BERKELEY, Calif. — Colleges have long helped students get jobs in finance, education and other industries. But now a handful of U.S.-based universities are playing a role in launching careers in the competitive video gaming world.
Schools such as University of California Berkeley, University of California Irvine and the University of Utah are connecting students with positions in esports — not just to encourage competitive playing but for sales, business and admin roles. The message companies want to send to kids is that you don’t have to be a gamer to work in gaming.
Although professional players can rise through the ranks over time, often raking in six-figure salaries, the career path into an office job in esports is less clear. A lot of these jobs didn’t exist before, as esports organizations transition from startup culture to become larger enterprises. More established companies are offering health benefits and 401Ks alongside those desk jobs.
At some other colleges, such as Baruch College in New York and American University in Washington, DC, students run clubs where they can compete on a collegiate level. But many schools don’t offer esports networking opportunities and extracurricular activities are entirely student run.
“We are taking a different approach,” said Andy Phelps, a professor and director of American University’s GameLab, a graduate level games program. “The teams here have been club-oriented and student run, so it’s not a direct university owned and pushed enterprise.”
At UC Berkeley, over a hundred students gathered on Halloween to network with professional Fortnite players, Twitch streamers and an esports CEO. Panelists described traversing unconventional paths to get to their current jobs.
Other California schools, including UC Santa Barbara and Irvine, are holding similar events this month. Pro esports organization Team SoloMid, partly known for its League of Legends competitive play, will be recruiting at those schools for its summer 2020 internships and the potential for full-time positions. TSM is also looking to partner with Stanford and UCLA.
Some students such as 20-year-old Julia Shen, an English major at UC Berkeley, worry about finding jobs in esports as the industry is still searching for sustainable business models.
“Esports is such an unstable career path,” Shen, the leader of student group, Cal Women in Gaming, told CNN Business. “It’s the industry where parents are like, ‘Oh, you probably shouldn’t do that.’ But it’s nice that these companies are willing to put in the time to help.”
TSM’s efforts are guided by its new head of human resources, John Ponce.
“There was no HR before me,” said Ponce, who said he’s received dozens of LinkedIn messages from students looking for a job in esports. “We’re going to get the bulk of our talent from college students who want to get to esports.”
Twenty-year-old Jayden Diaz, a Twitch streamer known as YourPrincess, is one college student whose career blossomed by streaming her game play in the evenings. She worked at Target on the weekends to subsidize her living costs but quit after two years to stream full time. Over time, people tuned into the Amazon-owned livestreaming platform Twitch to watch Diaz play “League of Legends.”
Although she started off making as little as $1 a month streaming, she built up a a massive audience and found financial success through user donations and subscriptions. “One day of streaming covered one month of working at Target,” she told CNN Business.
She declined to share how much she makes now, but said she’s become financially independent from her family through streaming. She has brand deals with Dr. Pepper and Xfinity, which her esports organization helped her secure.
Students who stream through Twitch have an additional route to making money and starting a career, but it can be hard to get started. Diaz’s advice to new streamers is to stick with it even when few people tune into watch.
“Once you have 10 to 20 people always there on your channel, it’s like a party,” she said. “If only a couple people are there, [other people won’t] show up. But if there’s 10, 20 people, maybe more people will want to come.”
At the Berkeley event, Nicole LaPointe Jameson, CEO of Evil Geniuses, one of the oldest esports organizations, shared how she got her start in the industry without becoming a player.
“I worked in private equity,” said Jameson, who told students her esports company is looking for talent in finance, marketing and business. “Where my strengths really fall is on the business and operational management side of things.”
UC Irvine was among the first schools in the world to build a specialized esports program in 2016. Mark Deppe, director of Irvine’s esports program, told CNN Business that part of the challenge in developing the program has been addressing negative associations.
“Some people believe video games are the scourge of society — and there’s a huge generational gap between young people who play games and other folks who think it’s a waste of time,” Deppe said. “So in addition to building this business and all the stresses that come with that, we have to address the fair critiques and defend against the unfair ones.”
Even as pro esports organizations open their doors to college students, for many, there remains an aspirational element to working in games.
“It’s a pipe dream for a career, but it can’t hurt if I’m involved and I put my foot in the door,” said Julian Pagliaccio, 22, a Berkeley senior majoring in mechanical engineering.