February 12, 2021
Playing games is serious business. More people watch esports than the NBA and lockdown boredom has fuelled a spike in gaming. Fortnite, the game famous for recreating dance routines by Black artists, is worth $2 billion. Experts predict jobs in the sector will grow threefold by 2025. Despite these advances, Black representation across esports and gaming remains low.
According to the 2020 UK Games Industry Census, only 2% of people in the UK games industry are Black, compared with 3.4% of the population. In the US, 3% of the gaming industry is Black, compared with 13.4% of the population. As the industry reaches a new apex, Black innovators and gamers are reshaping the narrative by creating more ownership and taking advantage of opportunities at the forefront of change.
For decades, unsung Black pioneers have revolutionised gaming. Known to industry insiders ‘The Father of Modern Gaming’, Jerry Lawson changed console gaming forever when he created the first commercial game cartridge in the late 1970s. Activision executives Joseph Avery Jr and Kenneth Coleman lay the indie studio’s foundations to grow into the brand behind blockbusters like ‘Call of Duty’. As the industry reaches a new apex, Black innovators and gamers are reshaping the narrative by creating more ownership and opportunities for others to thrive in the industry.
The intersection of Black culture and gaming broadens the appeal of video games beyond its most ardent fans. Millions watched Travis Scott and Lil Nas X perform concerts in the virtual worlds of Fornite and Roblox. It’s a win-win - especially as people search for more entertainment options from the comfort of their homes. Uninitiated music fans join the platforms; gamers hear new music.
Entertainers working behind the scenes are shaping the industry too. Hip-hop star Offset is an investor of the global esports organisation, FaZe Clan. Similarly, rapper Swae Lee also invested in XSET, an esports organisation that champions diversity in the mostly white pro-gamer space.
Brands are breaking convention with unique opportunities to engage people through game-related experiences tied to diversity. Rising media mogul Issa Rae hired a Black-owned games studio to create a video game for her TV show’s fourth season of ‘Insecure’. Even M.A.C. Cosmetics released a makeup collection inspired by the increasing diversity of skin tones on ‘The Sims’. No matter where you look, it’s game-time.
It’s not just celebrities and brands shaping the narrative. Black technologists and entrepreneurs are creating opportunities for young people to join the industry through esports. In 2018, Delane Parnell founded PlayVS, a platform for managing esports competitions for US high-schools. Parnell’s investors include the co-founder of the game streaming platform, Twitch, and entertainer Diddy. The platform has raised $96m to date with a waitlist of 13,000 schools.
Beyond high school, entrepreneurs are creating a pipeline of Black esports experts. For instance, Keshia Walker’s Black Collegiate Games Association opens opportunities to Black US college students looking for esports and gaming careers. She is also the first Black woman to own a collegiate esports company.
In the UK, several organisations are demanding Black representation in the gaming industry. Black Girl Gamers has built a community of 6000 Black and female enthusiasts. Its founder, Jay-Ann Lopez, is a vocal champion for diversity in gaming and speaks out about the mixture of racism and sexism Black female gamers experience. Groups like BAME in Games and People of Colour in Play are challenging the status-quo by creating mentorship opportunities and visibility within the industry.
The problem of racial diversity in gaming and esports isn’t limited to the UK or the US - it’s a global issue. While the industry battles with a lack of Black representation, it leaves a whole continent out of the gaming and esports boom. In 2019, African esports enthusiasts created the Africa Esports Championship. The championship is in response to exclusion from so-called global esports initiatives by companies like Electronic Arts. The culmination of such incidents indicates Black representation is a big problem. So what’s the industry doing about it?
Gaming executives admit there’s a dire lack of Black people in the industry. Recently, a leader at Xbox urged for more Black executives in gaming. Likewise, other leaders in the industry say employers need to be proactive, not reactive.
The jolt from recent Black Lives Matter protests made companies reassess their diversity efforts. Facebook launched a $10m Black Gaming Creator Programme, which will pay Black gamers and offer unique opportunities within the industry. In the UK, Ubisoft launched its first Black Games Mixer in 2020, bringing together Black people in the industry. In the US, the Entertainment Software Association Foundation established a scholarship for young Black people to enter the gaming industry. These changes are by no means overnight, but they signal an appetite for change.
As gaming continues to merge with mainstream pop culture, esports will quickly follow its trail eclipsing mainstream sports. The lack of diversity in gaming is a prolonged issue, but it’s impossible to discuss the industry today without awareness of the problem with Black representation. Conversation is essential, but committed action from the industry is required to broaden representation. Still, Black innovators continue to elevate gaming into a cultural experience that reaches far beyond the confines of a hobbyist interest into mainstream consciousness, and that’s the real game-changer.