HAMPTON, Va. — Kyle Giersdorf, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania, found himself $3 million richer this summer.
He won the money after beating 99 other players in the online fighting game Fortnite Battle Royale during the Fortnite World Cup finals on July 28.
For comparison, golfer Gary Woodland took home $2.16 million when he won the U.S. Open Championship in June.
"You're looking at a lot of tournament prize money, scholarship opportunities, branding opportunities, licensing opportunities," said David Hughes, a sports management instructor at Hampton University.
Hughes and the university, taking advantage of a roughly $340,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, want to get their students in on some of that animated action.
The university plans to create an esports lab on the fifth floor of the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library, with space for students to develop and pitch video games. It also will create a specialized esports track within its sports management graduate program and a separate graduate certificate.
There are other programs at local colleges — ECPI for example fields a competitive team and awards scholarships to players. But Hughes says that HU will be the first historically black college or university to create such a track.
"African Americans aren't in it because no HBCU has an esports platform," Hughes said. "So as a result, we're getting left behind."
Vanessa Lasko, founder of 7 Cities Gaming League based in Virginia Beach, said there are only a handful of black top players in many popular video games.
Although it varies somewhat based on the particular game — some require expensive subscriptions and computer setups that are often out of reach for gamers not from affluent families — the competitive gaming landscape remains mostly male and white or Asian.
That doesn't necessarily reflect all gamers. Lasko said that their local youth league is mostly African American.
"If you can play the game, there's no bars. It's a great leveling thing," Lasko said. "You just have to have the interest and the platform there to make it more inclusive."
Leagues continue to grow and more schools across the country are creating programs, boosting demand for coaches. Lasko said 7 Cities saw a surge in parents signing up their kids after Giersdorf's win and the subsequent prize money was widely covered in national media.
The Virginia High School League recently approved a one-year esports pilot program, allowing schools across the state to form teams. Hughes thinks this growth presents an opportunity to make the field more diverse.
"If you have a black person who's a coach, they're going to go look for black gamers," Hughes said.
Hampton's academic program will include many of the typical elements of sports management.
Hughes, who worked for the Houston Texans football team before falling in love with teaching, said plenty of the same principles apply. But there will also be specific training on popular games and how to play them.
"It'll be similar to taking a class to learn how to coach. It'll just be more of an emphasis on how to coach esports," Hughes said.
Hughes also hopes to use the lab to promote student entrepreneurs. The lab will function in part as an innovation space for developers and include presentation spaces and facilities so students can meet with venture capitalists and pitch games that they've made.
Beyond helping encourage African Americans in technology, which was the point of the DHS grant that's funding the lab, HU and 7 Cities hope it'll contribute to the burgeoning esports industry in the region and the state.
Many major players in the esports industry are based in California, where many game companies are, Lasko said.
"If they end up getting venture capital money here and develop something here, the games' headquarters tends to be where they started, which means the tournaments and the economy that will come around that game will be here," Lasko said.
The university is in the process now of selecting a vendor to build the lab, which Hughes expects to take one to two months to construct. They hope to have everything together by summer 2020.
"Soon as we get that up and running, I'm hoping that Hampton can be the No. 1 producer of esports coaches in the nation or black esports coaches in the nation," Hughes said. — (AP)