The Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy — UCF’s graduate game-design program and a major high-tech talent pipeline for Central Florida and the state — will reach a huge milestone next week when student Gabrielle Tristani walks across the commencement stage and becomes FIEA’s 1,000th graduate.

FIEA — ranked as one of the top two graduate programs globally in six of the past eight years by The Princeton Review and PC Gamer — is intense, mimicking the environment of industry studios, as game producers, designers, software programmers and artists collaborate over two semesters to develop a full-scale game.

The gaming industry is projected to be worth more than $300 billion worldwide by 2026.

As of Summer 2023, 85% of FIEA graduates are employed in the video game or simulation industries. The average starting salary of current, full-time employees is $80,539 — which is continuing to grow due to the heavy competition for talent.

More than 250 companies have hired FIEA graduates, including leading gaming studios like Activision Blizzard, Bungie, Electronic Arts (EA), Epic, Iron Galaxy, Microsoft, Sony and more. Some graduates also have advanced to successful careers in the modeling and simulation industry.

Tristani, 23, has thrived at FIEA since she started in August 2022, learning C++ programming language to become a software engineer.

“I was really interested in becoming a game developer, but I wasn’t sure I had all the necessary skills,” she says. “I came to FIEA because I knew it was one of the best places to learn to make games professionally and pursue that as a serious career.”

She found those skills at FIEA, a rigorous program that continues to be a top talent pipeline that drives economic growth for Florida’s economy. She also landed a paid internship at EA, a global leader in digital interactive entertainment, with a studio across the street from FIEA in downtown Orlando’s Creative Village.

“FIEA prepared me with a lot of data based on C++ knowledge that I am now using at EA,” she says. “There’s a course that takes a very deep look at C++ in the programming track and that is something I’m using almost every day at EA. It’s the language to develop games, and having that deeper knowledge is incredibly important working at any game company.”

Tristani aspires to join many of her peers and other FIEA alums who have worked with the company after graduation.

“FIEA is a major source of new talent at our Orlando location, and we have been fortunate to benefit from that thriving talent pipeline since the program’s inception,” says Daryl Holt, senior vice president and group general manager, Tiburon Studios & American Football. “When we meet a FIEA student, we are confident they have the skills needed to succeed in our industry, integrate quickly with our teams and make an immediate impact on our EA SPORTS titles.”

FIEA started in 2005 with just 12 students. It quickly advanced to become one of the nation’s top programs, ranking in the top five for the first time in 2010. EA’s move from Maitland, Florida, to Orlando’s Creative Village in 2022 strengthened the industry’s presence downtown and also enhanced the already strong partnership between FIEA and EA. Other video game developers have set up shop downtown, including Iron Galaxy Studios, Microsoft Games Studio and Undead Labs.