As is the case for every major event since the coronavirus pandemic began, Super Bowl LV – the biggest sporting event in America – is going to look different all around. Fortunately, the NFL’s inaugural Madden NFL 21 x HBCU Tournament Finals, which pits HBCU students against each other for gaming supremacy on the mega-popular Madden video game series, is fit for social distancing.
The tournament started November 14 as a single-elimination qualifier tournament that came down to 16 players – four from each HBCU conference. On Feb. 6, the final two rounds will be broadcast on Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL channel on the streaming service Twitch.
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Gaming participants hailed from a league of Black colleges, not unlike a college football season. Alcorn State, Bowie State, Delaware State, Florida A&M, Grambling, Morehouse College and Prairie View A&M were among the schools that had players in the mix. The tournament is being decided via Sony PlayStation 4 – organizers say that future tournaments will likely be cross-platform.
The tournament is the latest in an ongoing collaboration between the league and HBCUs, a relationship that started in 2016 with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) before expanding to include other conferences. Natara Holloway, NFL Vice President, Football Strategy and Business Development, said the tournament was just a next step in the relationship between the NFL and the schools.
“It’s important to understand and recognize how deep traditions are at HBCU as well as an opportunity for us to make sure we are opening our doors for awareness related to diversity in hiring and employment,” she said.
Holloway noted that eSports is an industry expected to bring in shy of $2 billion by 2022, which brings with it marketing, sponsorship and other opportunities for students who wish to pursue professional gaming.
“What comes with that is not only sponsorship but jobs, and our biggest commitment with HBCUs is related to job creation,” she said. “Whether it’s with the NFL, our partners or clubs, we want to make sure they know what jobs are out there and what those roles entail. This is a very unique and innovative way to do that. Our biggest hope is to help students see the economic impact of eSports and how they can be a part of that.”
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The tournament finals were initially supposed to be conducted in person, but the ongoing pandemic squashed those plans. But Holloway said the NFL FLAG Madden 21 Youth Club Championship was created with social distancing in mind.
“We recognized that gaming and eSports would get a great lift when everyone is at home,” she said. “The Madden youth tournament was designed to keep young people engaged with sport even if their [regular athletic] seasons might have been canceled.”
The grand prize winner of the HBCU tournament will collect $5,000; second- and third-place will each receive $2500. Donovan Burrell, one of the 16 tournament participants, hopes to get at least third place so he can walk away with a check.
A fourth-year Florida A&M University student studying business management, Donovan represents the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in the tournament. He plans on playing with the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Atlanta Falcons, and is preparing for the tournament by practicing his running game.
Burrell, 22, has been playing Madden since Madden ’03, which came out when he was four years old. When he was a child, his mother restricted his playing video games during the weekday in favor of education, but now she’s cheering her son on to win.
“Usually she’ll get mad if she sees me playing and thinks I’m playing too much,” Burrell said of his mother. “But now she says, ‘I never knew Madden would pay off for you like it did, now go win it for us and make us proud.’ ”