When UNC Greensboro’s Scholastic Esports Alliance (UNCG SEA), the first university-organized, statewide high school esports league, wrapped its pilot season with a tournament at the Esports Arena and Learning Lab, the excitement at the 2-day tournament was palpable.
High school participants who never felt like they had access to traditional sports or arts programs pushed their skills to the limit to win for their school.
Teachers raved about connecting with students through an esports curriculum that UNCG would help develop for participating high schools.
The campus buzzed with prospective students who contemplated higher education at a university where they could study esports or video gaming and build a livelihood around a field of study that they loved.
Meanwhile, Spartan students were organizing, managing, and broadcasting for the tournament – living the life that the high school participants were dreaming of!
As it turns out, hands-on experience is a by-product of the UNCG SEA effort that falls beautifully into UNCG’s academic mission and provides students with extraordinary esports career prep.
Naomi Pridgen: Tracking from Sports to Esports
Naomi Pridgen is a media studies major from Chapel Hill, North Carolina who is a student athlete. She’s a walk-on sprinter for the track and field team who has enjoyed combining athletics with her studies at UNCG.
Last year she began working as a camera operator for Spartan sports broadcasts on ESPN+. She’s earned communications experience during summer internships and now she can add esports tournament production to her resume.
Pridgen’s “Introduction to Media” professor, Kevin Wells, knew about her experience and was impressed with her initiative on a documentary project, so he recommended that she apply to work on the UNCG SEA tournament.
Management of the tournament was supervised by esports professionals from Horizon AVL, the company that built UNCG’s Esports Arena, and Esports Development and Growth Enterprise (EDGE). These consultants were on hand to oversee the tournament, working closely with UNCG’s Gaming and Esports Club and media studies students to produce the Spartan Championship.
Although Pridgen’s gaming experience was limited, the EDGE team assured her that her broadcast production experience would be enough. “They told me it was easier for a media production person to get into esports than it is for a gamer to learn media production,” Pridgen recalls. “It gave me the confidence to jump in.”
Zachary Harrington, co-founder of EDGE, was impressed with Pridgen: “Naomi did a phenomenal job stepping into the producer role, learning on the fly, and thriving in the chaos of broadcast production. Even under stress, Naomi exhibited decisiveness, quick problem-solving, and the ability to adapt, all crucial to a successful broadcast career.”
“It was an incredible experience. I’d never directed anything in my life and UNCG SEA gave me the platform to do it,” Pridgen says. “I realized that this tournament wasn’t just for the high school students. They did this for us, because they want to see college students succeed in this fast-paced industry.”
Pridgen learned that broadcasting for an esports tournament wasn’t so different from broadcasting traditional sports events. “Sports always bring people together and, at this tournament, video games brought people together. Being a part of a team is so important. It goes beyond sports and gaming.”
Sam Giron: Gamer Finds His Way
Sam Giron has been a competitive Super Smash Bros player since middle school with an extensive resume of tournament wins. He arrived at UNCG from Clemmons, North Carolina as a chemistry major and found his tribe with the UNCG Gaming and Esports Club, serving as treasurer his freshman year.
“Over time, I went from just being a player to someone who wanted to run tournaments myself,” Giron says.
He started small, taking over management of a weekly tournament he participated in at a local trading card store. When he heard about UNCG SEA and the search for students to help with tournament organization, he realized that this was exactly what he wanted to do.
“I was already running a tournament on a small scale, but I needed more guidance to consider this as a long-term profession,” Giron remembers. “The UNCG SEA opportunity fit the bill exactly.”
Joining the UNCG SEA team as a tournament organizer, he found that his skills from playing in and running tournaments transferred. His mentors from EDGE agreed.
“During both the planning process and the tournament, Sam displayed phenomenal judgment and always took a proactive approach to problem-solving,” Harrington says. “Sam displayed an incredible ability to connect with the players and make them feel welcome.”
