a lot of people together. At the end of the day, when you bring a lot of people together for a great cause I feel like it's gonna have great results.”

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.