On Dec. 12, 2023, at a Newport News, Virginia, City Council meeting, city leaders voted 7-0 to enter into a partnership with former NFL star Antoine Bethea and his charitable organization—the Bethea Family Foundation—to build a new community center located at 429 Thorncliff Drive called the Safe Haven Empowerment Community Center. The location is an important part of the story because it once served the community as a Boys & Girls Club Center.
In case you’re not familiar with Bethea’s career as a football player, he spent more than 14 years in the NFL playing as a Safety for such teams as the Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants, and the San Francisco 49ers, until his retirement in January 2021. He is a three-time Pro Bowler (the NFL’s annual all-star games) and a Super Bowl XLI Champion (while with the Colts).
City leaders were happy to work with Bethea on this project because he has consistently shown a commitment to giving back to the city over the years; for example, in 2020 he—along with his foundation—donated a basketball court to the community, and over the years has given his time to work with the city on a number of charitable initiatives that help the local community. While Bethea was born in Savannah, Georgia he formed close ties with Newport News during his youth attending the city’s public school Denbigh High, where he earned his first accolades as a varsity football and basketball player.
The Safe Haven Empowerment Center and Esports
Those involved in The Safe Haven Empowerment Center project envision a place that serves the local community through health services, amenities, and opportunities open to the public such as technology and computer labs, an esports center, a music studio, a culinary kitchen, a space for clothing donations, hair salon services, an indoor pool, indoor basketball courts, and health services such as dental and mental health services. While construction is currently in the early stages, phase one of the project is expected to be completed by August. However, unforeseen delays in construction and other factors could push its opening into September.
The three-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLI Champion told us on the phone on Friday that The Safe Haven Empowerment Center is very important to him and his foundation because it’s a way to really help the community with its needs, whether that comes in the form of encouragement or just a helping hand when they are struggling with something.
“The big thing with opening up the community center is to offer resources to the people that are in and around the area. There are some things that our community needs help with and I want to be that helping hand, whether it’s giving a kid inspiration of furthering whatever it is she or he is doing, or helping the mothers or fathers [in the community] with some of the things that they’re struggling with, I want to be able to give them the resources to come out of that,” Bethea told us. “So again, it’s just really me wanting to give back to the people in my community.”
Since the program’s approval, Bethea, his foundation, city leaders and engineers, and outside consultants have been planning how to best use the 75,708 sq. ft. facility (excluding the outside field space) to serve the community in an impactful way. An integral part of the SafeHaven Empowerment Community Center is a space dedicated to esports (competitive gaming), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) learning. For that part of the project, Bethea has been quietly working with Broadlands, Virginia-based esports and gaming consultancy GENERATION: Premier Esports & Gaming. While the project was only approved a few months ago, GENERATION and Bethea have been working on the planning side of things for more than a year; It was only recently that the project was given the green light by all parties involved.
Bill Le Voir-Barry—who left IBM and his role as chief technology officer of esports & gaming in February 2021 (he spent 11 years in total at “Big Blue”) to start the agency—is an important part of steering the project’s esports and tech education components. His colleagues—former IBM Cloud executive Kirk Yamatani (who serves as CEO of GENERATION) and marketing and project management executive Taylor Palacino (who serves as marketing director at the company), and others at GENERATION—are also playing integral roles in advising Bethea.
Le Voir-Barry told The Esports Advocate on Wednesday that GENERATION has been working on this project with Bethea quietly for quite some time, helping to lay out an esports and STEAM/STEM space that is both functional and adaptable to the needs of the center’s other community needs:
“For the last year and a half, we’ve been working on putting together an effort with Antoine Bethea, our dear friend, and the Bethea Foundation, as well as the city of Newport News,” Le Voir-Barry said. “Last month, Antoine reached out to us and said, ‘We have a go from the city, you guys have got to come down here,’ which we did this past week.”
Both Le Voir-Barry and Yamatani pointed out during our conversation that the location is super important to Bethea because the former Girls & Boys Club facility helped enable his passion for sports as a young man growing up in Newport News:
“The big picture is that Antoine grew up in Newport News,” Le Voir-Barry said. “Newport News is a blue-collar industrial community and it’s on the edge of one of the US Navy’s largest repair facilities, the Newport News Shipyard. So we went down to Newport News, met with him and his team, the architects, some of the city engineers, and went through the facility—it’s a reclaimed Girls & Boys Club facility.”
“This is the same Boys & Girls Club that he grew up going to as a teen,” Yamatani added. “He told us that this is where he learned how to really dive into sports like basketball and football. He very much credits the Boys & Girls Club for serving as a safe haven to go to and develop his passions. Fast-forward about 20 years and he recognizes that esports is in fact critical as a piece to help the community and the youth of today—the adolescents and the young adults— get married with STEAM and STEM education opportunities. He wants to transform this place that was once his shining star into a shining star that can help kids in the area and that’s one of the reasons we’re really proud to help him.”
