Lucas Hewett, 11, has been playing Overwatch for almost five years.
It’s a futuristic first-person shooter video game where players are divided into teams of six, with each player choosing a character, known as “heroes.” The game has humans battling robots in several different settings, or maps. Depending on the map, heroes work together to capture points or try to escort a payload past checkpoints.
Lucas enjoys playing as several different heroes and, with the help of his dad Matthew, a retired Army veteran of 20 years, devises strategies. But his favorite hero is Genji.
“They say that he’s probably the hardest character in Overwatch,” he said. “I really don’t see that because, I mean, I’ve played as him since I started.”
After Matthew and Lucas saw some advertisements for the XP League, a national competitive video game (or “esports”) league for kids aged 7 to 15, they decided it might be fun to compete at a higher level.
“I said, ‘You can go try it. Let’s go try out!’” Hewett said.
Lucas was accepted and started playing for the Madison Marvels, competing at the beginning level, or “Silver.” The Marvels are sponsored by Code Ninjas, a Sun Prairie program that teaches kids computer programming skills, including video game development. After improving their skills and learning how to play as a team, players move up to the Gold level, which is more competitive and is typically made up of older middle school or high school kids.
“They liked his playing style, his techniques and his knowledge of the game,” Hewett said. “So this year, they had him go on both the Gold and Silver teams.”
Across North America, children have taken the hobby of video gaming, often derided by critics (and many parents) as an anti-social activity, out of their basement rec rooms and onto teams that compete for real trophies.
Competitive esports include elementary school kids learning the values of teamwork and clean competition all the way up to well-compensated professionals performing on ESPN. Between prizes and sponsorships, pro gamers can pull in millions.
Meet the Marvels
More than 50 esports players with the Madison Marvels compete on teams that play Overwatch, Fortnite, Rocket League and, starting this summer, Valorant. They gather for practices and competitions at the Code Ninjas office in Sun Prairie, while other Madison-area teams play out of BB Jacks in Cottage Grove and at Edgewood College.
“Our XP League starts at elementary school and we do more games scaled at the youth level. So, it’s all team-based games,” said JD Uhler, owner of Code Ninjas.
The kids play against the other Madison teams along with hundreds from across the United States and Canada.
“We don’t really discriminate between age, but we do skills assessments when they come in,” Uhler said. “Most of the kids have been playing hours and hours at home during COVID-19 and have gotten really good individually at these games. So they come in and we have criteria that we assess them with and we put them in a Silver or Gold group.”
While he had fun playing with the Silver team, Lucas seemed to enjoy his role as the youngest member on the Gold team and sat with the older kids for a season-ending awards ceremony on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Code Ninjas. He was named the winner of the Apex Award for being a “triple impact competitor.”
Codey Severance, head coach of both the Silver and Gold teams, was a ball of energy during the ceremony, making a point of speaking directly to each kid about all the positive things they had contributed during the season.
Each player was wearing a team jersey with their gamer handle on the back, just like a little league baseball team would have.
“That’s why we do all these awards and everything, to commemorate this awesome time that they have,” Severance said. “I think the jerseys were just kind of the plan from the very beginning, that’s the XP League. We have the jerseys, we have the medallions, we have tournaments, we have prizes at the end of everything.”
Lilly Schulz, 11, wore a jersey with “Lunar-eclipse” on the back. Despite being relatively new to competitive gaming — she’s been on the team for six months — Schulz won an award for her leadership.
“I kinda knew I was gonna get that award because I do most of the planning for the team and some game strategies,” she said.
What drew her to the Madison Marvels?
“It was very fun and interesting because I never really played much video games before I got in this league and it was just really cool that I got to work with and play with people,” she said.
Investment attracted by growth
According to a report from Newzoo, which monitors and analyzes data from the gaming industry, esports are expected to top the $1 billion revenue mark in 2021, which is up approximately 14% from the $947.1 million they generated in 2020.
Much of that revenue comes from sponsorships and advertising. A report from Deloitte showed that the amount of money invested in esports by private equity firms and other companies rose from $490 million in 2017 to $4.5 billion in 2018, a growth of 837%.
