Esports group aims to propel students to the big leagues

"Growing up there was this big stigma around gaming for me. It was the thing you tried to hide from your parents,” says XP League coach William Sabado. “Now, I'm asking my son if he got his practice in for the day.” 

Sabado is a number of parents turning to esports as an opportunity for their kids beyond traditional sports. XP League was founded in 2020 to bridge the gap between traditional athletics and esports. Founder Jay Melamed has described it as the “little league of esports.”

XP League has over 50 locations across the country, two in the Metro-Detroit area itself. Both the Macomb and Troy locations are owned and operated by league commissioner Jason Umphrey, who early on saw the potential of esports in the state.

"We started as a Code Ninjas franchise first, which teaches kids how to code by building video games. Once I learned about XP League I saw a really great opportunity for kids to compete. I was one of the 15 original owners of an XP League location. 97% of kids play games now. When I saw the influence of video games and how important this was to the kids I had to get involved," says Umphrey.

XP League's Macomb location has become a destination for esports athletes in the state. Their program covers seven games: Apex Legends, Rocket League, Valorant, Minecraft Bed Wars, Overwatch, Fortnite and League of Legends. Athletes are provided with gaming PCs and equipment on-site to use.

XP League competes in four seasons over the year, a season is normally eight weeks, with one practice and game per week. Athletes are provided with custom jerseys and their matches are live-streamed on the internet. Every year they host the North American Finals (NAF) tournament, allowing athletes to compete on a national stage.

XP League accepts players from the ages of 8 to 17. In gaming, age isn't a direct measure of ability, so players are divided by skill divisions of silver, gold, and platinum. As an example Macomb is home to one of the top Rocket League teams in the league. The players' ages range from 12 to 16. The youngest member is ranked SSL (Supersonic Legend) in Rocket League, placing him in the top .06% of players in the world. 

In 2018 the National Federation of High Schools recognized esports as an official sport, leading more than 8,600 high schools to create teams. Since then, the market has continued to grow with an annual U.S. revenue of $243 billion in 2022. Umphrey says the boom in funding has attracted a lot of attention, but the biggest draw for parents and athletes is one thing, “scholarships.”

More than 200 colleges in the country have varsity programs for esports and annually offer $16 million in scholarships.

“If a player in our league can get a college scholarship doing something they love, then parents should be all for it,” says Umphrey.

In September, six of the Division III college esports teams in the state created the Michigan Block House Esports League (BEL). The league has already attracted sponsorship from Pepsi and has made a commitment to connect with Michigan high schools

Two of the Macomb coaches are part of  Oakland University’s Esport team, and one is a coach at Lawrence Technological University. 

“We are really proud of that,” says Umphrey, “not only does it show the kids there is a path forward, but they also get direct gaming advice from top players on collegiate teams.”

Other coaches have started much like Sabado, a parent volunteer who saw how his son, Noah, responded to esports.

"It was a lot like Little League, I just really wanted to help out. After experiencing the league and working with Jason, I saw how amazing this all was. I love watching the kids grow and learn. The look on their face when they work together or find a new way to do something is really special," says Sabado.

Larry Childers recently joined the league with his daughter Jess. When asked what attracted him to XP League, Childers says it was simple. "This is something she has a passion about so it was really easy to get her motivated and involved. The coaches do a great job here teaching the kids about more than just gaming. It's a real team."

A survey conducted by Project Play found that kids usually quit a sport by 11 years old, often only sticking with it for three years. The main reason kids give for quitting is a lack of interest.

Jess, like many kids, has a variety of afterschool activities, but when she had to pick between soccer or XP League she "picked gaming because it's awesome, and something I already really liked."

Jess is a part of a growing number of girls joining gaming. Forty-six percent of gamers identify themselves as female, a jump of nearly 10% since 2006. 

"Not everyone likes gaming," Jess says. "But I think if you like it, you should do it. It shouldn't matter if you're a girl." 

Esports surge in growth is partly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2019 to 2022 there was an average drop of 15% in core participation, for kids between 6 to 17, in sports like baseball, football, and hockey. 

"XP League started right around the [COVID-19] pandemic. A lot of kids couldn't really go outside and there weren't a lot of programs available for them. Parents were looking to give their kids something to get involved with. XP League was really happy to give them an outlet, especially since we can see now how the pandemic has impacted kids," says Umphrey.

In 2022, The CDC released data that showed that 37% of high schoolers in the country reported having poor mental health. There is early data showing that gaming can have positive outcomes for mental health.

A 2020 Oxford study showed that playing video games had a positive effect on mental health. Another study in 2016 found that kids who played games for five hours a week had improved social relationships and school performance.

Following the pandemic, gaming addiction has become a concern of parents. Umphrey says it is a real challenge but believes his relationships and involvement with the kids and parents as the best way to address the issue.

"Coaches can play a big role in our young players' lives. Our goal here is never to put a ton of pressure on the kids. Like most sports, we want to teach them how to translate a hobby into something meaningful."

XP League uses a private Discord server for most of its communications. Coaches and staff have access to all the players’ communications, so they are able to monitor the athletes and address issues like bullying. All players take the GLFH (Good Luck Have Fun) pledge, which promotes fairness, sportsmanship, and inclusion. 

The entire national league was transformed when one of their own, Harrison “Hank” Marcus, a XP League player from Triangle, North Carolina, was diagnosed with cancer. 

Umphrey's eyes welled up as he spoke about Hank, "he played a lot from home and the hospital, sometimes it was the only activity he could do. He was on the Triangle Valorant team, sadly he passed before he could compete with his team during the finals.” 

The League honored him and his parents by wearing “For Hank” on all the teams jerseys. Hank’s teammates were able to win the NAF Valorant championship in his honor. 

XP League was able to raise over $22,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society in honor of Hank at the 2023 NAF finals. 

“That's what makes video games so powerful,” Umphrey says, “almost everyone has experience with them now, so everyone can make real connections and lifelong friendships through them.”

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Read more articles by Blake Woodruff.

Blake Woodruff is a feature writer based in Southeast Michigan. He believes the best way to impact is to inform.