A section of Camden County College’s William G. Rohrer Center in Cherry Hill is outfitted with black walls and blue accent lighting.
“We have 22 gaming computers … set up for our players to compete intercollegiately,” said Sean Dwyer, esports director at the college. “We also have three other computers that are set up for our stream and a broadcast booth for our commentators.”
That is occupying the 1,600-square-foot space called the Cougar Esports Arena, which opened in January. It was built to host in-person intercollegiate esports competitions and academic programs.
Starting this fall, the college will offer an associate’s degree in esports production. With esports — or competitive video gaming — as the platform, the program will teach content creation skills that are transferable to other fields like video production.
Dwyer said the program emphasizes the practical skills beyond video games.
“This whole arena is set up to make sure that the end product that we’re putting out to our streams really is of a professional quality so that we get our students with that hands-on experience to be able to work on that product,” he said.
Video game competitions have come a long way since the 1989 cult movie “The Wizard.” In 2019, esports became a $1 billion industry. Some market analysts predict that number will grow to $5 billion by the end of the decade.
The road to the burgeoning new industry is being built in South Jersey.
Andrew Weilgus, executive director of the Esports Innovation Center, says the region is in a very unique position.
“We have Atlantic City, which has nine operating casinos, 17,000 hotel rooms, and a very, very rare ability to not only grow the ecosystem in terms of jobs, but also to find this synergy with the gaming space,” he said.
The center is a standalone organization based on the campus of Stockton University. With guidance from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, it works with the industry to make sure that workforce and education needs are being met.
Weilgus said it was created with nimbleness in mind to respond to a fast changing industry with the hope that New Jersey will keep some talent from leaving the state.
“The hope there is that at the end of this process you have a homegrown situation occurring where some of the best STEM students in New Jersey are … coming to our institutions with the anticipation and expectation of getting a good job when they graduate and then keeping those jobs and growing our community,” he said.
Camden County College is home to 12 esports teams. Each team specializes in a game like “Rocket League,” “Super Smash Bros.,” and “Madden NFL.” The college competes in two leagues: National Association of Collegiate Esports and National Junior College Athletic Association Esports.
Dwyer, who earned degrees in business and information systems from Drexel University, said esports is a passion project for him.
“It was how I connected with my two older brothers,” he said. “It’s just something that has always brought a lot of joy to me.”
Sandra Martinez, who plays “Apex Legends” on the team, said she got involved with esports through her cousin.
“He wanted to do something with the both of us since after two years … we go off on our own separate ways,” she said.
Hesitant at first because she wasn’t happy with her playing skills, Martinez said she has made many friends being on the team and is glad that her cousin brought up the topic.
“I’m not really a social person,” Martinez said, adding she prefers being by herself or within a small group. “However, being here for the esports team, I’ve met people who have helped me open up a bit more, and I learned a lot from them as well.”
Martinez, who is majoring in human services, hopes to use her esports skills in her field to connect with children.
“I know through creating a bond, I should bring up things that they might know,” she said. “And from that, I can create a bond and then hopefully try to help them out.”
Ricky Cobian, a cybersecurity major, connected to the team through friends. He said the recruitment process was not as hard as he thought. At the same time, he says there is some overlap with traditional athletic sports.
“I got to stay at practices, I’ve got to make sure that I’m up to date on all the plays that we’re making sure we know for the games themselves,” he said. “It’s definitely a serious thing where we have to sit down and we have to make sure we focus. But it’s a lot more lighthearted than you think.”
Cobian said he will likely continue gaming as a hobby.
“I’m sure if this turns into something, then I’ll definitely take the opportunity,” he said. “But as of right now, I don’t plan on it being a huge thing in my future.”
Stockton, which opened its dedicated gaming space for students in 2019, has been developing an esports management program that will center on event planning and hospitality since the end of 2021.
“We have worked on partnerships with the Esports Trade Association,” said Noel Criscione Naylor, associate professor and interim chair of the Hospitality Tourism and Event Management Program at the university.
Naylor said that the program is similar to the program at Camden County College; to have graduates that have transferable skills to support nearly any role within the esports ecosystem or even outside of it.
“In our internship … we do not specifically require an esports specific related internship to make sure that if students want to diversify and understand other areas, that they have the flexibility to do so,” she added.
The university signed its first dual credit agreement with Middle Township High School last December and has other high schools lined up as well.
Naylor also notes that the university’s esports team is “absolutely pretty good.” Its Rocket League team took second place at the Collegiate Rocket League World Championship Tournament in Dallas in 2022 among other accolades.
Weilgus, at the Esports Innovation Center, said schools like Stockton and Camden County College are trying to match a real passion students have for playing competitive video games with career opportunities.
“At its core, these programs offer a lot of transferable skills that are applicable to a lot of different industries, but are tailored towards that passion that students have in esports,” he said.