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February 23, 2024

CT’s newest workforce pipeline is video games

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR The esports room in the University of New Haven's engineering hall, nicknamed "The Stable," constantly streams matches on several screens throughout the room.

When Rob Holub started his position as director of esports at the University of New Haven in 2023, he knew his first major challenge would be dispelling the worries of prospective students’ parents.

Namely: “My kid is never going to get a job from this.”  

Four years after the program started in 2020, UNH’s first class of 10 students earning their bachelor’s degree in Esports and Gaming is months away from graduation — a group Holub expects will secure jobs in fields like video game publishing, esports talent and event management and community-based gaming organizations.   

“A lot of people don’t know the careers that can come out of esports,” said Holub. “You just have to assure parents that their kids will be making money.” 

The University of New Haven is one of nearly a dozen colleges and universities in Connecticut that have introduced esports degree programs in recent years, joining places like Georgia and Texas that are already an established part of the global multibillion-dollar esports industry.

A generation of children and young adults who spent formative years immersed in video games during the pandemic are now pursuing careers that tap those skills. And as the industry grows globally, colleges and universities — even middle school and high school programs — are preparing students by creating pathways into esports and gaming industries. 

The industry levels up  

Esports, or electronic sports, are multiplayer competition video games held in organized tournaments. Event organizers, talent management companies, players, coaches, sponsors, game analysts and “shoutcasters” — commentators — all make up the jobs inside the esports ecosystem.  

“Esports is entertainment,” said Holub. “It’s just a different medium.”  

Financial analysts estimate the United States esports market is worth well over $1 billion by this point — and could continue to grow exponentially.

Esports academic programs, primarily offered at smaller, four-year private colleges across the state, have emerged only within the past few years.  

Kristen DeCali, who directs the Esports Administration and Management minor at Albertus Magnus College, pressed “start” on the program in 2021. She’d pitched it to the school as a way to increase enrollment.

“We recognized the popularity of the market and the industry,” she said.

Like many of the other college esports programs, Albertus Magnus offers the esports specialty within a broader sports management program. “By definition esports are a sport,” DeCali said. “Individuals are bringing special skill sets to compete.” 

Degree programs aren’t the only departments where colleges and universities are investing in esports. Sixteen of Connecticut’s top colleges and universities have either traveling varsity esports leagues or esports club teams.

The University of New Haven’s esports program is further along than most other programs in the state — even offering one of the first master’s degree programs in esports business in the country.  

Not just fun and games

UNH’s esports tournament venue “The Stable,” housed in the $35 million Bergami Center on campus, is filled with new monitors and gaming stations to host its varsity team. Only students on the team are granted key card access.

“We have created an ecosystem,” said Holub.  

According to Holub, the varsity esports team and the esports department are each allocated $100,000 a year.  

UNH esports and gaming majors choose from concentrating in game design to gambling and corruption to performance and health. Forty students are currently enrolled in the Esports and Gaming program.   

Andrew Ghatora, a senior in the program and manager of the university’s varsity team, plans on becoming an esports professor after he graduates in the spring.  

Ghatora is a veteran and a father. When he started looking into degree programs, Ghatora didn’t believe esports was a “safe option” and faced pushback from his family.  

“My dad just wanted to make sure it was a legitimate university,” said Ghatora.  

After talking to students at the University of New Haven, Ghatora started to seriously consider esports as a viable career. He thinks the esports industry is on the cusp of major growth.   

“It just needs more attention,” said Ghatora. “It’s so new. The NFL wasn’t made in a day.”  

Some students majoring in subjects other than esports plan to pursue careers in the field. 

Xena Allen, a third-year communications major on the varsity esports team, wants to pursue esports content creation — showcasing their videogaming talent via livestreamed video.

Allen was immersed in esports as a kid because it provided a social outlet. “Growing up trans, I spent my life playing video games,” Allen said. Now, those years of experience could translate into a career. “I want to stream on Twitch and make a living.” 

Other students on college esports teams still view video games mostly as a hobby.  

