While HBCUs lead in producing top black talent, they are also emerging leaders in the gaming industry. Read the full Forbes article by Marty Swant below to find out how HBCUs are leading in inclusion and diversity in a field that has tried to leave students behind for years.

Colleges and universities rushing to invest in the booming arena of varsity esports are overwhelmingly committing opportunities and scholarships to male players, according to data collected by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

As Verizon looks to promote its 5G capabilities and expand its presence in esports, it’s investing in diverse gamers and experimenting with new technology like virtual reality and NFTs.

While announcing a series of new partnerships today at the video gaming trade event E3, Verizon said it is committing $1 million to five historically Black colleges and universities and also creating tech centers on campuses. Each school will receive $100,000 in scholarship funds to female students pursuing tech degrees at Delaware State University, Dillard University, Howard University, Morgan State University and Texas Southern University. (The scholarship program is an expansion of Verizon’s $5 million Future Fund, which launched in 2020 to support “new and emerging female talent across entertainment and technology.) Meanwhile, another $100,000 for each school will help create tech centers accessible to all students.

The investment is part of Verizon’s strategy focused on developers, gamers and fans. With the professional esports organization Team Liquid, Verizon is creating ways to experience live events remotely through virtual reality. With Electronic Arts, Verizon will be creating ways to use 5G technology to optimize gameplay. With Riot Games, it’s launching a new program to provide training and mentoring for female esports casters and also creating new ways for women to compete in top-tier tournaments.

“I’m fascinated by the whole esports dynamic and community for a few reasons,” Verizon Chief Marketing Officer Diego Scotti tells Forbes. “One, the level of engagement for the games and the competition are through the roof. Second, the engagement and the reach that the players have with their fans is incredible.”

Verizon is also getting into world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) through a new partnership with Dignitas. Starting today, 100 fans who engage with the organization’s social media channels will be chosen to receive an NFT hologram of the Dignitas’s Women’s FPS team that can be viewed in augmented reality. The AR NFTs—which will be digitally signed by the players later this month—will let fans pose for photos next to players’ holograms. However, unlike other NFTs that sometimes sell for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, Verizon’s NFTs on its beta NFT platform can’t be traded or sold.

This isn’t the first big partnership Verizon has done in the gaming space. As part of its Super Bowl strategy earlier this year, the wireless company partnered with the NFL and Fortnite creator Epic Games to build a virtual football stadium within the hit battle royale game where fans could see NFL players and professional gamers compete in the metaverse. (Verizon also recently announced a promotion whereby new and existing customers can play six months’ worth of games for free through Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass.)

“We had millions of people that came to play there,” Scotti says of the Fortnite partnership. “So when I compare it to for example with the commercial, you have 30 seconds…It’s not just the cost, but the effectiveness of the engagement. I don’t talk about return on investment, I talk about return on engagement, and the return on engagement was through the roof—significantly higher than what we did running the TV spot because people were engaged with the experience and the technology.”

Individual initiatives don’t have the same return on investment as taking a more integrated and long-term approach, according to Scotti. He says it “took some conviction to do this because sometimes the marketing industry, we’re used to doing the next big thing and you do one and then it kind of fizzles.”

“Doing marketing right means being able to have an approach that’s not about a one-off but is a holistic persistent and longer investment in the category,” he says. “And the point about the partnership is important because nobody controls everything. Nobody does this alone. There is a lot of synergies across the different companies and when you talk about Verizon, we want to be that convener.”