Those investments are the result of a growing esports viewing audience that is expected to hit 728.8 million viewers by the end of this year thanks to live streaming on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
For example, the League of Legends World Championships, which took place in Shanghai in October 2020, drew a live audience of over 6,000 and an online audience of 23 million viewers.
The healthy financial state and popularity of professional esports is trickling down to youth levels.
In Wisconsin, high schools have formed the Wisconsin High School Esports Association, which had 29 founding members including area schools such as Edgewood, Fort Atkinson and Baraboo.
Rocket League, a very popular game, is played at the varsity level across Wisconsin. Edgewood, Johnson Creek, Columbus, Marshall, McFarland, Monroe, Fort Atkinson and Baraboo high schools have both varsity and JV teams for Rocket League.
Nationally, more than 170 colleges and universities participate in esports.
Teamwork and coaching
The Madison Marvels moved quickly from the awards ceremony into practice using gaming stations outfitted with laptops and headsets, which they use to communicate with one another. Lucas said interplay with teammates is the biggest difference between competition at the Silver and Gold levels.
“Sometimes Gold can be serious or laughable and you can make jokes and stuff at the beginning and you can get hyped up,” he said. “On Silver it was like ‘okay, so let’s get into the game, let’s plan forward’ and stuff like that.”
As he spoke with a reporter, Lucas never took his eyes off the computer screen, where he and his teammates were deep in the throes of an Overwatch match. To a casual observer, the players’ teamwork was poetry in motion. They asked each other for help, offered encouragement and shouted out hints and tactics. The benefits of their regular practice sessions was clear.
About an hour into practice, Matthew Hewett, Lucas’ father, arrived. Hewett, who works at the Madison VA Hospital, is one of the coaches for both the Silver and Gold Overwatch teams. When he recently retired from the Army, he started looking for something that he could do with Lucas, a born gamer.
Not long after Lucas joined the Marvels, Hewett put his military recon skills to use by scouting the team’s upcoming opponents by watching their games online. He did such a good job preparing the players and encouraging positive play that he was brought on as an assistant coach for the Silver and Gold Overwatch teams.
He said the improvement from one season to the next for the Gold team in particular was significant.
“Last season they didn’t even win a single match,” Hewett said. “This season they made it to the championship game and finished in second place. It was such a turnaround.”
Hewett said the players who carried over from one season to the next practiced hard and greatly improved their skills, and an influx of really good new players helped account for the difference. And he tries to help them develop strategy.
“I’d say the background I bring is a little bit more of the tactical ideal,” he said “I help our teammates think of strategies of how to maneuver or use the environment to their advantage as far as natural shields or good flanking positions, high positions, stuff like that.”
Hewett laughed when asked what it’s like having Lucas on a team he’s helping coach.
“I think I’m more excited for the win than he is,” he said. “Seeing him develop, he just has a lot of commitment to it. He has a very good background as far as his knowledge of each of the characters. It’s very reassuring when people that are older than him — they’re like 14 or 15 — and he’s giving suggestions as far as characters or heroes to use or which way we should move … and seeing him be taken in by other players that are older than him. They respect him, they trust him, especially this year.”
The first esports generation
One of the things that parents appreciate about the XP League is its commitment to fair play and eliminating the toxicity, bullying and abusive behavior that permeated earlier generations of competitive online gaming, especially associated with Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.
Hewett said the competitions and practices are safe spaces.
“We’re trying to develop the more responsible players that make the esport environment more inviting and not being so mean,” Hewett said. “Because there are some really mean players out there and we’re trying to start young and eventually those bad players will get weeded out and the entire environment will develop into something really, really nice.”
Hewett said he has not witnessed a single toxic or abusive player while on the XP League circuit.
“Everybody is very generous and they’re great. After every match everyone gets on messenger and tells everybody else ‘great game’ or ‘great round.’ As far as outside the realm of XP League, my son dealt with one gamer bully. And we did the right things. We blocked him and we reported him through the Playstation network and all that stuff. … There are some really toxic gamers out there.
