By GREGORY ZELLER //
A long time ago, on a campus far, far away, “Spacewar!” changed everything.
In October 1972, Stanford University hosted an “intergalactic Olympics” featuring the groundbreaking space-combat videogame (take a Java-fueled trip down memory lane), developed a decade earlier by American computer scientist Stephen Russell. The contest, with a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine up for grabs, stands as the first known videogame competition.
Smash that hyperspace button and flash forward 48 years: Videogame competitions are not only commonplace – featuring a galactic array of combat, puzzle and sports titles – but “eSports” leagues and tournaments are the backbone of a billion-dollar 21st century industry.
That’s no parallel universe: Millions of real-world dollars are now at stake in videogame tournaments and thousands of honest-to-goodness, lucrative careers are standing by, not only for programmers but for executive managers, marketing specialists, logistics experts and many others.
This particular corner of the socioeconomic spectrum is very interesting to Dan Vélez, director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation for the New York Institute of Technology. Vélez admits the 2017 birth of the university’s CyBears eSports team was more a fun diversion than anything else, though it quickly became clear America’s investment in competitive e-gaming was serious – and New York Tech’s Old Westbury and Manhattan students were seriously interested in learning more.
“Early on, the program was really just an opportunity to play competitively,” Vélez told Innovate LI. “Now we’re doing more things on the academic side, with virtually all of the schools on campus.
“We’re really seeing that transition,” he added. “And we’re getting a lot more traction with students getting drawn into the world of eSports.”
To that end, the CyBears have scheduled a special Student Night at OS NYC, the Manhattan videogame mecca for players, programmers and related professionals. That’s the ideal atmosphere for the dual-purpose mixer, according to Vélez, who’s eager to network New York Tech students not only with fellow gamers, but an assortment of amateur programmers and industry pros.
Friday’s NYXL Opening Weekend Student Night – presented by Coca-Cola, with “co-hosts” New York Tech and Tespa, a national collegiate sports organization – also spotlights a unique (if distant) relationship between the university and the New York Mets.
At least, a partnership between New York Tech and Andbox, an eSports organization spun off in 2019 by Sterling.VC, an early-stage investment fund backed by Great Neck-based Sterling Equities, which counts the New York Mets and regional network Sportsnet New York among its assets.
Vélez traces the unlikely collaboration to New York Tech’s student-recruitment efforts, which focus regularly on Queens neighborhoods near Citi Field, home of the Mets.
“That’s an area of New York City we want to recruit out of heavily,” he noted. “So the university is always doing work on new community partnerships, and one of the targets was the Mets.”
With Andbox going live and fielding two professional eSports teams – New York Excelsior (NYXL), Andbox’s “Overwatch” squad, and the Subliners, its “Call of Duty” unit – Vélez recognized a natural partner for New York Tech’s growing eSports programs.
“I had some initial conversations with the NYXL folks to kind of get the conversation going, and one of their business-development people came out, and it just kept growing,” he noted.
And now comes the NYXL Student Night at OS NYC, with a full slate of recreational and professional opportunities open to New York Tech gamers – exactly what Vélez envisioned when he made those Andbox connections.
“Volunteer opportunities, potential internships, speaking engagements, all kinds of things that continue to expose our students to the professional side,” he added. “What it really takes to pursue a professional career as a player or on the commercial side of this billion-dollar industry.”
Such partnerships will prove critical as eSports continue to flourish, both socioeconomically and on New York Tech’s campuses. Just as the CyBears (officially members of the NCAA’s East Coast Conference) continually add new titles to their playbook – “League of Legends,” anyone? A quick round of “Super Smash Bros.?” – Vélez and fellow faculty keep finding new ways to plug in different academic programming.
Not just videogame development and design – “That’s being done,” Vélez noted – but more of “a focus on the entire industry of eSports.”
“Our College of Osteopathic Medicine (home of the Center for eSports Medicine) is really focused on preventing repetitive injuries, and keeping the athletes healthy, and making them better,” he said. “Our sports-management degree will have an eSports component – and what does it look like for an accountant or a marketer or an architect in the eSports industry?
“Beyond the videogame,” Vélez added. “That’s where we want to play.”