ESA Foundation E3 Interview

Gaming has continued to grow from a niche form of entertainment to one that is now enjoyed by a wide variety of audiences. The experiences offered range from polished, cinematic narratives, to flashy action, and now even professional Esports. Many different entities — from gaming companies like Hi-Rez Studios, Microsoft, and Riot Games, to Esports teams and owners like the Los Angeles Valiant and the Immortals, and even to brands like Red Bull, as well as many others — have worked to support the expansion of the gaming space through a variety of efforts like collegiate scholarships, outreach and support for underrepresented communities, or peripherals that enable gamers with disabilities to play and compete. In something slightly different to our usual RPG-focused coverage, I had the chance to talk with the ESA Foundation’s Executive Director, Anastasia Staten, about the foundation’s efforts to expand the reach of gaming, and the inclusiveness and diversity of gaming both as entertainment, but also as an industry with a diverse workforce.

Charalampos (Harry) Papadimitriou, RPGamer: I’ve been personally interested for a while in how gaming and Esports is expanding to new audiences and of the different efforts to bring those audiences inside the gaming community. Can you give an introduction on what you and the ESA Foundation are hoping to accomplish with your efforts?

Anastasia Staten, ESA Foundation: The ESA Foundation is legally and financially separate from the ESA, who owns and operates E3, but we are part of the philanthropic arm of the video game industry. We have this really wonderful connection and commitment directly from and to the industry. The foundation’s mission is to leverage video games and technology to provide educational opportunities for kids and also to drive social impact. When it comes to who we are, two of the primary things that we spend most of our time on at the foundation are our grants program and our scholarship program. Our grants program has supported 144 charities and non-profits over the years, and if you’re leveraging technology and video games for kids, let us know what you’re up to, and we’ll take a look at it! And then our scholarship fund we started in 2007, we have 35 scholars on average every year, and it’s focused on women and minorities who are interested in video game arts and sciences.

This year we had a really cool opportunity to add what I like to call ‘leveling up’, so for those who were applying for a scholarship through a partnership with Gay Gaming Professionals, they could also include a video essay on service they had done in the LGBTQ+ community, and be considered for an additional scholarship on top of the one they were applying for. So that’s been one way that we’ve kind of grown and expanded this year, as a really important goal of ours is to get more of those underrepresented voices in the industry. If you look at what we do here, and all the things that are happening at E3, there’s a lot of glitz, there’s a lot of glamour, there’s over 200 exhibitors here, but it’s a lot about storytelling and creating those immersive experiences. You have folks like Shawn Layden in the industry and others that are saying that we need to have more of these voices at the table to evolve our storytelling to make sure we’re not only representative of the people that are playing games, but also so that we can continue to grow and tell these amazing stories.

So that’s a lot of what we like to do through our scholarship fund, and a couple of years ago we stumbled across Red Bull and over the last couple of years they’ve been a founding partner of We Are with us. How we found each other was just talking about these exact goals. Kind of like the conversation that you and I are having right now, and they have a goal that they want to encourage positive game culture. We want to do some of that as well, but also, encourage workforce development. This is a 43 billion dollar industry, and for me in my role I see opportunities for kids in the future workforce. So it was a really nice partnership and a really great way for us to bring all of our communities and access to the industries that we respectively belong to, to help drive this conversation of educating, connecting, and inspiring. It’s been a really natural partnership and a way for us to amplify what we’re respectively doing.

CP: These efforts are very worthwhile and it’s awesome to learn what you and the ESA Foundation are up to. What exactly is the reach of those efforts that you have going on right now? Are you mostly focused on the Esports side, or are you focused on all of gaming?

AS: When you look at the foundation, one of the things we’re looking to do this year, and as an extension of our We Are program and our existing scholarship fund, is to launch an expansion of our scholarship program for women and minorities to include Esports, to encourage more of those unique voices to play, and be a part of that community. So from a scholarship perspective that’s an expansion opportunity, but we are not exclusive to Esports in any imagination. I mean, one of the pillars we are talking about is the inspire pillar, out there in the center of the booth. When we’re not running panels you’ll see profiles of women. We have over 200 women we’ve profiled and profiled their unique perspectives but also the diversity of their roles. One thing that’s extremely important for us is not just about getting that diversity in the industry but also to talk about the diversity in job opportunities, for kids, but also veterans and those that are just considering a job in the industry.

