Growth in esports paves new career paths beyond the screen

March 23, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

A member of Bellevue University's esports team plays League of Legends. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Growing up, Ahman Green recalls he always had access to video games.

It started when he was about 5 or 6. His dad worked on aviation computers and would sometimes bring home PCs to work on.

On one occasion, Green’s dad told him to play on one of the computers to make sure it was in working order.

“The two games were Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego,” said Green. “So I played those, probably, for like an hour a piece.”

From that point on, Green was all in - Colecovision, Sega Genesis, Game Cube, and multiple PlayStations, playing every game from Zaxxon to Zelda.

As long as he finished his chores and homework, his parents allowed him to game to his heart’s content.

“I got good at Madden real fast,” Green said.

Green eventually went to UNL and was a running back on the Husker football team. Even during his championship seasons in 1995 and 1997, video games were a primary hobby, he said.

Green, a self-proclaimed introvert, said by the time he was in his professional career at the NFL, games had become a “gateway” to relieve himself of the stresses of professional football. After retiring from football in 2011, Green eventually returned to the University of Nebraska, this time as faculty. But he didn’t come back to teach football. Rather, he came back to teach Intro to Esports.

The class, which began March 20, bills itself as a way for students to develop skills related to the business of esports, or competitive video game playing, from content creation to analysis.

Shari Veil is Dean of UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communication (Photo Courtesy of Shari Veil)

As esports emerges from an amateur pastime to an organized sport, replete with scholarships and professional gaming, there is an entire industry growing along with it. After spending more than a decade in the professional sports industry and, in the last few years, as a Twitch streamer, Green sees first-hand how the same opportunities once only available for traditional sports are now crossing over into esports.

The marketing engine that runs the professional leagues and college-level sports are "the same blueprint" for esports, Green said.

That is what the dean of UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication, Dr. Shari Veil, hoped to tap into when she asked Green to teach the class. She said she studied esports for years and senses an opportunity for the university to be a source of talent for the billion-dollar industry.

She said Green's class embraces the industries and careers that support esports, such as “shoutcasting” which is the art of providing play-by-play commentary.

Such a class would probably be of interest to Grand Island Northwest High School senior Evan Kirk.

Kirk received a scholarship from Chadron State College to play on its esports team next year. However, when he’s not playing, Kirk enjoys shoutcasting for his favorite game, Rocket League.

“I love being able to say what's happening in a game,” Kirk said. "It really makes me super excited.”

NSEA President Matt Hinkel
NSEA President Matt Hinkel (Photo Courtesy of Matt Hinkel)

Kirk was encouraged to take up shoutcasting by Matt Hinkel, Grand Island Northwest’s digital media teacher and board president of the Nebraska Schools Esports Association. Hinkel teaches some aspects of the business of esports — like graphic design and how to set up a stream — in his digital media class .

Like Veil, Hinkel believes there is potential in preparing students for careers in esports and adjacent fields. In fact, in recent weeks he said he was approached by an official from the state Board of Education about creating a class on the subject in the form of an elective.

“It wouldn't be necessarily just a class where you're going in and playing video games,” said Hinkel, who described the class as being more production focused. “They're creating content, they're making graphics for their stuff. Maybe they're learning how to set up the equipment.”

He said the state official walked away convinced.

“After having that conversation, he was totally like, ‘Yeah, that wasn't something we thought about sometimes with esports,'" Hinkel said.

As for Kirk, he said he wants to keep getting better at shoutcasting. “I pride myself in that and I want to get better at that in college.”.

At UNL, another person Veil reached out to for help creating an esports curriculum was Marcus Graham, otherwise known in the gaming community as “DJWheat”.

Marcus Graham, aka "DJWheat" is one of the most veteran shout casters in esports (Photo Courtest of Marcus Graham)

Graham was one of the earliest shoutcasters in the esports industry and is also a Husker alum. He said he sees the increased interest in esports as validation for an industry that, in its early days, few thought would amount to anything.

“The maturity that it has achieved has brought not only experts from other areas of other industries, but it's opened up new ways that someone could say, ‘I want a career in eSports and I'm really interested in the merchandising aspect of it,’ or running an online digital store or, you know, doing unique promotions with communities, players, audience, etc.,” he said.

As someone who has spent his career observing esports’ growth, Graham says the industry has reached a point where there are real opportunities for those who don’t have the skill or desire to play professionally.

“And so this is something that I feel like I've been dreaming about for the last 20 years,” said Graham. “A recognition of esports and competitive gaming as, you know, how I see and how I think it deserves to be.”