For Giron, conversations with the players cemented his passion about the future of esports:
“A parent told me, ‘I let my son play video games because he loves gaming, but I didn’t know it could get him here.’ Students told me, ‘I had no idea what I wanted to do for college, and now I do.’ And a couple of kids from a high school team said, ‘We will see you two years from now and we’ll make UNCG’s team way better when we get here’.”
Giron had been watching the rise of the esports industry and UNCG’s development of the esports concentration in the Bryan School’s hospitality and tourism management major, but his experience with UNCG SEA solidified his decision to change his major. He will be one of the early graduates from The Bryan School with an esports concentration.
“I know that esports is something I can dedicate my life to and be happy with,” Giron confidently states. “And my first class with Dr. Erick Byrd, combined with the professionals I’ve met at tournaments, has me convinced that it will be a profitable career.”
Giron admits that his change of major will extend his time at UNCG: “But that’s exciting because I get to watch the evolution of esports at UNCG in real time. It’s an amazing time to be here and I’m proud to say that I’ve had actual impact on that evolution.”
Jay Burkholder: Community Through an Esports Lens
Jay Burkholder began his education at UNCG in 2017 as a theater student. He took three years off and then returned as a media studies major, preferring the view from behind the camera. Burkholder owns a film production studio, Be Kind Films, where he has built substantial camera experience.
“Right now, I’m kind of putting a lot of that on hold because I want to focus on esports at UNCG,” Burkholder says. “It’s such an exciting time. Not only are we creating a pipeline from collegiate gaming to the professional space, but I have an opportunity to help build a flagship program for esports while I’m here.”
As the secretary of the UNCG Esports and Gaming Club and program assistant for the esports arena, Burkholder is passionate about creating a community of gamers at UNCG. The community vibe is also why he wanted to be involved in the UNCG SEA tournament.
“An in-person esports tournament is just like regular sports,” Burkholder explains. “It’s a physical event and there’s so much energy among participants and spectators. They’re all there to see who wins, but no matter what, everyone’s having fun.”
Burkholder was amazed at the confidence that the professionals at EDGE and Horizon AVL had in students like him. “We learned so much about tournament planning, broadcasting, and AV equipment and by the end of the weekend, we were running the tournament on our own.”
“Whether it was graphic design, photography, video editing, or live production, Jay’s contributions and work ethic elevated the event.”EDGE co-founder Zachary Harrington
Seeing the reactions of the players at the tournament was rewarding for Burkholder, but he also felt immense pride in helping to provide such a positive experience for the high school teams who were visiting his campus.
“Events like this show the world what UNCG stands for. They see it reflected in all of our students, staff and faculty. We are providing community for these students,” Burkholder said.
Jack Craig: The Esports Academic
Jack Craig is a gamer who has always been interested in the educational applications of video games. He is a Chinese American who learned English by playing Pokémon games when he was 5 years old.
“I learned to read and speak English essentially from playing video games,” Craig explains. “I’ve always appreciated the educational power of video games.”
Today, Craig is a philosophy major whose studies focus on how people learn. He transferred to UNCG in 2023 and found himself in the perfect environment to combine his passions for education and video gaming. When he met David Wyrick, one of the leaders of UNCG’s esports programs, he knew he needed to be a part of UNCG SEA.
Craig says he was an “educational sponge” at the tournament, learning everything from video editing and live streaming to camera operations and score keeping. EDGE’s Harrington appreciated his “infectious enthusiasm and willingness to learn.”
“Video games have always had this negative stigma, but now we are seeing the video game industry legitimize itself through educational initiatives and universities like UNCG collaborating with video game companies,” Craig explains. “I just want to be around people that share my excitement for this.”
He plans to continue to be involved in the upcoming season of UNCG SEA as he pursues UNCG’s new minor in esports and video gaming in the religious studies department. “I feel very fortunate to be at UNCG at the right time.”
Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications.