MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you are a student home from college, you might have already gotten that dreaded question from relatives - what are you studying? - and gotten the raised eyebrow. Well, now you can tell them about competitive video gaming or esports. It's growing so fast that dozens of colleges now have varsity teams. But at a handful of universities, students can also major in it to prepare for jobs in an industry that could someday catch up to sports like football and basketball. NPR's Hannah Hagemann reports.
HANNAH HAGEMANN, BYLINE: When college sophomore Jason Anderson decided to major in esports, he knew exactly what people would say.
JASON ANDERSON: So the prime example - my brother. And he's like, yeah, he's going to school to play video games. And I was like - what? Like, that's not what I'm doing at all.
HAGEMANN: But Anderson, an Air Force veteran who's 23, has a clear path to his future.
ANDERSON: I'm in business school, but our emphasis is on esports.
HAGEMANN: Anderson attends Shenandoah University, about an hour north of Charlottesville, Va. He says, even in his lifetime, he's seen the sports landscape change.
ANDERSON: When I was 12 years old, I was watching football, basketball nonstop. That's all I did. Now, 12-year-olds are watching NICKMERCS, Ninja, CouRage, all the streamers on YouTube and Twitch and Mixer.
HAGEMANN: Fans aren't just watching on computers. They're showing up in arenas to cheer on their favorite players and teams. And as the esports audience and infrastructure grows, businesses and colleges are catching on.
CHRIS SCROGGINS: Name three ways esports athletes generate revenue.
HAGEMANN: Instructor Chris Scroggins is prepping students here at Shenandoah for a final exam in Intro to Esports.
SCROGGINS: So salaries, first of all, sponsorships, tournament winnings. Streaming encompasses donations and ad revenue and subscriptions, and then merchandise as well.
HAGEMANN: This is the first year esports has been a full-blown major at Shenandoah. Sixteen students are enrolled, and graduates could work as marketers, agents, coaches.
ANDERSON: Basically, anything that's a traditional position, add esports in front of it and it exists.
HAGEMANN: The best way to learn the ropes...
ANDERSON: Learning, I would say, happens, first of all, in the arena. This is, like, a lab.
HAGEMANN: Tonight, learning and gaming are colliding at a "Call Of Duty" tournament. For some of these students, running the tournament is their final exam.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's go, Evan (ph).
HAGEMANN: It's taking place in a brand-new, state-of-the-art arena. Twelve athletes wearing Hornet jerseys complete with numbers and names are sitting onstage, competing on top-of-the-line computers. A few dozen spectators watch the real competitors as their avatars duck and shoot each other on big screen TVs.
ANDERSON: He's in the bush below. He's on me in our spawn. Get off me, kid.
HAGEMANN: And it wouldn't be sports without commentators. In a broadcasting booth, sophomore Jason Anderson and instructor Chris Scroggins are calling the play-by-play.
SCROGGINS: Oh, wow.
ANDERSON: Blue with the shots coming through. He has his - he turns on him. Oh, my gosh.
HAGEMANN: As I sit watching, I can't help but notice that the crowd of players and spectators is mostly men. That's something Katana Jervis (ph) is trying to change. She's getting her master's degree here.
KATANA JERVIS: I would love to be a coach.
HAGEMANN: Jervis spent months volunteering to help get the Shenandoah varsity esports team launched. Now she works any tournaments or events she can.
JERVIS: You know, I'm not that great myself, but I can tell somebody how to be great.
HAGEMANN: Jervis knows, beyond gender, there are other built-in inequities in the esports world. A big one - money.
JERVIS: So I know for someone like me, I can't afford a PC, you know? That's a whole audience that is kind of being left out.
HAGEMANN: Jervis knows many students of color are playing with controllers on Xboxes or PlayStations. But in the esports industry, PC games are king, and those machines are expensive. And they're playing different games. Instead of "Overwatch" and "League of Legends"...
JERVIS: I know, especially for people of color, sometimes their games are, like, "Madden," "2K," "FIFA."
HAGEMANN: And those games are not typically played competitively. To be more inclusive, Shenandoah students are planning a "Madden" tournament for next year.
JERVIS: We're all here to support each other, win or lose. Like, we got this. We're getting better.
HAGEMANN: Getting better, she says, in an industry that's about to explode.
JERVIS: I'm ready for it.
HAGEMANN: Hannah Hagemann, NPR News.
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