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There aren’t a lot of similarities between the multimillion dollar corporation Nerd Street Gamers and Philly Pro Am Live, a community-based gaming organization in North Philly’s Allegheny West neighborhood.
But Nerd Street’s high speed esports campus, projected to open on North Broad this winter, is sparking excitement throughout Philly’s gaming community, where multiple startups are working to close the industry’s racial disparity gap.
Called The Block, the new campus was announced last week. It’ll be located inside Netrality Data Centers, a regional internet hub across from the old Inquirer building, and equipped with training classrooms, competitive practice space and a tournament venue, all outfitted with consoles that claim to offer near-zero lag time.
“Every city needs something like a Nerd Street,” said Edward Kinnibrew, founder of Pro Am Live. “You need to have that bridge where that slightly professional amateur can go and start honing their skills and getting better.”
Pro Am Live gives children who otherwise may not have gotten the chance experience the exploding industry of esports through play on uber-expensive PCs and introductions to industry-wide video gaming jobs.
Esports has swiftly become a lucrative industry — and one that’s seriously lacking Black and Brown people.
So Matthew Johnson, senior graphic designer at Nerd Street, said he hopes The Block can advance the organization’s mission of “bringing esports to all.”
Esports is projected to be a $1.1 billion industry this year, up from $850 million in 2019, and Philly is becoming a major hub. Comcast owns Overwatch League team the Philadelphia Fusion, and is planning to build a $50 million esports arena across from Lincoln Financial Field.
But getting a foot in the door is more difficult for young folks who lack access or resources. The esports industry is overwhelmingly white and Asian (like all the Fusion team members, for example).
“It just highlights the bigger issues in society today, about how our kids are always left behind, always thought of as second class citizens, always an afterthought,” Kinnibrew told Billy Penn. “We’re never included. We always got to catch up to what everybody else has already done and already established.”
Kinnibrew knows that even Nerd Street’s $5-an-hour PC play time is out of reach for a lot of the kids he serves. “Four hours… that $20,” he said. “And then you got to get down there.”
Those types of accessibility issues “makes it harder and harder to get full participation amongst the whole city,” he said.
Black and Brown people are more likely to play console games like 2K and Madden than PC games like Overwatch and Hearthstone, which dominate competitive esports.
Gaming consoles used for the 2k League are a lot more affordable. The unreleased Playstation 5 will retail for $500, with the new Xbox Series X slated to cost the same. Compare that to one of the top gaming PCs on the market, the Alienware Aurora R10, which can easily run about $2,000.
Professional payouts follow the same pattern. There are console competitions, but the payouts are dwarfed by PC-based Overwatch or Hearthstone tournament prizes.
Shaon Berry, CEO of Metro Esports in Bucks County, believes that’s because many console title publishers don’t value who is playing their games.
“I think close to 94% of sponsorship dollars in esports go to PC based tournaments,” Berry said.
“And so what I’ve found is that there are a few brands and a few organizations that are intentional about engaging urban consumers.”
Berry does what he can to bridge that gap. Metro is opening a 7,000-square-foot esports center located just outside of Philly and plans to create “opportunities to integrate with some of the inner city schools and provide leagues and coding and design teaching.”
Metro is also partnering with Logitech and North Carolina Central University to support an HBCU esports program and technology career pipeline.
Pro Am Live’s Kinnibrew is making pipeline plans, too.
As part of a new initiative, he’ll invite children in the 6th to the 12th grade to participate in a “Mindset of Champions” program where they’ll learn life skills in addition to video gaming techniques. They’ll also learn how to sidestep the cost prohibitiveness of gaming PCs by literally building their own.
“It’s just like putting Legos together,” he said of the high-tech skill. “It’s so simple, they would be so surprised.”
Both organizations want to hone in on educating young people about the behind-the-scenes esports careers that can be just as entertaining and lucrative as the competitive ones.
Johnson from Nerd Street said he’s most excited about the Block’s ability to expose children to those backstage jobs.
“When you think of the structure of the [NBA],” he said, drawing a comparison to more mainstream sports, “it’s like 90% people who are supporting the players and making everything run.”
Seeing people who look like them, Johnson said, could encourage children of color to pursue other careers within esports.
For Kinnibrew, the young industry still has time to make room for equity.
“The beautiful thing about esports right now is that it’s still the Wild Wild West,” Kinnibrew said. “Esports is still a baby, it hasn’t been all the way developed yet. Everybody’s supposed to be to plant their flag and build what they want right now.”