STEM & esports: Startup is using video games to get teens interested in careers

CARY – Most parents are trying to get their kids off playing video games. But this Cary entrepreneur is doing just the opposite, and he believes it could actually be good for them.

Meet Caleb Smith, the 24-year-old founder of Triangle Esports Academy, formerly Contender Esports, an educational video gaming facility headquartered in Cary’s Waverly Place shopping center.

Counter to popular belief, he sees video games as a learning tool and he’s set on using them as a gateway to getting students interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“We aim to remove all the negative stigmas about gaming and utilize it to teach life skills,” he told WRAL TechWire. “There are so many tech and STEM careers out there that people don’t know about. Our mission is to work with elementary and middle schools to get them interested and to develop the future workforce.”

With his family’s backing, he launched in 2020. And despite facing headwinds from the pandemic, the startup is growing quickly, he said.

The 2,441-square-foot academy now holds roughly 80 custom-built computing stations. It offers afterschool programs and STEM camps, as well as youth teams and coaching sessions for different esports, a form of competitive gaming.

He’s also secured partnerships with Wake Tech, Wake Ed Partnerships, Town of Apex, Town of Morrisville, and the Durham Sports Commission, he said, and is working with local companies to offer internships.

“Many companies, especially startups, are looking for skills, and a college degree is irrelevant,” he said. “We will work with these companies to provide the training so people [can start working] right after high school or college. Our plan is to have at least one educational video gaming facility in every municipality in the Triangle.”

Students playing video games at Triangle Esports Academy. Source: Triangle Esports Academy

The esports industry is booming. In 2021, the global esports industry was valued at more than $1 billion, according to a market researcher NewZoo. That’s almost a 15% hike from the year before, and it’s got local officials taking note.

In recent years, the Triangle has angled to become one of the industry’s major hubs. Gaming and esports companies like Epic Games, creators of the megahit “Fortnite,” and Ubisoft already call the Triangle home, and Raleigh has hosted major esports events, including Rainbow 6 Raleigh Major in 2019 and the Hallo Championship Series Kickoff Major in 2021.

Meanwhile, Gov. Roy Cooper recently signed off on a budget that spends roughly $28.4 million over two years to build infrastructure to host esports at two state universities and create an incentives program to lure big tournaments and other events here. That includes a new Esports Industry Grant Fund, which will hand out $5 million per year to esports event producers spending at least $250,000 here, reimbursing up to 25% of their expenses.

“At the end of the day, esports is not just a new globally recognized form of sport and entertainment; it’s also an economic driver,” said Ed Tomas, co-chair of the Greater Raleigh Esports Local Organizing Committee, which is spearheading the effort. “Hosting live events and productions are a part of the tactical strategy.”

So is supporting sports curriculum.

He called Smith’s move to lean into educational programming a “smart move,” and believes esports has to the potential to serve as bridge into careers in tech and entertainment.

“It’s not all about playing games,” he said. “The Triangle Esports Academy has a first-mover advantage in our region to offer this to our youth.”

Triangle Esports Academy in Cary.

Developing the future workforce

For his part, Smith grew up in Durham and enjoyed playing video games as a kid. But his main outlet was soccer, he said. He even played competitively as a young adult in Germany for a while.

“I knew there was a competitive video gaming scene, but I wasn’t that there were stadiums aware filling up with 10,000 fans and that players were making up to seven figures,” he said. “I would have loved to have been a pro gamer, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I always wanted to start a business, so I figured this would be an excellent opportunity.”

From left: Vinny Smith, Caleb’s father, Rep. Jason Saine who signed the esports bill, and Caleb Smith.

Now he’s looking to bring his experience in traditional sports to competitive gaming. Participants take breaks every 45 minutes, drink water (no soda or energy drinks), get time to socialize in real life; and have play time outside.

Looking ahead, he plans to incorporate more emerging technologies like virtual reality, blockchain and the metaverse into the curriculum. He also wants to develop a pipeline of professional gamers into the industry where some can pull salaries of anywhere from $50,000 to $5 million.

“We are going to build and grow esports in the Triangle,” he said.

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