An Inside Look at the First HBCU With an Esports Degree
Benedict College opened its esports gaming room on July 29. It's the first HBCU to offer an esports undergraduate degree.
- Benedict College offers students an education in a growing industry that not only involves players, but production and administration behind the scenes.
- Esports at Benedict College started as a small club led by Dr. Paula Shelby before growing into an undergraduate degree and a master's-level class.
- Benedict College is working with the community in South Carolina to educate parents on the viability of esports careers.
Esports is a growing industry where players around the world compete in tournaments in games like "Super Smash Bros. Melee," "League of Legends," "Valorant," and even the recently released fighting game "MultiVersus," where you can play as LeBron James from "Space Jam."
As worldwide viewership grows on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, esports players and teams are drawing sponsorships — similar to real-life sports teams.
Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, is offering its students an opportunity to gain an advantage in this industry.
The opening comes after a few years of work by Dr. Paula Shelby, chair of the Health, Physical Education, Recreation Department, to get esports on the campus.
Sports Management Paved the Way for Esports Administration
"How can we get a degree and then how can our students become employable and apply for some of the positions and career options within esports?" Shelby asked herself. "We want our students to be able to fill out an application and also be a part of the working industry, part of esports."
Shelby majored in physical education at Florida State University, though she told BestColleges that she wishes she could have majored in sports management, which didn't exist during her undergraduate studies. It is a newer collegiate degree that blends business and marketing in the world of sports.
Shelby decided to build the esports administration program like a sports management program.
Classes explore mass communications, intellectual property and legal rights, sponsorships, and finances. They also look at the different case studies and histories of organizations that arrange tournaments and teams.
The intro to esports class explores the market, broad overview of the industry, and its rising popularity.
Many doors can open up for students studying esports, said Matthew Drapeau, an adjunct professor in esports at Benedict College.
"If you are interested in esports, this program can take you in whichever direction you want to focus your education," he told BestColleges.
With his interest in business and coaching, Drapeau majored in business management and mass communications/public relations. Once sports management became a widespread major, he got a master's degree in what he aimed to accomplish with his double major.
Drapeau said that market segmentation — how businesses target specific demographics within a market — is growing in esports. Students with an esports education can have an advantage in those market segments companies are interested in reaching.
There aren't many who have an education in the esports industry, so there are plenty of opportunities to enter those spaces.
Later in Benedict's esports program track, a critical writing class allows students to specify their interest in research and write about it. There's also marketing, where they look at market trends.
"Esports is at the center of it, but just like sports management, it touches everything," said Drapeau. "Everything from education to business in corporate America."
Career Options and Skills in the Esports Administration Degree Program
While the focus is on the players at an esports event, Drapeau said that many different roles are needed to make the event work. Those roles include:
- Hardware specialists, to set up and troubleshoot
- Cybersecurity, to keep sites and platforms safe
- Broadcasters, to commentate and stream the event
- Journalists, to cover the event
Shelby told BestColleges that esports also helps with social skills, teamwork, leadership, management, communication, emotional control (she warned of throwing controllers), cognitive abilities, memory improvement, critical thinking, visual attention, and goal setting.
These skills are helpful in many areas of study, fields, and careers.
"They're all transferable skills at the end of the day. And just like with this program, when you go to college, no matter what you choose, you're writing your own education. So own it and enjoy whatever you're doing," said Drapeau.
Dr. Shelby's Journey to Introduce Esports to Benedict College
During a faculty meeting right before the pandemic started, Shelby remembered Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College, said, "We'll get sports here — even if we have to do esports!"
"When she mentioned that word, something just triggered on the inside of me," said Shelby, an avid fan of esports.
She began work on an esports club by reaching out to one student who had completed a research project on esports.
But she wanted to do something different. She knew that a few predominantly white institutions offered esports degree programs. Miami University, University of California, Irvine, and Concord University are among the schools that offer an esports program.
So she wanted to see if Benedict College, an HBCU, could do the same.
To get a degree approved at the collegiate level, Shelby began by proposing the curriculum to her department and ended her journey at the board of trustees.
The esports club began with a few classrooms, each dedicated to different games like "Call of Duty," "NBA 2K," and "Madden NFL," using home consoles.
"We were not going to let anything stop us," said Shelby. "So, whatever we had to do until we could get the equipment we needed to be able to compete, we were willing to bring our own systems from home."
Shelby ensured the students would not only be able to play games but would also market Benedict College esports tournaments, create singles and doubles brackets, and check players in.
Two years later, the college opened its dedicated esports game room.
The Esports Club and the Students Who Run the Show
The club has three teams — "Madden NFL," "NBA 2K," and "Call of Duty" — along with 40-plus other games students can play.
Athletes aren't limited to one team. Mitch Romig, a senior majoring in marketing, is captain of the "Call of Duty" team, yet plays on all of them. He's also a Benedict College football player.
"They're almost equivalent to me. I've been playing video games my entire life, and I've been playing football my entire life," Romig told BestColleges. "So it's almost like I can take my competitiveness off the field and translate it into something else that's still positive."
He said he would love to stay in esports. He did an internship with GG Locators, a staffing and recruiting firm for the esports industry based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Shelby's left hand man is Jared Eubanks, a graduate student majoring in sports management interning with the esports club. He's also a Benedict College football player.
"I'm pretty new to football. When I came here, I hadn't played any prior football, so I just tried out," said Eubanks. "But I've been playing video games my whole life, so I don't see it as a sport, I see it as an escape."
Eubanks is responsible for administration in the Benedict gaming room, like signing out equipment and keeping inventory. He is also interested in consulting for other schools starting esports gaming rooms.
"I'd like to say Benedict is a trailblazer in that sort. I feel like I can find some knowledge to spread out to other schools," he said.
Benedict College esports is also venturing into consulting for other schools, advising them in their steps to creating a gaming room.
Drapeau said this facility will bridge the race gap in esports. Students are going to be able to build their brands here.
"It is a very predominantly white space right now, so we're providing that entryway. We're trying to break barriers into these other games," said Drapeau. "The first step right now is building this, getting access to it, and now we can start to not only connect with the community, but it is also going to give our students real-life experience and help them build networks and connections."
Benedict College's Community and Student-Focused Mission to Expand Esports in South Carolina
Drapeau said esports provides networks and access to technology in areas that don't have it.
Building out the classes was the first focus, and now Benedict will build the digital footprint to let people know what they do and share it with others.
Florence 1 district schools in Florence, South Carolina, already have an esports lab. Benedict College is reaching out to more middle and high schools to get them involved in esports leagues and work with Richland County, South Carolina, to have recreational esports.
Sometimes students will do community service hours at the Benedict esports room as part of their community youth program.
Shelby wants to create flyers detailing the salaries of different esports careers and soft/hard skills that would educate students — but parents, more importantly — on the benefits of the degree.
"If we start focusing on the career options, what they can make in those career options, the skills they will learn, and then how it taps into all these different disciplines, that's going to change their mindsets," said Shelby.
The parents are the hardest to convince. Educating parents that esports is more than playing video games all day is where most of the battle lies, Shelby told BestColleges.
"What we're trying to do is show them. People are packing out arenas and watching every day," said Shelby. "You can make a career out of video games, and you just don't have to be the player."