The esports league grew out of the pandemic and now expects to help 35 HBCUs boost participation in STEM programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports leagues worldwide, but it didn’t close the doors for esports leagues and the video gaming industry. Most of them simply reverted from holding in-person events back to the traditional virtual ones. And as long as the internet servers held up, gaming and esports continued as strong as ever.
An esports flower that bloomed from the dirt of the pandemic was Cxmmunity, a non-profit collegiate esports organization. Co-founded by chief executive officer Ryan Johnson and chief marketing officer Chris Peay. Cxmmunity runs an esports league for historically Black colleges and universities while also aiming to generate an increase in participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs and within the esports industry. The league primarily plays Call of Duty, Madden, NBA 2K and Fortnite.
Johnson and Peay met through a mutual friend and initially began to put together independent artist showcases in Atlanta. Although the duo’s initial plans were dashed because of the pandemic, their ideas would not die. Schools nationwide were sending students home to their families in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus; this meant in-person classes transitioned into virtual classes — a shift that resembles the online esports world in which players physically play video games miles away from each other, but are locked in mentally as they compete in various competitions.
“It really started off as a scrimmage and a social experiment,” Johnson, a 2015 graduate from HBCU Oakwood University, said in a Zoom interview. “This happened at the height of COVID, so really gaming was at its highest point. Once we had about six to eight schools participating, mainly in Call of Duty, we really had the idea to reach out to different companies for partnerships.”
“We have unlocked a revenue stream for HBCUs that has never really existed,” Johnson continued. “The ability for students and institutions to generate money for themselves by competing as an individual student, but then as a school [to] bring in money through brand sponsorships and media rights — that’s something that traditionally has never been done.”
Cxmmunity now expects more than 35 schools to be a part of this year’s season. The growth spurt from Year One to Year Two was one that sponsors noticed — Cxmmunity’s partners now include Amazon-owned Twitch, Microsoft, Verizon, Comcast, the United Negro College Fund, Evil Geniuses, DTLR, and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
The partnership with Verizon, which was announced in June, is worth $1 million. Half of that money will go to five HBCUs to build their very own esports lab, and the remaining half will grant 25 women with STEM majors $20,000 scholarships.
And with Cxmmunity growing at such a pace, the increase in school participation and partnerships has allowed their internal team to expand as well. When they began last year, the unit had three members, including Johnson and Peay. Now, the staff is up to 17 members.
It isn’t just the esports league that is making an impact; the organization is also stretching its hands to underserved communities. The organization started the Cxmmunity Career Readiness program, wherein Cxmmunity partners with K-12 schools to teach students the skills they need to prepare for potential career paths within esports and STEM. Students that are a part of the program can receive internship and job opportunities. Last summer, six members of the Cxmmunity career readiness program interned at Riot Games, creator of League of Legends and Valorant.
“We can work with these brands holistically and give them the experience of reaching the audience in a creative and engaging way,” Peay said. “But we’re also able to make sure they give back in a meaningful and impactful way to the same audiences they are looking to serve.”
Cxmmunity’s success in its rookie season has led the company to its first funding round, which is ongoing.
Its grand finale this year will be at Michael B. Jordan’s Invesco QQQ Legacy Classic. Cxmmunity will host a 16-team NBA 2K Tournament prior to the event and winners will be in attendance at the games on Dec. 13.
Reflecting on building Cxmmunity, Johnson and Peay are proud of what they have created, but are looking forward to what’s to come.
“This has been surreal,” Johnson said. “It’s been really exciting and really fulfilling. The biggest thing is the student testimonials. When you hear kids talk about how this is changing their lives, that means a lot.”
Peay added: “It feels damn good to make an impact, especially in the HBCU space. During COVID, the content engine was definitely starving and us being able to provide and play a part in that was a rush. We haven’t been able to actually sit back and reap the benefits of our work because we’re working so often but that time is coming.”