I like to tell the story of, you know, you go to an after-school program and you’re talking to kids — After-School All-Stars is a great example, we fund their video game development classes as an extension of their STEM programming — and you say to the kids, “Who loves video games?!” and everyone’s hands are flying up, and then you say, “Oh, well who wants to make video games?” and it’s like, womp, womp, you just lost half the class, what just happened? Well, some of it is along gender lines, some of it is the sense of community and belonging that you were talking about. It all stems around STEM education and not feeling comfortable with math and sciences. We use these women as role models, and as a conversation to show them the diversity of roles in the industry. So OK, you love video games, what else do you love to do? You love to write? Let’s talk about journalists in the industry. You love fashion? Ubisoft has art historians on Assassin’s Creed. We don’t just focus on Esports, that’s some of the other stuff we’re working on, but as an extension of that conversation we were talking about. About connecting and educating people. This is a big industry, it’s not just Esports, it’s not just development, publishing, and hardware development. It is a really big community, and we are sort of a rallying point for all of those communities to have a conversation together, and bring their unique love of video games to the table.

CP: That’s an interesting thing you mentioned about being a rallying point. I’m aware of past efforts involving Esports publishers like Hi-Rez and Riot Games to do scholarships for competitive Esports, to build out teams and leagues in schools. I know of teams and team owners like the L.A. Valiant and the Immortals are reaching out to more diverse groups as well, trying to build that community. To what extent are these efforts centralized, and to work extent are they stand-alone? Is the industry unified in these efforts? Are you working together with these different organizations to make this happen?

AS: There are definitely communities in countries across the world that have a more established Esports presence than the United States has, but this is really an emerging area for us. So, I think there are a lot of people out there doing a lot of great work. We think about what our role is, we want to be additive. We want to be a convener. So those are some of the areas that you’ll see us contributing to the discussion. I think all of those things that people are doing out there — if everybody did a little bit, we could definitely drive a lot of change.

CP: One of the things I’ve seen both from my own perspective and something others who belong to minority groups have mentioned to me, is that some of the ways that these types of efforts try to engage minority groups can come off as inauthentic. For example, I talked to a friend who was saying, “I see and appreciate these efforts, but they don’t really seem to be targeted at me, they seem to be a bit tone-deaf to the kind of stuff I’m looking for. They don’t really get me.” What’s your sense about that and what are you doing to make sure that what you’re providing is really resonating with the group that you’re interested in bringing in?

AS: Part of it goes back again to partnerships and convening. Some of the panels we have I think are really great examples, as well as the scholarship fund. How can you help address a problem with an authentic voice when maybe you don’t have that experience? So we looked at the scholarship opportunity — the ‘level up’ that I talked about — and we invited a partner to the table. We invited Gay Gaming Professionals to the table, to contribute to that discussion with us, to help us design that scholarship, help us ask the right questions, and help us evaluate those applications. So it wasn’t someone who wasn’t necessarily part of that community making that decision, it was actually people that were inclusive and also people who are part of that community making that decision and designing it. Kind of an all tides rise. You look at some of the panels — could I really go up there and say amazing things on 600 different topics, on top of everyone probably being bored of me, my face, and my droning? — so we are inviting other people. I’m not on any one of those panels. ESA Foundation in fact isn’t on any of those panels, we’ve invited other people to bring their perspective to the conversation, and to have that kind of exact authentic conversation that your friend talked to you about.

CP: On the brand side of things, I know you mentioned Red Bull as a great sponsor. Are you seeing a lot of brand support for these kinds of efforts from many other brands? And to what extent do you think their involvement is authentic, as opposed to marketing. I think people understand and appreciate that there are marketing dollars invested into this and some of it therefore has to be marketing, but what is the balance there? Are they taking advantage of these issues as purely marketing opportunities, or do they genuinely care about these issues?

AS: I think our scholarship program is a really good example in terms of that, a lot of the support that is given to us from companies — the majority of our funding comes from companies, not necessarily individual donors, it’s coming from brands — and you will not see a lot of marketing around supporting these scholarships, and it’s not for any reason other than it’s the right thing to do. It’s the things they want to participate in. Actually, right here in front of me, these are a handful of our scholarship recipients getting their one-hour respite from all the craziness. A lot of the companies here have actually been hosting them for mentorship sessions throughout. They just came from Take-Two and they’re about to go over to Bethesda after they eat their lunch, and that’s not something that’s part of the open discussion, but those things are happening. So I think these companies are doing exactly what they want to do, if you will — creating that authentic voice, supporting the next generation of creators — and they are doing it in multiple ways. They are doing it from a marketing perspective, they are doing it from a one-on-one behind-the-scenes perspective. So I think a lot of the companies are really looking at it holistically, and they’re also living their values and talking about their values.

