Creating opportunity for all through esports, education

Johnson C. Smith University professor John Cash says institutions that provide enriching curriculum and play for a diverse pool of students can spark future success in the multi-billion-dollar gaming field.

“If you provide people accessibility and opportunity, when the tide comes in, it allows all folks to rise.” – John Cash

John Cash grew up in metro Washington, D.C., with iconic government buildings providing an almost surreal backdrop to the tough neighborhoods where he lived.

“I could see the White House and the Washington Monument but never even knew what that world was like,” says Cash, a Professor at Johnson C. Smith University and an accomplished U.S. Air Force veteran and businessman who runs The Narmer Group LLC, a strategic brand marketing and consulting agency. “And I say that because you can literally be three miles from the center of power in the world and not really have an idea of what that looks like as a kid.”

Finding a path out of economically challenged environments can be daunting still for many children, who must fight hard to get a strong education and financial footing. Part of it is a lack of opportunity. Part of it is lack of accessibility. And part of it is a lack of having just one door opened.

Enter esports.

Cash has invested his capital, time and knowledge to this burgeoning field because he believes it has the power to “rise the tide” like no other recent initiative has. But he fears that students and schools who fail to get involved – or wait to make that leap of faith – will be left behind. When asked whether minority students and schools are prepared to leverage the might of esports – even those who already have tepidly entered the fray – Cash doesn’t mince words.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I would put us at a 3 versus the general market,” he says. “Quite frankly, I just think the awareness and consideration have remained low, regardless of the what business trends have shown.”

Sign Up For Esports Newsletter: Get exclusive content and the latest news in our Academic Esports newsletter, which is free to sign up for here.

Cash is among a group of passionate advocates who are getting the message out to K-12 and higher education institutions, primary HBCUs, to find a place for students to aspire, play and learn. He will be discussing game-changing social engagement strategies, the power of branding and more in his session “Esports Education and Careers: Curriculum, Diversity, Inclusion and Investment” at the Academic Esports Conference & Expo in October.

Cash says opportunity (diversity and inclusion) will be a mainstay in the industry (corporations, teams, sponsors, media, investors, events) for years to come. He also says empowering youth in STEM-related esports/gaming education and careers can be a difference-maker. And he is proud to share his current story, as an investor, community leader and professor who has launched the first esports/gaming course, curriculum and certificate program at a Historically Black College and University.

“We have to get that message out, to create dialogue and engage the audience, so we can come up with viable and attainable opportunities,” he says

Making change happen

Florida Scholastic Esports League photo

Although opportunities might not be there, the interest is. In a 2017 Pew Research study on diversity and inclusion in gaming in the United States, the number of African-American college-aged adults who play video games often (console, PC or mobile) is 24%, outpacing white (21%) and Hispanic (18%) gamers. Another 20% of African Americans say they sometimes play, equaling the percentage of white players.

And yet, there exists a wide chasm when it comes to opportunities – from simple access to high-speed internet to college scholarship offers to industry-wide positions. Cash says a number of factors have made it challenging for minority students.

Socioeconomics: “In general, black and brown people have not traditionally had as much access to internet capabilities, broadband or proper speed. It has influenced what games African-Americans would play versus general market. You might play more console games as an African-American. We grew up with NFL/Madden and NBA2K, then we included consoles with Call of Duty, Dota 2 and Fortnite. It is coming around, but the fact is, African-Americans do play different games to an extent.”

Tournament play: “When you’re talking about tournaments, African-American families usually don’t have the type of money to have their kids going to games and events,” Cash says. “And you’re not supposed to be sitting in the basement for hours playing games. It’s more about going outside and playing traditional sports.”

Economics: “In general, minorities and women have always had a more difficult time securing investments. And, for the most part, that’s just the way that businesses are, unfortunately. This industry is no different. It is a reflection of traditional thoughts and behaviors that continue. The only way to bring it to the forefront is to be an advocate, an activist for change.”

Toxicity: “There’s still a lot of bullying online with gaming, a lot of sexist bullying and racial bullying.” To that, Cash says there are conversations and changes that need to happen to increase awareness and acceptance, both for minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. “When you talk about diversity and inclusion, it’s not just all racial. We’re talking about sexual preference; we’re talking about age. There are a lot of things that come into play. We want to make sure that people are more accepted, and that it’s accessible for everyone to play.”

Getty Images photo

Getting HBCUs on board

Cash’s journey to become a savvy marketing expert, professor and advocate started at Howard University, as an undergraduate. He aspired to see the world as a military officer, so he joined the U.S. Air Force ROTC program.

“I couldn’t see myself at that time being a desk jockey,” he says. “I saw myself jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, being a project manager, being a leader.”

Those hopes were dashed when he shattered his leg during combat control training, but he finished the program and it didn’t end his quest to lead (He serves as a board member for VETS2INDUSTRY,  a non-profit that helps transitioning veterans with employment after they leave the service). He attended the University of Texas to pursue an MBA and life in the corporate world. While at UT, he founded the school’s sports and entertainment interest club.

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I thought maybe there’s someone interested in sports and entertainment,” he says. “Maybe it was a telltale sign.”

He developed programs at the school, started working with big names like General Mills and learned the power of brand marketing. Eventually, he parlayed that into jobs at Coca-Cola (managing the Sprite brand), Bank of America and IMG, where he managed the Bank of America Football Classic (now the ESPN-sponsored MEAC/SWAC Football Championship).

A few years ago, he remembers one particular field catching his eye: esports.

“I noticed gaming, but I didn’t realize the scale,” says Cash. “In 2018, we started discussing the esports opportunity and I did the research, and I was like, wow, this is a real industry.”

Johnson C. Smith University

And a potential boon for his institution. Recognizing how impactful it could be for students but most especially for Johnson C. Smith University, he pitched it to administrators, who also saw its value. Cash and colleague Dr. BerNadette Lawson-Williams, whom he says “championed” the idea, created the framework for a curriculum consisting of five courses, which will serve as a minor at the school this fall.

“For Johnson C. Smith University, I look at it as an opportunity to drive incremental revenue profitably, presenting a brand new curriculum that’s hot,” Cash says. “My thing is, increase brand consideration, image and equity for the university. That’s what every business, every university wants to do. I don’t care if you’re selling toilet paper or Tootsie Rolls.

“If I say cybersecurity or fintech to people, they get it. If you say esports, sometimes you’ve got to explain things more. Esports is actually a trend, an international multi-billion-dollar industry, not a fad. And by the way, gaming in its truest sense, has been around for over 40 years.”

His goal to grow esports as a brand doesn’t stop there. Although several HBCUs such as Virginia State University, Hampton University, North Carolina Central University, Morehouse College and Livingstone College have recognized the importance of offering esports in some form, others have been slow to embrace it, despite the fact that it was featured during the 2019 White House/HBCU initiative agenda, Cash says. That includes his alma mater, Howard University.

“Howard has arguably been the top HBCU for years and I feel optics wise, if Howard got behind it, it would amplify more opportunities,” Cash says.

He fears that if they and other schools don’t take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance now, they may be too late.

“The train’s already left the station,” he says. “You’re going to end up with no minor and no major, and you might just offer one course here and there. [Colleges will] say, €˜Well, we’ll see how this plays out.’ By the time you figure out how this plays out, there’s going to be another 40 schools offering esports. And you won’t be relevant because everyone else has passed you by.”

Medium close-up of a gaming team losing a match at a tournament

The power of Cxmmunity

One of the many organizations helping grow esports opportunities among minorities and leveraging it into opportunities for young, underserved students is Cxmmunity (spelled with an X because “that’s the only letter found on gaming controllers and on your keyboard”), which was founded by Ryan Johnson and Chris Peay in 2019. Cash serves on the board of directors for the organization, which is closing the digital divide through technology support (laptop computers, mobile hot spots, education support). It essentially leverages esports as a platform under STEM learning to engage student interest.

The team forged a series of industry events that included an Earth Day gathering this spring, but Covid-19  quelled those plans. Yet, they pivoted and launched “Tech4Covid,” a virtual telethon in May that brought in many celebrities – from the entertainment, sports and gaming industries – to secure technology support and promote remote learning for K-12 and HBCU students.

More than that, it helped raise awareness and heighten the goals around providing kids a chance to pursue paths and passions in the esports industry.

“We want to give them laptops and we want to make sure they do well with remote learning, but we want to get them esports industry opportunities,” Cash says. “We want to be able to provide internships and for students to be considered for full-time opportunities with industry companies such as Riot Sports, Activision/Blizzard and EGF, whether it’s with the publisher and developers, events, or corporations that have esports initiatives. We want to be advocates for people to be software engineers, to be in graphic design, in media production, or simply have the opportunity to be a gamer yourself in the industry.”

Cash says it is incumbent on national leaders to get involved, including those from sports and entertainment who have a tremendous influence on youth and students.

“Sports and entertainment entities can play a huge part in tech, because regardless of the generation, people are always aspirational,” Cash says. “If they see people that they admire and respect, they are more likely to listen to those messages than other entities talking to them. Whether it’s LeBron James building a school in Akron, Ohio, and now donating millions of dollars so kids can go to The University of Akron, that’s what I’m talking about. History isn’t historic when you’re in the middle of it. Athletes and entertainers are now engaging themselves in societal issues, where governments in traditional forms have not really done well in the past.”

Cash says this convergence of sport, entertainment and society can truly make a difference in small ways that have a lasting impact on communities.

“Our goal is $4 million. If we get that, we will be able to outfit thousands of kids with laptops, wi-fi and provide teacher support,” he says of Cxmmunity’s initiatives. “When you’re talking about having a direct impact on students and education, that’s an opportunity. We’re talking about the basics. I’m not talking about taking kids on a cruise. I’m talking about giving people an education. So, I hope that continues. It’s all about being inclusive and the fact that we are stronger together as we provide opportunities for everyone.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

Most Popular