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Riot Games and SoLA Impact’s I CAN Foundation have opened a tech and gaming center in poverty-stricken South Los Angeles.
It’s an example of doing good in your own backyard, and it was made possible with a social impact contribution of more than $2 million from Riot Games, the Los Angeles-based maker of League of Legends and Valorant.
The 14,000-square-feet tech and gaming center will provide free educational instruction to the community of South Los Angeles, said Sherri Francois, SoLa Impact’s Chief Impact Officer and Executive Director of the SoLa I CAN Foundation, in an interview with GamesBeat.
It all started with a pitch that the group made in 2018. Last year, they met with the founders of Riot Games, Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, and that led to the donation to the nonprofit group.
“We started having conversations around the incredible tech desert of South LA and talking to schools, parents, students, and the community about the need to provide tech programming and tech education,” said Francois. “The need for tech training was so vast that we thought we’ve got commercial space, we know that we can align with great partners. We should build out a tech center. Quite frankly, it was as simple as that.”
Francois said the nonprofit started talking to potential partners, and the conversation with Riot Games clicked immediately as the company “responded in a nanosecond.”
“The fact that their social impact is driven by so much of what we stand on and what we believe in, that it was a natural marriage. And so we were really excited about the partnership when we were informed that they were going to support us. Not only were they willing to help build this out from a monetary perspective, but also they wanted more meaning. They wanted to ensure that they were providing additional support in whatever capacity. Rioters were here just last week, and working with the kids, being very hands-on with the kids.”
Jeff Burrell, head of social impact, said in an interview with GamesBeat that last year, the company and the nonprofit ran a pilot program to tech kids tech and entrepreneurship skills. The results were good and the team started sharing more ideas about the vision and how Riot could support it.
“At the end of last year, we announced our $2.25 million commitment to build out the centers. And so it’s wild that they have been able to completely build out the entrepreneurship center and the game lab and esports arena,” Burrell said. “It’s been really cool to see not only the excitement from the kids but then also from the community as well and what it means for all in South Central Los Angeles.”
The aim is to improve the lives of residents and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by providing opportunities for education and economic mobility. Yesterday, the group held its grand opening for the technology and esports center at SoLa’s Beehive campus. The center aims to inspire and develop the next generation of Black and Brown game developers, esports athletes, technology professionals, leaders, and entrepreneurs.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, representatives from Riot Games, SoLa Impact and dignitaries representing South Los Angeles spoke about the partnership and the importance of this work. Those in attendance were given a first look at the center and had the opportunity to speak with Riot and SoLa executives as well as students and parents who have benefited from the program.
The highlight of the space is the newly-completed 3,000-square-feet esports and gaming arena which features 40 high-end gaming PCs, a streaming studio, and a 5v5 competitive setup stage. During the event, students from SoLa’s Summer Tech Camp went head-to-head in a game of Valorant and even got some tips from Merrill, Riot’s cofounder and president of Games.
“They’re helping to sustain this in a way that will keep the doors open. We’re so fortunate to have right as a partner,” said Francois.
Riot and SoLa will work to provide students the same access to the powerful benefits of technology as their counterparts in more affluent areas. The center looks to impact more than 1,000 students annually, with a long-term goal to narrow the digital divide and inspire future generations to pursue tech careers they may have never dreamed of before. T
At the center, students will be trained in coding, animation, graphic design, digital content creation, esports development, entrepreneurship, and practical life and job skills.
Partners such as the Otis College of Art and Design and South LA Robotics provide instructors or coaches.
The center has 40 gaming computers, and it also has 30 iMacs and 15 MacBooks. The summer camp program can train 60 kids every day from the community, and it can provide afterschool programming during the school year.
Riot’s role is pivotal because kids already know what it makes. The kids can learn to be esports competitors. But Francois said gaming is a good hook to bring kids in and help them realize the broader opportunities that tech can afford them.
“The gaming part of it is the chocolate on the broccoli,” she said. “Part of what we intend to do is to really provide awareness around the vast careers in gaming. You don’t have to just be pro gamers. We want them to know that can be a coder, they can be a character designer, they can be creating the music behind the games, a promoter. And so that’s what our true intent is.”
The center serves children eight and up.
The group will seek further donations to ensure it can continue to operate and provide its programming free of charge. It is also seeking volunteers, Francois said. The goal is to continue to expose the kids to people, places, and experiences that they don’t get in their everyday lives.
“For any tech companies that would like to partner, we can even perhaps bring some of our students to their locations, once we’re past all this COVID-19. When they get an opportunity to visit a campus like Riot, minds are blown.”
Riot’s employee resource groups provide the staffing to help with special events as needed. Burrell thinks of the place as a kind of next-generation digital YMCA for the children.
“It’s crazy,” Burrell said. “After seeing COVID and closures and all of that, kids can come here together and find a sense of belonging and community. In this line of work, it’s hard to feel close to the work. But being here and seeing everything, you feel the energy and that’s really something special.”