JOHNSON CITY — East Tennessee State University was recently ranked No. 1 in the state as the top school for game design and animation.
Not only that, my alma mater ranked among the Top 20 Game Design and Animation Colleges in the South, coming in at No. 12 for its animation program and No. 17 for game design. Both of these concentrations are part of the digital media program.
“This honor comes at an ideal time, just as our new master of fine arts in digital media welcomes its first graduate students this fall,” said Marty Fitzgerald, a professor and chair of the digital media department at ETSU. “Our students have the opportunity to equip themselves in digital media by choosing from a number of career paths, including animation and game development, and this establishes what we already know: that we offer a top-notch program for students of digital media.”
I’m not a programmer by any stretch of the imagination. Back in high school, when I took Basic it was anything but. Assembly left me scratching my head and I was lucky to get a C+ in C+. However, I’ve been a gamer longer than most of you have been alive, and I’ve always been fascinated by how programmers work their magic and make the pixels come alive on my screen.
Which is why I recently sat down with Professor Fitzgerald to talk about the digital media program, the types of students who typically enroll, and what kinds of professions they can go into once they graduate.
“Our graduates have gone on to work on notable creative properties that include ‘Borderlands,’ ‘Falcon and Winter Soldier,’ ‘Intergalactic Pizza Delivery Guy,’ ‘Thor Ragnarok,’ ‘Halo,’ ‘RWBY,’ ‘Crucible,’ and ‘Justice League,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “We’re very proud of that, and with these rankings.”
Fitzgerald, who has a master’s degree in music performance, came to teach at ETSU in 2003, having worked as an animator in San Francisco. Currently the digital media program has about 300 majors, with another 30 who are minoring.
The breakdown between men and women is about 60/40. When Fitzgerald started at ETSU, the breakdown was probably more like 95/5.
“It’s changed quite a bit over the past 20 years since I’ve been here,” he said.
The department offers a bachelor of science in digital media with concentrations in four categories: digital animation, digital game design, digital visualization, and visual effects. The program also recently unveiled Tennessee’s first master of fine arts degree in digital media.
All four categories are quite broad, Fitzgerald said, with plenty of job titles and opportunities within each one.
“Everyone gets a base knowledge across a wide range of things in digital media. They’ll shoot and edit video, model stuff in 3-D, animate to some level, and everyone can pull stuff into a game engine,” Fitzgerald said. “After that, you tend to go into specialties, and animation and game design definitely have more students than the others.”
With a digital media degree, students have a wide variety of options when it comes to jobs. Some students don’t even make it out of the program before landing one. Every year a few students get hired before they graduate, Fitzgerald said.
And graduates can find jobs locally or just about anywhere else in the world. ETSU grads have gone on to work at Epic Games in Raleigh, Hi-Rez Studios in Atlanta, and the Discovery Network in Knoxville.
“It is a growth area and very competitive. If we put an ad out saying we’re looking for animators, we’d get resumes and portfolios from all around the world. That’s just the kind of field it is. The competition is stiff,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what we’re trying to train students to be ready for.”