Through Esports, HBCUs Look To Attract A New Type Of Athlete: Video Gamers


  • In 2021, the global esports market was valued at more than $1.08 billion
  • In the U.S., very few professional esports athletes are Black and just two percent of video game developers are Black
  • In the last two years, multiple HBCUs and athletic conferences have created esports programs

As HBCU football fans eagerly await end-of-year championship matches, a new type of athlete is slowly emerging on historically Black college campuses — gamers.

2020 saw an explosion of esports on HBCU campuses. In January 2020, Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) created the first esports program at an HBCU. Now, multiple HBCUs, along with the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) have created esports programs.

Esports can be incredibly lucrative. In 2021, the global esports market was valued at more than $1.08 billion and is projected to surpass $1.6 billion in 2024, Statista projects. The highest-earning esports player in the world, Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, has netted at least $7.4 million in prize money alone from tournaments, according to the BBC.

But the gaming industry is overwhelmingly white. In the U.S., few professional esports athletes are Black and just two percent of video game developers are Black, according to networking and advocacy group Black in Gaming.

“This statistic was the impetus behind our development and implementation of JCSU’s Esports and Gaming Trifecta as we strive to show our gamer-scholars that the esports they compete in are ‘more than a game’ by exposing them to the innumerable career opportunities available to them in the esports and gaming industries,” BerNadette Lawson-Williams, professor of Sport Management and founder of the esports program, told The Plug.

JCSU’s program consists of three main parts (hence the name “Trifecta”). First is an esports and gaming management academic minor and certificate program which focuses on the business side of the esports and gaming industries. Second is an esports lab, a physical space for students to compete, and third is its esports club. There are currently more than 65 students who take part in JCSU’s esports “Trifecta.”

“It is imperative that HBCUs develop and cultivate esports programs,” Lawson-Williams said. “Investing in esports and gaming business endeavors at HBCUs can not only be financially beneficial, but can also lead to partnerships that provide direct or indirect support to various facets of academia, as well as assist with recruiting and retaining scholars.”

Recruitment and retention was part of the motivation behind Benedict College’s push into esports. The South Carolina-based HBCU offers an esports major, a minor and a competitive club.

“It all began when, at the end of the year, [Benedict College] President Artis had a meeting with all of the faculty, and we were beginning to prepare for COVID,” Paula Shelby, chair of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation department at Benedict, told The Plug. “She mentioned ‘Well, we’re still going to have sports even if we have to have esports.’”

“I remember sitting there and something triggered inside of me and I was thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, I would love to bring esports to the campus,’” Shelby said.

At Benedict, the esports major requires 128 hours of coursework through classes like critical writing in esports, gaming culture, esports team and development, sponsorship and fundraising, leadership and management, sports analytics and marketing. Since launching in mid-spring 2021, the major now has 10 students and Shelby has plans to recruit more students in 2022.

But getting esports programs off the ground can be expensive. HBCUs have been systematically underfunded and many have deferred maintenance backlogs in the millions — many may not have the money to pay for expensive gaming PCs, chairs and more. Shelby said Benedict’s program was partially funded by some of the staff.

Corporate partnerships are helping fill in some of those funding gaps. Blaze Fire Games has donated PCs to Benedict, and at JCSU, they have a swath of corporate partners, including Riot Games, the developer of popular video game League of Legends, Nacon Gaming and others. These partnerships have not only provided equipment for JCSU but also curriculum support, guest speakers and at least five of JCSU’s gaming club members interned at Riot Games this summer.

At the athletic conference level, General Motors will support esports gaming labs for the SWAC. Some major professional leagues are even getting into HBCU esports. The NFL is hosting its second annual Madden NFL 22 x HBCU Tournament, which will culminate in HBCU students competing at a special showcase during Super Bowl week next year.

Twitch, the livestreaming site popular with gamers, has also joined the effort to increase HBCU participation in esports. The site has collaborated with the nonprofit Cxmmunity to create an HBCU Esports League, now in its second season. There are 25 HBCUs in the league who compete in two different games, Madden and NBA2K.

Both Lawson-Williams and Shelby say esports should not be something students are exposed to only in college. “Introducing esports and gaming into the curriculum from K-20 is paramount to the advancement and sustainability of STEM,” Lawson-Williams explained.

At Benedict, they are working with local high schools to educate students and create a recruiting pipeline for the academic program.

Ultimately, HBCUs entering esports can play a critical role in diversifying a growing and lucrative industry, which Benedict professors note is not just for gamers.

“You don’t literally have to be someone who just plays video games all the time to be a part of it,” Douglas Elliott, instructor in Benedict’s sports management program and the coach of the esports team, told The Plug.

“We introduce and we reinforce to the students that there are a multitude of opportunities in this area for graphic artists, for accountants, for mathematicians, for scientists, for psychology majors,” Elliott said. “Just like anything else that sports or athletics touches and reaches, it is the microcosm of what we see playing out in society all the time. There’s not a greater vehicle to explain and to express the communal aspects of people in general.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.