PUSH TO OR­GA­NIZE “LIT­TLE LEAGUE” FOR YOUTH GAM­ING

Or­ga­ni­za­tion hopes to or­ga­nize youth gam­ing

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jake Seiner

WHITE PLAINS, N .Y. » Chris­tian Pineda plays a lot of video games, but he’s best at “Minecraft.” Hunched over a lap­top in the front row of a half-full movie the­ater, the 13-year-old ea­gerly showed off why.

“I ba­si­cally know the con­trols like the back of my hand,” he said be­fore turn­ing his fo­cus back to a tight match against a ri­val team from Bos­ton. Chris­tian claims to be shy at school, but here, he’s a vo­cal leader on a New York team of nearly 20 esports com­peti­tors, some as young as 6 years old. With a spot in the league fi­nals on the line, Chris­tian tapped away at his key­board and ex­cit­edly dis­cussed tac­tics with team­mates.

The group was strate­giz­ing over pick­axes and archers, not pitch­ers and catch­ers, but the fo­cus on team­work and com­mu­ni­ca­tion could have come straight from the bench at a youth base­ball game.

At Su­per League Gam­ing events such as this, that’s the goal.

“Like Lit­tle League for esports,” said Su­per League CEO Ann Hand.

Su­per League is try­ing to bring struc­ture to an in­dus­try de­void of it at the youth level. The or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded in 2015 and runs na­tional leagues for three esports games: “Minecraft” for play­ers in el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school, and “League of Leg­ends” and “Clash Royale” for older play­ers.

Kids are of­ten in­tro­duced to com­pet­i­tive video games via “Minecraft” be­fore grad­u­at­ing to “League of Leg­ends,” giv­ing them a place to train and play through­out their teenage years and be­yond — the “League of Leg­ends” com­pe­ti­tions don’t have an age limit. Su­per League Gam­ing has tens of thou­sands of play­ers, though not all at­tend ev­ery live event, and its “Minecraft” cham­pi­onship has been turned into a re­al­ity TV show on Nick­elodeon.

The hope is that Su­per League can close a ma­jor gap in the esports ecosys­tem for young gamers, par­tic­u­larly in the U.S. The in­dus­try is set to eclipse $1 bil­lion soon, and there are more pro­fes­sional op­por­tu­ni­ties than ever. Pros in the NA LCS — the top North Amer­i­can “League of Leg­ends” cir­cuit — av­er­aged more than $300,000 in salary this sea­son, and many col­leges now pro­vide esports schol­ar­ships. Ca­reers in esports coach­ing or game de­sign are in­creas­ingly in de­mand, too.

But to pur­sue those jobs, play­ers need to start early. Esports pros of­ten peak in their early 20s, and elite tal­ents in coun­tries such as South Korea are be­ing iden­ti­fied be­fore reach­ing mid­dle school.

The rel­a­tively weak U.S. gamer pool is hold­ing back North Amer­i­can fran­chises from com­pet­ing on an in­ter­na­tional stage. Esports pow­er­house Cloud9 be­came the first NA LCS club to make the semi­fi­nals at the League of Leg­ends World Cham­pi­onship last year, and it had only one U.S. player in its start­ing lineup. The lack­lus­ter Amer­i­can feeder sys­tem was a talk­ing point when NA LCS fran­chise own­ers met over the sum­mer.

“A lot of our am­a­teur sys­tem has fallen away,” said NA LCS com­mis­sioner Chris Gree­ley. “I think we all agree that it is shal­lower right now than it could be and should be.”

Riot Games, which pub­lishes “League of Leg­ends” and man­ages its pro­fes­sional cir­cuits, is part­nered with Su­per League and hopes the or­ga­ni­za­tion can boost the rep­u­ta­tion of Amer­i­can gam­ing.

Su­per League uses pro­pri­etary soft­ware to pair play­ers with com­pe­ti­tion at the ap­pro­pri­ate skill level, and its weekly in-per­son events al­low for stronger devel­op­ment than if play­ers were left to prac­tice alone. Su­per League also makes it eas­ier for pro fran­chises to scout play­ers and eval­u­ate their tal­ent and makeup.

“You can’t re­ally just look at the best play­ers on­line and use that as your pri­mary way to find the next great pro be­cause the prob­lem is that you don’t know a lot about their be­hav­iors,” Hand said. “Will they be able to han­dle the pres­sure of be­ing at the Sta­ples Cen­ter or Madi­son Square Gar­den?”

Just like Lit­tle League, it’s not strictly about churn­ing out elite tal­ent. Su­per League also cre­ates an in-per­son sense of com­mu­nity around gam­ing, one that al­lows par­ents to watch and even coach. Some have con­cerns about their kids spend­ing too much time on screens, but at least with Su­per League, gam­ing hap­pens in a so­cial, su­per­vised space — bet­ter than play­ing solo in a base­ment or bed­room.

“It’s one of the best de­ci­sions we’ve made,” said Alon Roth­schild, who drives his 11-year-old son, Frankie Capello, more than an hour from Staten Is­land to com­pete with New York’s “Minecraft” team.

The co-ed or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­vides play­ers with uni­forms, tech sup­port and ac­cess to its dig­i­tal plat­form, which al­lows play­ers to log into Su­per League com­pe­ti­tions from any­where. But it’s the in-per­son events that pull kids in.

“You’re ac­tu­ally sit­ting next to each other and you’re talk­ing,” Frankie said. “When you’re talk­ing, you ba­si­cally are get­ting the bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence with your friends. I love talk­ing with my friends and do­ing this.”

The league hasn’t turned out any pro­fes­sional play­ers, though it’s tak­ing steps to ramp up its gamer devel­op­ment. It has cre­ated a train­ing pro­gram within its soft­ware for at-home use and is of­fer­ing boot camps fo­cused on help­ing play­ers im­prove. Hand wants to be­gin hir­ing for­mer pro­fes­sional gamers to coach at Su­per League events, too.

Su­per League is also eye­ing ex­pan­sion into games such as “Fort­nite.” Al­though Su­per League’s player base is be­lieved to be the largest of its kind in the U.S., it still rep­re­sents a sliver of the gam­ing world, leav­ing a lot of room for growth be­fore Su­per League is as syn­ony­mous with esports as Lit­tle League is with base­ball.

Get­ting there could be a boon in an al­ready boom­ing in­dus­try.

“A kid who does play Lit­tle League is an MLB fan for life,” Hand said. “Cul­ti­vat­ing that fu­ture fan through our youth leagues is re­ally es­sen­tial.”

Pro­vided by Maria Gam­bale, Su­per League Gam­ing file

New York Fury team com­peti­tors re­act dur­ing a Su­per League Gam­ing com­pe­ti­tion against a team from Bos­ton at City Cen­ter 15 Cin­ema de Lux in White Plains, N.Y., on Nov. 17.

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