The Age of the Avatar Is Here & It’s Keeping Youth in Bulgaria

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After graduating from high school a year ago, Svetoslav Karadzhov was accepted at a UK university and was all packed to go to England when he found out he could pursue his dreams in Bulgaria too.

Denitsa Vasileva completed her bachelor’s degree in publishing and communications at a German state university and found the traditional approach to education wanting. She yearned for a more practical program of study that would allow her to expand her horizons even as it equipped her with the skills and knowledge to develop her own company brand.

Seven years ago, Adrian Yosifov earned a bachelor’s degree in computer gaming and animation technology in England but came back to Bulgaria and ended up working in a different field for a while. An advertisement for a recently launched gaming program in Sofia convinced him to reconnect with the gaming world and embark on an exciting new career.

There has never been a time in Nguyen “Nana” Ngan’s life when she didn’t draw, a passion that became a life occupation. She got her inspiration from popular cartoon series such as Tom & Jerry and Dexter’s Lab. Today she is a 2D artist and hopes to get into 3D animation so that she can “someday create films and games that inspire the next generations.”

Nana is well on her way to making her childhood dream a reality. Just like Denitsa, Svetoslav, and Adrian, she is a graduate of the first class of Arc Academy, where she pursued advanced game development, delving into the intricacies of character creation, level design, and 3D environment modeling. The Academy was a life-changing experience for all four students and the answer to their professional and educational aspirations.

Arc Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2019 offering intensive, practical year-long training in game development, brand design, and film production. It is the brainchild of two veterans of the creative industries: Milin Djalaliev, an advertising guru who headed the Bulgaria branch of creative agency Saatchi & Saatchi for a decade, and Anthony Christov, whose 30-year Hollywood career includes 18 years as art director at Pixar and work on box-office hits such as Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. United by their belief that education should be practical and well attuned to the needs of business, they founded Arc Academy to help serve as a bridge between Bulgaria’s strong creative potential and the country’s burgeoning gaming and other creative industries.

The emphasis on specialized, hands-on training is not accidental. Bulgaria has been a creative hub for years with advertising and marketing agencies developing products and services for clients across the region. Gaming has a shorter but no less exciting a history in the country. After several local companies garnered attention internationally with their video games, big studios such as Ubisoft, Gameloft, and Creative Assembly opened offices in Bulgaria to take advantage of local talent. What was missing was a “talent catalyst and accelerator,” in Mr. Djalaliev’s words—an institution that would help mold and guide the available talent and match supply and demand.

Arc Academy offers exactly the kind of acceleration that Bulgaria’s creative world needs. The Academy is the first educational institution in Bulgaria to offer an entirely gaming-focused program to applicants of all backgrounds. Game Dev Fundamentals is suitable for beginners aspiring toward a career in game and digital arts and prepares them to take it to the next level. Game Dev Advanced covers every aspect of game development and guides students toward the right career path. Instruction by industry professionals ensures that an Arc Academy education is up-to-date and relevant to the industry’s needs.

The Academy’s accredited brand design program was developed and is taught by seasoned communications and marketing professionals and examines the entire process of brand creation and development. The use of real-life cases and practical tasks prepares graduates to assume positions in the corporate world as well as start their own ventures.

The best applicants for all three programs can compete for scholarships of up to 50% of tuition provided by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

A year after the programs’ launch, Arc Academy graduates are quickly filling roles in gaming and other creative industries, with more than two-thirds of the first class already working in new, fulfilling jobs in their preferred fields. What is more, they are all pursuing their dream occupations in their own country.

“Video game development had a very low profile in Bulgaria. It was happening but no one talked about it, even though many young people identified with it. Until now, the natural path [to becoming a game developer] was to leave Bulgaria. The biggest thing we did so far is to show young people they can develop games here,” Arc cofounder Anthony Christov says. “In the past, no one could imagine that a designer for a global product could be based out of Haskovo, but today you can work on a global project without leaving your home.”

Neither could the Haskovo designer himself. A talented artist with an interest in animation, Svetoslav was headed for England, one of Europe’s gaming hubs, before he found out about Arc. “There was no such university in Bulgaria, nor did I know, before Arc Academy, how developed the industry was in Bulgaria. There are dozens of gaming studios fighting for talent. For me personally, Arc put Bulgaria on the map of the global gaming industry,” Svetoslav says. At 20, he is working for Gameloft, one of the world’s leading studios.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 12,” says Denitsa, referring to her experience in Arc Academy’s brand design program. “Above all, it gave me a whole different perspective of what education should be about.” Working on real-life projects helped her get out of her comfort zone and learn by doing, which she found considerably more effective than traditional instruction. Throughout the year, Denitsa and her classmates developed projects for companies like Econt, Mania, Nova Brasilia, and KFC.

“Arc also gave me valuable connections with people who will remain friends for life. It showed me that Bulgaria has many intelligent, creative people. This is Bulgaria’s future,” Denitsa says.

The network was an important part of the Arc experience for Adrian, too. “This likely is the Academy’s greatest advantage—the opportunity to communicate with people of different ages, just like at universities abroad… Every connection you make can change your worldview,” he says. It was through the Arc network that he connected with another leading gaming studio, where he now works as a junior level designer.

Arc Academy helped Nana discover her passion for creating concept art. Today, she is working on her own animation project under Mr. Christov’s mentorship. “There is no limit to your dreams as long as you are willing to work hard,” she says.

To help its alumni and potential students keep up with the latest industry developments, Arc Academy in cooperation with the major gaming companies on the Bulgarian market launched GameIndustry.bg, a Bulgarian-language platform for industry news and career guidance. Three months after its launch, it has had nearly 30,000 unique visitors—a small indication of the potential of an industry valued at $152 billion globally, according to gaming news site Newzoo.

Next year, through its online program, Arc Academy will expand to the Romanian market so Romania-based gamers can also get first-rate, hands-on training in one of the world’s fastest developing fields.

So, if you want to develop your creativity and are interested in a career in an exciting, high-growth field in your own country, Arc Academy might be the right place for you.

Denitsa, Svetoslav, Adrian, and Nana received ABF scholarships for study at Arc Academy. With the exception of Denitsa, they all completed the Academy’s advanced game development program.

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