SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Video games have always had a deep connection to the state of Utah, and from the looks of things at programs like those found at the University of Utah, that won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Even from the now-gigantic industry’s infancy, Utah’s alumni have gone on to play a major role in gaming. Nolan Bushnell, who founded and invented the Atari game system in 1972 and is considered by many as the “father of video games,” was born in Clearfield and graduated from the U of U in 1964 with a degree in electrical engineering.

From beginnings as simple as Atari classics like Pong to the current generation’s multi-million dollar blockbuster games financed by major entertainment companies, Salt Lake City, and the University of Utah are epicenters of gaming innovation.

The best of the next generation of game makers are coming through the university’s College of Entertainment Arts and Engineering. Considered to be one of the elite video games schools in the world since its opening over a decade ago, the college lets its students choose from a portfolio of degrees such as a B.S. in Games, a B.S. in Computer Science with an emphasis in Entertainment Arts and Engineers, as well as a Master of Entertainment Arts and Engineering degree. The school’s crown jewel, however, is the dual MBA/Master of Entertainment Arts and Engineering degree, which gives graduates the skills to start or run their own gaming business.

Courtesy of the University of Utah

“It is a wild thing,” says the school’s co-founder and an associate professor at the university, Roger Altizer. A long time enthusiast of video games and at one point in his career, a journalist who followed the industry for major publications, Altizer tells ABC4 the teaching and studying of video games in school has come a long way in the last two decades.

To him, it makes perfect sense why video games should be part of an academic setting.

“We have no problem studying film or literature or music at a university. Games are another form of media that is culturally important, technically interesting, and very innovative,” Altizer explains. “There’s a huge number of people playing games, there’s a huge number of people making games, and a university would be remiss in not participating and studying such a large cultural phenomenon.”

As part of the program, students are tasked with creating their own game from start to finish. Many of the completed student games have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times on platforms like Steam. Altizer says he’s currently enjoying one game a student made called “To Hell With It,” a slashing adventure game where the player’s character battles through the corporate ladder of Hell to retrieve a lost cat.

Students and faculty also work on other video game projects that have applications in medicine and virtual reality. The university also fields a scholarship varsity eSports team that has had great success in a number of competitive games.

There are tons of ways to make a career, and a lucrative one at that, in video games. According to Statista, the video game market in the United States is valued at $65.49 billion dollars. That money doesn’t just go to the studios and programmers who make games; those who play can also bring home a paycheck or draw a following of loyal fans thanks to gaming.

Shaka Browne (Yeah I Compete) poses for a photo after being drafted #3 in the first round by Jazz Gaming during the NBA 2K League Draft at Madison Square Garden in 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Jelani “Comp” Mitchell turned his passion for playing the popular basketball video game, “NBA 2K,” into a celebrated career. An active member of the game’s online community, posting videos and breakdowns of NBA 2K action on his YouTube channel, Mitchell was hired by the Utah Jazz to coach its gaming squad, Jazz Gaming. In 2020, after leading Jazz Gaming to a much improved 14-2 record, Mitchell was named the NBA 2K League’s Coach of the Year.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Mitchell remembers hearing from his parents and other adults in his life that a career in video games was “impossible.” However, as the technology in the digital world has developed, the impossible has become very real.

“My generation started becoming more and more computer savvy,” Mitchell explains. “I started to just see different outlets and different things, whether it’s playing professionally or being a content creator, I think it just started popping up more and more.”

Courtesy of Jazz Gaming

Now, Mitchell and his team take their work as video game athletes very seriously. They meet in a corner of the upper concourse level at Vivint Arena each day to practice their skills on the virtual hardwood for hours. Studying film, learning about their opponents’ tendencies, and breaking bad habits of their own is also a big part of the strategy that Mitchell has developed.

To video gamers like the Jazz Gaming squad and Mitchell, the investment that companies like the Utah Jazz and the NBA have made on them and on their passion is an indicator of where things are headed.

“It’s progressive. It shows that the world is coming to the state of Utah. I would say eSports is something that’s growing and growing, it’s being implemented in high schools at the moment,” Mitchell says. “It helps kids with their critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities. It’s great to see the Jazz take an interest in being a part of the future and taking a step to create the future.”