As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, Bobby Kotick spent much of his free time playing Pitfall! on his Atari 2600, or putting quarters into a Defender machine at Mickey Rat’s arcade. Forty years later, the veteran CEO of publisher Activision-Blizzard is helping the school educate the next generation of gaming executives.
Kotick is donating $4 million to help Michigan jumpstart an esports curriculum. The gift will directly endow a professor position to lead the new program, being built within Michigan’s School of Information. The university plans to let students minor in esports by the 2022-23 school year.
The new program is a natural step in the professionalism of esports, which has evolved in the last half decade from an industry known internally as the “Wild West” to a corner of entertainment with massive global audiences and franchises worth hundreds of millions.
Universities like Michigan will play a critical role in developing talent for the relatively new industry, according to Kotick. Activision will hire more than 2,000 people this year, he said, many of whom will work with esports in some capacity, and the company is looking for candidates with multidisciplinary skills that aren’t yet being grouped together on college campuses.
“There wasn’t enough talent being specifically developed for esports,” Kotick said in an interview. “And not just the obvious commercial jobs like team managers or coaches or marketing or social media, but when you look at data analytics, and you look at AI and machine learning, and you look at what the impact of wagering will be and how important AI and machine learning will be in wagering. There just wasn’t a single organized place that was focused on the specific skills and opportunity.”
The gift is personal, Kotick said, and has no direct connection with Activision-Blizzard, whose video game franchises include Call of Duty, Overwatch, Candy Crush and World of Warcraft.
Colleges across the country are increasingly turning to video games and esports as a tool to broaden their academic offerings, and to attract new students. Gamers tend to be well-off, diverse and interested in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), all demographic targets for nearly any university.
That said, schools have varied in their approach. In 2017, the University of Utah became the first Power Five school to offer scholarships for gaming, an initiative backed by the school’s video game development program. Two years later, the University of Kentucky partnered with franchise Gen.G to build its own esports curriculum.
Michigan plans to hire its esports professor by the end of the 2021-22 school year, with an introductory course on esports in place for the following year. A handful of other existing courses have been identified to be included in the minor track, a curriculum that includes data analytics, user experience, design, game development, economics and sports management.
“We’re literally at the edge of the water right now,” said Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sport management at Michigan’s School of Kinesiology. “Esports has very different, unique aspects that we need to begin to understand. This is what makes it so exciting.”
Kotick attended Michigan as an undergrad in the early 1980s, and was studying art history when he started a software company to rival Apple from his dorm room. He never graduated; Kotick instead left school with a nudge from Apple’s Steve Jobs, who had visited him in Ann Arbor.
Kotick was also an avid gamer—in addition to the Atari and the arcade, he remembers playing Mystery House on an early Apple computer owned by a roommate’s cousin—and quickly became a force within in the industry. In 1990 he and a partner invested in a struggling video game company that he eventually grew into Activision-Blizzard, one of the largest video game publishers in the world. He’s now the longest-serving CEO of a public tech company.
Kotick said Michigan’s status as an institution with strong athletics and sports management programs, coupled with an elite overall academic profile, makes it uniquely suited to be a leader in esports.
“I don’t know if you’ll get every major university having an esports-specific program,” he said, “but I think what you’ll increasingly see is that these areas are really important academically, whether it’s AI and machine learning, or in data analytics, you’ll start to see that esports will be something that will connect kids more easily and practically.”