Bethea echoed those statements noting that the local Boys & Girls Club and another community center within the city helped him out as a child and later as a teen:
I actually didn’t go to the Boys & Girls Club when I was younger,” Bethea said “I started going to the Boys & Girls Club [where the community center is currently being built] when I was in high school. Me and my friends, we used to go in there and play basketball and stuff like that. When I was [a lot] younger, I went to another community center in the city and I just know what it did for me and my friends. So, even though it’s not going to be the Boys & Girls Club anymore, I just know how important it is to have a place where you can go, meet new people, have fun, learn different things, and work on your physical and mental health.”
In addition to advising Bethea and his foundation, GENERATION is helping with the engineering architecture components such as stage design, LAN and WAN functionality, and more to make the esports part of the project happen. Those components include jumbotron TVs, a full stage for competitive gaming and gaming stations, broadcasting capabilities, etc.
While the modest 640 sq. ft. esports space will initially be used for grassroots community competitions and as a space for local youth to utilize, Le Voir-Barry sees it as a place where mid- to large-scale competitions could be hosted for domestic organizations and companies in the future. He tells us that he is already having conversations with some of these potential partners about the possibility of using the facility.
“A big goal of this project is to serve as a larger center point for esports competitions in the coastal area, starting with Hampton Roads, Newport News, Norfolk, all the way up to D.C., and down to the Carolinas,” he noted.
When completed, the esports center will be capable of hosting live events with up to 75 attendees, with spill-over spectators capable of being housed in other areas in and around the community center, according to Yamatani.
“There are two areas that could be utilized for bigger competitions; there’s the actual esport center within the facility itself, plus a larger community area just outside of the esports center—so around 75 people would be able to attend an event in the esports center itself, and the jumbotron in larger community area could also be used,” Yamatani tells us. “There’s also a multipurpose basketball court arena attached to this facility, which I believe we envision that, if expansion needs to happen with more jumbotrons and seating, we could very easily expand to the basketball court arena too, but that would be more of a phase two decision.“
While esports is an important part of the work GENERATION is focusing on with the community center, giving adolescents and young adults a place to have access to STEM/STEAM education is also an important priority.
“The facility will be multi-use, so if it’s non-game day, we can have STEM/STEAM camps and training on different topics such as game technology, cloud technology, blockchain technology, etc.,” he said.
Newport News is mostly a blue-collar town, whose main employers are military and/or government contractors, industrial manufacturers, and its largest employers, Huntington Ingalls/Newport News Shipyard and Fort Eustis. According to the most recent data (2023) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city has one of the lowest employment rates in the area when it comes to the Information Technology field. With the planned STEM/STEAM camps and training programs, the Bethea Family Foundation and GENERATION hope to grow interest in technology fields among adolescents and young adults.
“Antoine really has a long-term vision for the Safe Haven Empowerment Center, because it’s going to be this focal point where adolescents and young adults can gather to not only just enjoy playing video games competitively, but they can also learn how to develop careers for themselves in STEAM and STEM that will enhance the economic development of Newport News and the surrounding area as well,” said Palacino. “As Bill mentioned, it’s definitely more of a blue-collar area, so information technology and other related industries don’t really have a large share there.
“This is a great opportunity to really create something that’s going to have a lasting impact on that community.“
For Bethea, the STEM/STEAM learning and esports components of the community center will play an important role in engaging young people, giving them an opportunity to learn, and in turn giving the city an additional resource to increase tourism and create an economic impact through esports.
“I think esports is very important. A big thing for me is meeting people halfway where they’re at, right,” Bethea said. “We’re going to have a lot of children coming into this community center, and one thing that they love to do is game. And with gaming, it’s okay to help them understand the business of gaming too, because it’s a multi-billion dollar business. So, if you’re just sitting down and playing the game, maybe you can find out how the game is made, the intricacies behind that; who makes the game, why they’re making it, and what technology makes these games go. This is why we’re providing STEM and STEAM programs for the kids there as well; that will help them advance not only in school but also when they get out of school, potentially leading them into a job somewhere in a new field. That is why the esports factor is going to be huge for us. When you talk about the city, tourism, and bringing attention to Newport News, I think esports is going to play a big part in our success in that and the community center.”
You can learn more about the charitable work that Antoine Bethea and his wife Samantha do through the Bethea Family Foundation by visiting the organization’s official website.
Bonus: With the Kansas City Chiefs facing the San Francisco 49ers at Super Bowl LVIII, we couldn’t resist asking Bethea who he will be rooting for this Sunday:
“Man, I’m gonna go with the 49ers. It’s going to be tough to bet against [Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback] Patrick Mahomes, [Chiefs Coach] Andy Reid, and what they’ve been able to accomplish, but I’m going to go with the Niners this weekend.”