“I like the route the XP League is going in developing young players so that the future gamers aren’t like the ones that, unfortunately, are probably my age or my generation.”
Gaming culture, within the broader internet culture, struggles with its reputation for social isolation, toxic trash talk and even straight-up harassment. That can make it off-limits for many parents.
Uhler addressed those issues by saying the kids on his teams come from a variety of backgrounds, although he laughed while detailing the stereotypical types of parents he meets, starting with the “gamer dad,” who are as enthusiastic about playing — or more so — as their kids.
There are also the parents of “sports kids.”
“We had a lot of kids who couldn’t play baseball and basketball during COVID-19 who found this and this was a great substitute,” Uhler said.
These parents might not be into gaming, but the kids spend a lot of time playing Fortnite already, and the league is an outlet for their competitive energy.
“My favorite type is the kid who likes to play and the mom is like ‘OMG, not another video game!’” Uhler said. But he’s often able to convince them that these games are social and now their son or daughter isn’t going to be sitting in the basement playing by themselves.
According to Uhler, the simple act of seeing their kids enjoying themselves in a social environment wins over many parents, especially if a certain game or interaction brings out a previously hidden competitive spirit.
“There’s a lot of kids who were maybe not cut out for the athletic sports,” he said. “A lot have tried out and it’s hard to find the right one for them. This is for a new group of kids who never could find the right team.”
Esports increasingly resemble the structure and experience of traditional athletic sports, but are unshackled by the constraints of having to find a field, court or rink to play.
Several kids participating on the Overwatch teams said they would like to continue participating in organized esports for as long as they can. That means going up against the very best in college. Many colleges and universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have esports programs.
“It’s just like in any other sport. You need discipline, fitness, mental health, balance,” Uhler said. “When basketball players get to college, they’ve been through years of organized sports. So we’re creating the same type of thing with esports. We’re creating the first organized esports generation.”
Competing in college
Some colleges are offering esports scholarships to promising youth players. Madison’s Edgewood College has scholarships that range from $1,500 to $2,000 for its new esports program.
Over the past few years, as esports grew in popularity, Edgewood students pushed the school administration for greater investment in an esports program. Their requests resulted in the college hiring Luis Puesan, who moved to Madison from Florida last year. Much of his work has been done during the pandemic.
“We’re still in the early stages of the program that hasn’t even been around for ten months since I came here from Florida,” Puesan said. “So currently we have rosters, but they’re not full rosters, so we aren’t competing at this time.The expectation is for this fall of 2021 to be competing with the incoming new students, and especially for spring 2022, which is generally when the major games like League of Legends or Rocket League have their official collegiate tournament.”
Puesan said his goal is to help improve the skill level of his players and also to give them life tools that will help them in their overall studies and careers.
“Currently, the students I’m working with I spend one-on-one time coaching them and improving their gameplay and ranking in their respective games and we’re just gonna go from there,” Puesan said. “It’s been cool to see them grow and put them on the right track. So, one of my players, I feel like he is extremely good at League of Legends. He skyrocketed his rank and I think that’s what was really exciting was when I first got here. I helped my students to grow from like top 20-30% of players up to like top 7%, which is really exciting.”
Puesan sounds a lot like the head coach of any college sports team. He wants his players in shape, putting studies first, and implores them to practice. He also wants to see Madison to become a hub for esports. Edgewood is a partner in the XP League, which holds some competitions on campus.
“I can see from the development of some of these kids that some of them will eventually end up being professional players, or at least getting full rides for college,” Puesan said. “So it’s just going to be really fascinating to see what the development of the space is going to be like. I just don’t see esports slowing down anytime in the future.”
It’s definitely not slowing down among the kids in the XP League either. Because they’re not dependent on the weather or having to allow athletes time to recuperate stressed muscles, the esports offseason is compressed.
The Madison Marvels Silver and Gold Overwatch teams held their season ending ceremony on April 28. The new season started May 1.
“The seasons end,” Lucas Hewett said. “And then the next season just starts.”