Nat Morales, a varsity esports player at UNH, is going to graduate in the spring with a forensic science degree and plans to pursue a master’s degree. While she enjoys her role on the team now, she doesn’t want to make it her profession. 

“Esports is not a career people take seriously, but it’s a growing industry,” said Morales. “It’s starting to become more welcoming to women.”   

The business of gaming 

Morlaes may have an easier time pursuing other fields — at least for now.

While Connecticut offers several scholastic opportunities for students interested in esports, jobs aren’t exactly plentiful.  

“The industry is in its infancy,” Mark Kilpatrick, the founder of Affinity Esports, said.

His company, which launched in 2021, provides a place in Newtown where people of all age groups can play video games. Affinity also offers training, streaming and game development with its studio. The company has four full-time staff members, and it hires student interns.  

“We saw a gap at the community level,” said Kilpatrick. “Our focus is to impact as much of Connecticut as we can.” 

Kilpatrick pointed out that Connecticut doesn’t have professional or semi-professional esports league, nor does it have venues to host large-scale tournaments. 

“Right now, Connecticut is in an interesting position,” said Kilpatrick. “We need to bring the community first to support the rest of the state.” 

Affinity isn’t alone.  

Gamer’s Guild is a game lounge in New Britain that coordinates local tournaments, where Robbie Jarrett — the founder— and his 40 members can take on other gamers.  

The Guild first started in 2020, when Jarrett began holding esports tournaments in his local barber shop. What once started as friendly competitions turned into partnering with local businesses like Parkville Market in Hartford and The Salty Dog Tavern in Plainville to put on tournaments.  

“We have more of the grassroots,” said Jarrett. “We aren’t focused on just getting people to join. We want to see them grow.”   

“There has to be more investment in Connecticut [esports],” said Jarrett. “We need not just money, but people. Connecticut should have its own major tournaments.” 

There are some larger Connecticut companies participating in the national esports economy, too. Collegiate Sports Management Group (CSMG), based out of Stamford, manages traditional college sports and esports across the country.    

According to Michael Schreck, the CEO of CSGM, its esports management program, EsportsU, began only five years ago but has been profitable for the company. CSMG has been able to make money through sponsorships, social media engagement and a full-service production studio in Hawaii.   

“We’re in the millions, for sure,” said Schreck. 

Starting young

For primary and secondary school students, a growing network of nonprofit esports organizations is working to develop school curriculum and train participants in esports youth leagues.

“Gaming is just one opportunity. There are so many types of careers out there,” said Claire LaBeaux of The Network of Academic and Scholastic Esports Federation, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools and afterschool programs to teach esports career skills worldwide.

Duane Pierre spends a chunk of his professional life coaching esports. He works at Central Connecticut State University and New Britain High School and is an affiliate at NASEF, training students for better gameplay, in addition to working at Gamer’s Guild.  

Pierre often tells students who are interested in pursuing esports and gaming professionally to watch the end credits of every video game.

“Every name on that screen is someone who has something to do in this industry,” said Pierre.  

He has witnessed the growth of interest in esports during his time as a coach. At New Britain High School, Pierre teaches 40 kids in an after-school program. Pierre’s role as an affiliate at NASEF includes coaching six more K-12 teams around the state. He recruits kids as young as 10 to get involved with esports.  

“There hasn’t really been a pipeline from middle school to high school to college,” Pierre said.

While the esports landscape has changed since Pierre started gaming, he believes Connecticut has to work harder on becoming an esports hub.  

“I want to make sure students who want to compete nationally stay in Connecticut,” said Pierre. “Right now, if a student wants to do it professionally, they have to leave the state.” 

But competitive video gaming is also about more than technical skills and future career prospects, program leaders say. Local teams and programs can provide the supportive community many kids need.

Paul Houseknecht of Brass City Gamers, a nonprofit youth esports organization in Waterbury, said instructors are able to pass on broader life lessons. Where other adults might not know how to relate to kids with virtual interests, esports teachers can connect.

“We’re big on hygiene and self-care as well,” said Houseknecht. “We need to help create healthy thinking and positive action.”  

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