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MEAC makes mark on HBCU esports with first championship tournament

Byram Smithen (far left) and Jalon Nicholson (center-left) compete in the MEAC Super Smash Bros. Tournament at Norfolk Scope Arena. (Image: Connor Worley)
Byram Smithen (far left) and Jalon Nicholson (center-left) compete in the MEAC Super Smash Bros. Tournament at Norfolk Scope Arena. (Image: Connor Worley)

They’re intently measuring each other’s moves: attacking, countering and defending their position with timing and accuracy down to the millisecond.

They’re competing for a shot at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championship, but it’s not for the basketball trophies being sought on the court above them…

Smithen and Nicholson are competing in the MEAC’s first ever esports championship tournament.

Esports, short for electronic sports, are a form of video game competition that’s exploded in popularity on the professional and collegiate levels in the last decade.

Most of the schools in the MEAC have an esports team.

Competitions can be held with any video game, but the MEAC has selected “Rocket League”, “Overwatch”, “Mario Kart 8” and “Super Smash Brothers: Ultimate” — the game Smithen and Nicholson are competing in now — for this tournament.

“Super Smash Brothers” is a series of fighting games where players battle to knock one another off a platform to eliminate them and win the game. They play as characters from across Nintendo games like “Super Mario,” “Pokémon” and The Legend of Zelda.

MEAC streamed the tournament through its official Twitch channel.

Smithen is known as “B-Man” and Nicholson just uses his last name as his gamertag — a pseudonym.

The matchup is a best of three. “B-Man” and “Nicholson” split the first two games. In the final moments of the deciding match, “B-Man” baits “Nicholson” off the platform then smashes a button combo move that knocks “Nicholson” off the screen, ending the game and advancing “B-Man” to the next round. 

Smithen, who plays for Norfolk State University, said he’s excited to be a part of the first wave of MEAC esports athletes whether he wins or loses.

“It’s a great way for gamers who want to play competitively to express themselves more if there’s a prize on the line,” Smithen said.

A monetary prize is awarded to the winners and runners-up in each game category, along with the championship title.

The MEAC’s esports tournament is a passion project for conference Commissioner Sonja Stills. 

“So we are still on the ground level,” Stills said. “We are still getting where all the institutions are on a level playing field.”

MEAC jumpstarted esports during the pandemic.

Last year was the MEAC’s first fall season. The conference is also in the process of getting every school to a varsity level. She said bringing the esports tournament to the basketball championships is a great way to spread awareness to the programs. 

“What better way to do that is to have them in the arena, as people walk by, like, oh wow, and then you have an opportunity to have kids that are in the arena or adults who still play to just come and play,” Stills said. “We want to be able to have that awareness so that we can be a pipeline of diversity into the industry.”

Dontae Ryan II is a player from Morgan State who also competed in the Smash Brothers tournament. He said he was most excited to test his skills against other students who share his passion.

“It's nice to be around other people with more talent than myself,” Ryan said. “Then just kind of learn from them, and then be able to go back practice more and come back better than how I was today.” 

The players are also breaking ground as part of the first generation of esports athletes from HBCUs.

“I go to an HBCU. And I really wanted to go to HBCU when I was in high school, so it's very cool,” said Nicholson, who plays for Maryland Eastern Shore. “Knowing that just by playing, just by even winning, losing just by playing at all you get to expand your name, expand the name of the brand, and each school is coming out to compete.”

Nicholson thinks that as the conference holds more events, more people will invest time and resources into HBCU esports programs. 

Olivia Wade plays for Norfolk State alongside Smithen. She said these events will help build community and friendships between all of the players in the MEAC.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to play for an HBCU and for HBCUs as well to play esports,” Wade said.

Smithen looked up to Black creators on YouTube and Twitch when he was younger. Now he wants to be that same role model for future Black esports athletes.

“It's a big inspiration to help younger people who want to pursue that dream to  grow themselves,” Smithen said. “And for me it's a great experience for esports…and to tie into HBCUs, I feel like it will help the community grow worldwide.”

Stills also sees the programs as an entry point to get prospective and current students interested in all of the schools’ STEM programs.

“Not only on the playing side, but on the academic side of it,” Stills said. “Not only behind the controller, but making the music [and] designing the characters.”

Stills added that esports will continue to grow in the MEAC. She said it wouldn’t make sense for the conference to not further invest in a billion-dollar industry — and most importantly, invest in the conference’s teams and athletes. 

She intends on making the MEAC and its HBCU programs a top competitor on the collegiate stage.

Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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