Ryan Andjel still has a hard time describing what gaming has done for him over the past few years.
Since transferring to Stockton University in 2020, the 22-year-old has been a member of Stockton Esports, a team that has competed against — and beaten — top collegiate talent from across the country to earn scholarship money for its players.
It’s an avenue of cutting college costs that Andjel, of Berlin, Camden County, never anticipated when he was younger.
“It’s awesome,” said Andjel, a business management major. “It’s really a blessing to be in the position I’m in right now. It’s awesome to see how far we came, even just playing for our school league.”
Andjel is one of thousands in the country who likely feel the same way. The past few years have seen an exponential jump in the exposure of esports, which pits players against one another in video games such as “Call of Duty” and “Overwatch” in tournaments. Schools and governments have begun to see the benefits such events can provide to both education and the economy, and new programs and initiatives sprout on a regular basis.
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Thanks to decades of casino gaming experience, and legislation to permit its expansion into esports, Atlantic City could soon set the bar on esports betting.
“When you look where we are today, for the future, there’s really only two states right now that have any infrastructure to support the expansion of esports into a gambling environment: New Jersey and Nevada,” New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement Director David Rebuck said during a recent panel discussion with industry leaders. “And Nevada is behind us because they’re talking about creating an esports commission to regulate esports. Well, we don’t need it. We already have it. We have a system in play in New Jersey by law. Our sports wagering act very clearly allows esports as a sporting event.”
Last week, Stockton signed a memorandum of understanding with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to open the Esports Innovation Program on its Atlantic City campus, further priming the city for an industry that could see massive returns within the decade. The NJEDA will provide $200,000 in funding for the center, using it to develop a skilled workforce to manage future esports operations.
According to a report from Business Insider, the esports industry is projected to surpass $1 billion in global revenue for the first time in 2021. Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Michael Chait said that could increase by 400% by 2027.
“From a global perspective, the gaming audience is approximately half a billion people, roughly an eighth of the global population,” Chait said. “Seventy-nine percent are younger than 35.
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“So what does that mean? It means that my generation — I’ve gotten back into gaming during the pandemic because I’m playing with my kids, and we’re playing ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Rocket League’ — as we grow older and have more disposable income, the industry will grow with us.”
Anthony Gaud, CEO of G3 Esports, said on the call that a prototype league will soon launch for players in Atlantic City and Linwood.
The Innovation Center, said Bill Penders of the NJEDA, would be essential to attracting leagues and businesses to the resort.
“If I’m a company within the esports ecosystem trying to decide where I’m going to plant my flag in the United States or grow my business,” Penders said, “I’m going to come to the place where I can hire a skilled resource pool.”
The resort gained a wealth of experience when the Collegiate StarLeague brought its Grand Finals to Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in 2019. More than 30 North American universities gathered for the tournament that offered scholarships as grand prizes. Stockton was one of them, and now has around 80 student-players in its esports program. This fall, Collegiate StarLeague CEO Bob Johnson said, more than 20,000 high schools in the United States will have similar programs.
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Demetrios Roubos, an information security officer at Stockton, started Stockton Esports in 2018 and serves as the program manager. The industry already had been on his radar for a while, and student interest gave him even more motivation to get Stockton involved.
“We had a lot of interest from students around not only video gaming, but the idea of competitive gaming,” Roubos said. “I work in the technology department, so it was sort of a natural fit for me to spearhead the program. Esports is something that I’ve been personally interested in for probably over a decade at this point.”
Stockton’s teams compete in the Eastern College Athletic Conference with teams such as Long Island University, Nazareth College and Moravian College. This past season saw Stockton take home a championship win in “NBA 2K21.”
Not only do they have the potential to open doors for postsecondary education, but esports programs also have social benefits, said Stockton Chief Information Officer Scott Huston during the Zoom panel.
“We’ve had students come to Stockton — we’ve even had players transfer in — who, while they took a tour of our facilities, I probably got three words out of them the entire time,” Huston said. “(They were) very introverted, used to playing 16 hours in their basements at home, not a real social life.
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“They are now on teams here at Stockton. They’re competing; they’re eating lunch with those teams; they go to the gym with those teams; they play dodgeball with those teams. And now they’re doing interviews, and they’re doing all kinds of different things. We took these introverted students who would barely talk to their own parents, and now they’re flourishing, talking, out there competing and doing really great things.”
Because Andjel transferred during the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn’t able to experience traveling to other schools for tournaments like the program did in 2019. Still, the ability to meet new people virtually was a welcome benefit.
“It’s been very, very cool,” he said. “I’ve met so many cool people out there, that are participating in Stockton Esports, through the online events, through chat and on Discord, and just the events in general. It’s been really, really cool to meet all these people.”
Roubos believes the growing participation is primarily due to people wanting to get a market share of an industry that’s only recently established itself as a force. Now that mainstream society sees the value in something gamers have been passionate about for decades, the perception of video games is changing.
“I grew up in a time where my parents were like, ‘Don’t video game all day because that’s bad for you,’” he said. “Nowadays, parents are like, ‘Yo, get back in your room and keep gaming because you need that scholarship.’ It’s a different time now.”
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