CP: What brands would you say are most involved in these efforts?

AS: Given that we’re at E3 and thinking about video game companies, Xbox is an amazing example with a lot of their work and their campaign around all gamers, I think is a really great example. The launch and development of the accessible controller, that is part of bringing everyone into this big tent we’re talking about and creating an atmosphere where gaming really is for everyone who wants to engage and wants to enjoy these amazing and immersive experiences.

CP: So you’ve been at this for a while, I assume. How long have you and the ESA Foundation been working on these types of programs?

AS: This is my fourth E3, and I’ve been with the foundation for a little over three years. As far as the foundation goes, they’ve been working for a little over 17 years on educational opportunities for underrepresented youths. And then our scholarship program was actually funded in 2007 for women and minorities. We’ve had over 300 scholars during that time period, and so we are — in building partnerships with brands like Red Bull — it’s just an evolution of us being able to expand and amplify the work that we’ve already been doing.

CP: Do you feel like you’ve made a lot of progress? One of the things I do in my professional life is look at gaming audiences and what they look like, and still to this day, they’re heavily male-dominated. There’s some amount of variation between different gaming properties, but typically something like 80% to 20% male to female ratios. With the context that you’ve been working in this area for several years now, what kind of progress have you noticed on who these audiences are for gaming, for Esports, and for the industry? Have you seen real progress there?

AS: If you talk about careers and women that identify as part of the industry, it’s hovering around 22% women in the industry. But where the progress is being made is this up-and-coming generation, and that’s why it’s so important that we continue to nurture and invest in them, and we connect them to the individuals that are already in the industry. Take USC’s games program, a couple of years ago their incoming freshmen class was more female than it was male for the first time. So I think that that’s a really kind of easy, quick example of the change that we’re starting to see. Those efforts that have been going on along the way in building that pipeline, and exposing girls early to these types of career opportunities, you’re starting to see them finally make their way into the industry. So my hope is in five years we’re having this conversation about not only the progress that we made, but all the other good work that we still have to do.

CP: So you’re saying the demographics for up-and-coming generations are potentially much different.

AS: It’s changing! And video games in general, people engaging in them, and they’re growing. Women are 46% of gamers — it’s almost 50/50 now, and that means that more girls and women are playing. Girls are three times more likely to enter a STEM field if they play video games than not. So I think all of these convergences of amazing opportunities, and highlighting industry veterans, and investing in programs and after-school, and scholarship programs, you’re going to see that pipeline change. You’re going to see the conversation change.

CP: I’m definitely looking forward to continuing to see that happen, and very much appreciate the efforts that you’re putting into it. On the professional Esports side, the player population is still male dominated. Do you have thoughts on how that should potentially be structured? Should it be similar to traditional sports with separate women’s and men’s leagues, or should it be more combined leagues? What’s your take on how the professional side of video game competition should develop to be more inclusive?

AS: I think that’s a really great thing about Esports, it is an equalizer, so however you choose to play and engage, it’s a level playing field. You’re not out there running against a 300 pound linebacker when you’re like me at 125 pounds — like OK, oh my god! I might, might, MIGHT be able to outrun him but —

CP: Hahaha, I think you can do it, you seem like a force!

AS: But, yeah, Esports is a great equalizer so I think that there is an opportunity for the communities to play together if that’s something that as a community they get together and lift up.

CP: Any other thoughts you want to share with our readers, about your efforts or about the foundation?

AS: The only thing that I would add is that, from a personal perspective, I really love my job and the energy of our scholarship recipients, and the energy of this industry is really palpable, and when I get the opportunities to speak with younger students and speak with women in the industry, it really does make my work fulfilling. So having an opportunity for someone like you to help us tell our story and to have others join us, and for other people to be exposed to who we are and everything we’re trying to do to educate, inspire, and connect people in the industry, and increase that share of voice of underrepresented voices is really important and I thank you.

CP: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and I personally really appreciate the efforts of groups like this. Thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you!

RPGamer would like to extend our thanks to Anastasia and the ESA Foundation for giving us the opportunity for the interview and taking the time out to talk to us at E3.


Disclaimer: Charalampos Papadimitriou works with — but not for — some of the companies and entities mentioned in the article. He is not in any way associated with the ESA Foundation or Red Bull, their primary sponsor at E3. This interview and article is in no way motivated by, related to, or a reflection of Charalampos’ professional associations and endeavors.

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