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Gaming the System: Esports provide new opportunities for Connecticut students

Duane Pierre has been in love with video games for most of his life. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s, he would hunt for arcades in the city, looking for a place where he could feed quarters into a machine and test his skills. 

When he was 18, he bought himself a Sega Genesis and fell in love with Mortal Kombat. He couldn’t imagine at the time that there might someday be a market for those skills.

“[My parents] just kind of rolled their eyes. They would say like, ‘you’re wasting your time, you’re wasting your time, you’re wasting your time,’” he recalls. “Now I know that esports evolved with the Mortal Kombat World Series. Had I known that this was the case, I definitely would have focused a lot of my attention less on recreation and more on how to get into esports with the games that I love.”

These days, Pierre is making up for the presumed oversights of his youth by teaching today’s teens and young adults about the many potential benefits of turning a childhood love of gaming into a professional endeavor. 

“As an industry, there are a lot of opportunities for kids in Title I schools that, you know, BIPOC communities don’t have access to,” says Pierre. “I know what it’s like to be a little Black kid wanting to be engaged in video games and not realizing that there is an industry behind it.”

The exact definition of esports really depends on the person but for the purposes of this piece, esports refers to any kind of competitive video game event. The size and seriousness of these events range from weekend tournaments like those held by Stateline Video Games at the Enfield Mall every Sunday to massive tournaments that fill arenas and come with prize money in the millions of dollars.

On September 7th of this year, Ethan “Fifakill” Pink took home a $100,000 prize for placing first during the solo round of the Call of Duty World Series of Warzone. Pink is a member of Quadrant, a UK-based esports team founded by Formula 1 racer Lando Norris. In addition to competing in solo and team tournaments, the outfit sells branded merchandise.

Pink competed in the Warzone tournament alongside fellow pro-gamers from an LA team known as NRG Esports, one of the most popular professional gaming outfits in the world. NRG supports players on several of the biggest competitive games, including championship teams for Overwatch, Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Valorant. The team was founded by the owners of the San Francisco Kings and investors include Shaquille O’Neill and Alex Rodriguez.

“I feel like a lot of, not necessarily millennials or Gen-Zers, but older generations, they still see gamers and they still see the esports industry as these individuals that are in their basement playing video games, when that’s definitely not the case,” says Hector Navarro of Brass City Gamers. “We have influencers, we have basketball stars, celebrities, athletes that are gamers. There are streamers that broadcast that do this as a profession.”

In many ways, modern esports have become quite similar to any other traditional sport. Tournaments are broadcast worldwide on streaming platforms like Twitch and Youtube Gaming and they bring in big league sponsors. The World Series of Warzone included Amazon Prime Gaming as a presenting sponsor while Intel has thrown their support behind two different tournaments this year. In 2022, esports tournaments have or will be held in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Indonesia, Taiwan, Turkey, Berlin, South Korea, and others including the United States.

The broadcasts that accompany many of these tournaments are watched by millions and include color commentary, interviews with players, and breakdowns from experts. Watching elite players fight for supremacy on a virtual battlefield ends up being not unlike settling in for Monday Night Football.

There are, of course, some differences. With the exception of team-based games like Overwatch and Rocket League, being a pro-gamer is in large part a solo endeavor. Players may represent a team like Quadrant or NRG but they play for their own prize money and maintain their personal brand on top of everything. Usually, that includes streaming games online when they’re not competing or creating content for Youtube about gaming. The team provides support, equipment, a community, and income, but success relies on the gamer’s own ability.

A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Competitive gaming has existed in one form or another just as long as video games themselves. In the 1970s, it was Spacewar and Space Invaders. In the 80s, people were going to arcades in person to record high scores to submit them to the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1990, Nintendo hosted the Nintendo World Championships, a pivotal moment in video gaming history. That would give way to Street Fighter tournaments, which required players to face off in person rather than knock each other off the high score list. Duane Pierre’s beloved Mortal Kombat was released in 1992 and would provide its own face-to-face competition. 

Then came the invention of the first-person shooter with classics Quake and Doom, games that would one day pave the way for some of today’s biggest titles, including Halo and Call of Duty.

As technology has advanced, so has the ability to play against friends and strangers alike, as online gaming has become the primary means of facing off against another player – or several. The popularity of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft allowed players to build teams and do battle across continents.

Meanwhile, the ability to engage with gamers and game fans worldwide has also increased. Twitch launched in 2011 and in the intervening decade has become a household name in video game streaming, launching the careers of dozens of now-famous streamers. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a streamer who went from competitive Halo player to the most popular online gamer in the world, launched himself into the mainstream on Twitch. He has since signed an exclusive (and lucrative) streaming deal with rival platform Mixer. In 2019, Forbes reported the Fortnite superstar took home $17 million, almost none of it from gaming tournaments. Instead, most of his income comes from his streaming empire, including ads on Youtube, merchandise sales, and endorsement deals.

Most of the internet’s biggest celebrity gamers aren’t competitive players, but esports have still become a multi-billion-dollar industry, in part thanks to the internet. Online gaming has incentivized the creation of battle royale titles like Fortnite, Apex Legends, Dota 2, and League of Legends (commonly referred to as League). It’s also given birth to team titles like Overwatch and Rocket League, both of which have gone on to become some of the biggest names in professional competitive gaming. 

In 2020, pandemic restrictions shut down many professional sports, leaving a big hole that esports was quick to fill. Since competitions could be held entirely online, organizers did what they could to make the shift and viewership on platforms like Twitch skyrocketed.

Research put the 2020 global esports market size just shy of a billion dollars ($942.34 million). That market is expected to grow to $4.75 billion by 2030 but the vast majority of the market share is in Asia and the rest of the world has been slow to catch up.

An Educational Experience

Across the country, colleges and universities have been catching on to the esports trend. In 2022, there were 171 schools with programs registered with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). Here in Connecticut esports programs have popped up at Albertus Magnus, the University of New Haven, Post University, Sacred Heart University, The University of Hartford, and Central Connecticut State University, where Duane Pierre helps to spearhead the program. 

Pierre started getting kids engaged in gaming as part of an after-school program which became the non-profit Worldwide Youth Networks. 

“Esports for us, originally, was something that we did as recreation,” he recalls. “If you did some of the work around career development, you got to play. It wasn’t until about six years ago that we started integrating it as the main theme.”

Pierre says the program allows young people to engage with topics they might have a hard time discussing without video games to act as a bridge. That includes issues of social justice, race, and gun violence.

And that, for Duane Pierre and every other person I spoke to for this piece, is the real power of gaming and competitive play. Esports might be a massive growth industry, one which Connecticut is still figuring out, but an interest in video games is about more than just going pro. For many, it’s about education and community.

Studies about the risks and benefits have found that participating in esports and other types of gaming can help college-aged students develop problem-solving and leadership skills, as well as “attitude, communication, teamwork, collaboration, creative thinking, work ethic, time management, motivation, flexibility, and conflict resolution.”

“Esports allow [students] to experience aspects of Self Determination Theory such as autonomy (sense of agency and control), competence, the need for challenge, and the promotion of social connectedness or relatedness with others,” reads a 2021 study from the University of Texas Tyler. 

“I believe that it gives students who wouldn’t be able to participate in traditional sports all of the benefits of a traditional sport,” says Pierre. “Learning about communication and learning about teamwork and resilience and all of these 21st Century skill sets that are needed to be a successful team player are inherent in esports.”

Rob Jarrett, co-founder of Gamer’s Guild in New London, knows the educational benefits firsthand. Growing up with Sega and Nintendo systems as a kid, he says he learned to read by playing his way through games like The Legend of Zelda. 

“I didn’t know I had dyslexia back then, but I was able to comprehend stuff easier, sound everything out,” Jarrett recalls. “It took me years to beat the game but when I did, it was more rewarding because I was able to read.”

Jarrett says he has taken those lessons not just into his business, but also his parenting. He says his daughter is currently playing through Paper Mario, and just like her dad is puzzling her way through the words as they appear on screen.

Education and outreach is part of the mission statement of Gamer’s Guild, a sort of community gaming lounge where kids can come to practice their skills, try a new (or old) game, play against each other and, perhaps most importantly, do it all while socializing with other kids who love video games.

“My daughter has met a lot of gaming girls through what we do,” says Jarrett who set up a girls night, inviting parents with daughters to bring them out to an event staffed by women, offering a safe environment for them to play and socialize. “She was able to makes some friends by doing that.”

Gamer’s Guild won’t allow students with poor grades to play and Jarrett says that he’s seen kids doing better in school because gaming is a motivator. He’s hoping to extend programs to people who have fallen on hard times or who need a second chance to get them interacting in the community, learning job skills, and perhaps offering a chance to join them full time.

Gamer’s Guild’s events have evolved over the last two years, bringing in more structure and a more professional atmosphere. Jarrett hopes that one day Gamer’s Guild can sponsor professional players and even start a pro team like some of the big outfits in major cities. But for now, they’re having fun keeping it local.

More Than Gaming

Video games are fun, they can be educational, and they provide opportunities for kids to socialize, but playing the games is only a small part of the esports world. Between tournaments of all sizes and skill levels, the ever-expanding world of streaming, and a growing field of players across age groups, there are countless ways to enjoy the sport even when you’re not playing along.

Some schools, including the University of New Haven, have created esports degrees, allowing students to study business or sports management with a focus on gaming. For younger students – especially those who might love video games but aren’t competitive players — programs across the state provide other opportunities to learn important skills.

Hector Navarro wanted to become a game developer when he was a teenager, but in a family with three younger brothers and a single working mom, college wasn’t an affordable option right away. Instead, he joined the Marine Corps and brought his love of gaming – and his Nintendo Gamecube — with him.

“I was always the guy that would go into training camps and bring around this Nintendo Gamecube with a small monitor for four marines to play on this small monitor and do this mock tournament,” he recalls. 

Now back in Connecticut, Navarro has combined esports tournaments with his desire to help the community, running non-profit gaming events through Brass City Gamers. He says his ultimate dream for Connecticut is the implementation of a comprehensive K-12 esports curriculum. 

“A class with a production portion to teach kids how to be able to network IP-configured cameras into a switch or router to be able to record an esports event,” posits Navarro. “The production value behind that and the real job value that comes behind that is apparent. As well as a broadcasting program, showcasing program, tournament organizing program, digital marketing program, esports athletes program.”

Navarro has started to bridge some of that gap himself. In addition to game tournaments (which have been on hold since the start of the pandemic) the group also works with the Waterbury Public Library to provide STEM classes, teaching kids the skills he wanted to learn when he was young.

“Any time during the summer, we have an after-school program where we provide coding class through gaming, learning how to code through Tinker,” he explains. “We provide web design classes that gamify web design class for them to learn through the Wix.” 

Alongside a partner, the organization also provides after school STEM learning through the BOOST program. Navarro says they’re planning to pilot robotics and esports programs next year.

Getting Serious

Navarro’s programs provide fun community events for the amateur gamer, but he says what the state lacks is an obvious bridge between local community events and the big-tier professional gigs, the opportunities for local players to compete at a higher level of play.

That’s what the Connecticut Esports Academy is trying to do. The organization provides a type of esports experience similar to club or travel teams for more traditional sports, like basketball, soccer, or volleyball. At both their Norwalk and Southington locations, students as young as seven and through high school can start competing in games like Fortnite, Overwatch, League, and others.

“CT Esports Academy came about from just a general need and want for there to be a more club-like experience for esports,” explains Peter Quinn, Director of Esports at CT Esports Academy. “As esports started to grow in the last couple of years, especially during covid, a lot of online tournaments were being organized just in general, but there was still a need for in-person PC esports, which is very popular around the world, but isn’t as popular in America.”

Their goal? To prepare students for a chance to attend college on an esports scholarship, just like their more traditional athletic counterparts.

“In esports, there isn’t really that club level, there’s just that professional and amateur level that exists,” says Quinn. “And as those grow, it seems right that we continue to kind of go down the food chain and start helping out people who are interested in playing sports at a younger age to have a competitive and safe environment to play with good coaches who can help their individual skill increase and look towards prospects of playing esports and an amateur collegiate or level in the future.”

For younger kids who might not be ready to jump into competitive gaming, the group also offers low-stress clubs for Minecraft and Roblox.

“Just to get them introduced to gaming and gaming culture, as well as computer literacy because those things are very important when it comes to just how you function and how you play the game,” says Quinn. “At a certain age range … it might be good to just start off with socialization, which is why we provide on top of our competitive teams or social clubs and our home school clubs and other a little bit more relaxed things to start getting people introduced to gaming as a whole.”

Esports has the potential to offer even greater opportunity to players, since the sport is a great equalizer. There are no girls or boys teams and with a lower physical requirement than traditional sports, it is a perfect choice for kids with disabilities.

“It doesn’t matter what gender, ethnicity, or physical disabilities you have,” says Quinn. “When you’re playing a video game, at the end of the day, it’s how you interact with the game and how the server interacts with you, and it’s all about your mentality going forward and how you play after each match, after each practice, and how much effort you put in.”

With plenty of amateur opportunities in the state, including a few at the college level, the question becomes … where do we go from here? How do you elevate players in Connecticut so they have a chance to compete at the highest level of this growing industry?

Most of the interviewees said the biggest barrier to growing Connecticut’s esports presence is an older generation of residents and lawmakers who just don’t get it.

“This is gonna sound really agist bit some of the old guys have to step down and the new guys gotta step up,” says Jarrett. “There’s gotta be a safe zone to say ‘hey, look, this is a profitable thing.’ That’s what it really comes down to.”

“We find ourselves continuously trying to educate older people that are in charge of our communities and policymakers that this isn’t just people playing video games,” says Navarro. “There is real value that could come out of this. There’s the opportunity for a varsity esports in our high school, for those folks that don’t play traditional sport. So it’s just a form of education of letting people know that there is value.”

The other challenge? Making sure the structure is in place so that the programs survive the long term.

“I’m always glad when I see esports being integrated into a school, whether it’s recreational or not, but I feel like most people, they’ll look at it as ‘it’s just a game.’ It’s just kids playing games. They’re not using it to the full potential, and we have that battle,” says Pierre. “The pushback is real. The pushback is heavy. A lot of programs in Connecticut won’t survive the teacher or the administrator who set it up moving from one school to the next.”

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Tricia Ennis

An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment and is always looking for new and interesting stories to tell. She believes in the power of journalism to affect change and to change minds and wants to hear from you about the stories you think about being overlooked.

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