CHICAGO — Video games are more than entertainment for Esteban Perez; they're his future livelihood.
Perez is set to graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy from DePaul University's Driehaus College of Business. He'll spend the summer interning at the Illinois Commerce Commission and his free time launching Universala Esports, a company that aims to be a mash up of a mentorship program, community center and video game arcade.
"I consider esports the next language that bridges people," said Esteban, who grew up in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood on the city's South Side and is the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. "I want to be one of the people that Chicago turns to when it wants to develop esports throughout the city."
To the uninitiated, esports is spectating or playing video games such as “Fortnite” or “League of Legends” on a grand scale. It's a throwback to days of crowding around a game console in the arcade to watch a skilled player advance to the highest levels. For enthusiasts, of which there are an estimated 165 million worldwide according to research firm Newzoo, esports is a burgeoning industry where top players can earn six-figure purses in addition to lucrative sponsorships. The industry is estimated to generate $1.5 billion worldwide revenue by 2020.
For Perez, esports is his version of community activism that he hopes provides a social solution for video gamers in Chicago's South and West sides.
"I want esports to be the foundation of what I wanted as a kid and still doesn't exist," he said. "There are many transferable skills from playing video games including critical thinking, data analysis, emotional intelligence, team building and risk management. And, I think there are a lot of valuable skills you can learn by being on a team."More than just a degree
Perez said his studies at DePaul did more than pave the way to a degree. Faculty and staff helped him find personal balance in addition to creating a business plan for Universala Esports and obtaining startup funding.
"I had a rough start at DePaul," said Perez, who characterized himself as a successful student who didn't strive to do better. "I struggled my freshman year. I was not motivated."
A mental health counselor at DePaul helped him get diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"My sophomore and junior years were more transformative once I knew what the problem was," he said.
He became involved with DePaul’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center in his senior year where he successfully competed in its 2018 Purpose Pitch and won $3,000. Perez said he plans to use the money to pay for legal fees to get Universala Esports off the ground.
While the entrepreneurship center is open to all DePaul students, Abigail Ingram, the center's assistant director, was still surprised to see an accounting student come through its doors. But the more Ingram spoke to Perez, the more she understood his mission.
"He's done a good job of translating what he wants to do to people who don't understand the esports industry," she said. Organizer at heart
Marcus Hughes, a College of Education adjunct professor, said he has no doubt that Perez is "someone who will make a difference."
"He was inquisitive and he was honest enough to say, 'I didn't know this' or 'I'll do more research,'" said Hughes, who taught Perez in his Philosophical Issues in Education class.
Perez, inspired by his father's work as an independent political organizer and his mother's social service work, has been an organizer since high school. He founded Lincoln Park High School's Ultimate Frisbee team because he wanted to "work with kids in a sport that wasn't well represented," he explained. His volunteer work with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights made him realize he wanted to provide a catalyst for change in Chicago's underserved neighborhoods.
He credits DePaul and its Coleman Entrepreneurship Center for being fundamental in his growth as an entrepreneur.
"Without it, I wouldn't would have an idea or a plan after graduation," Perez said.