It is early May, and Nidal Nasser, better known as Mama Im Dat Man, walks from the Blazer5 team house in Portland to the team’s training facility to get ready for a series with the Pacers.
Cooped up in the house during COVID-19 restrictions, the Blazer5 prepared for their third season remotely, and in a video posted on the league’s YouTube channel, Dayne Downey (gamertag OneWildWalnut) speaks optimistically about his team’s chances.
The team traded its first-round pick in the 2020 draft to acquire Majes7ic and then used the 18th selection in the draft’s second round on Hood, giving the Blazer5 a core Downey is excited about.
“We know our skill, and our team will always be in the playoffs. We’re always gonna be a competitive top team,” Downey said. “Now it’s just putting it together at the right times, when the money counts and when it really matters.”
After losing the first game in a best-of-three series against the Pacers, the Blazer5 came back to win the next two and earn a ‘win’ in the overall standings. But since then, the Blazer5 have slumped and are 4-5, ranked 17th out of 23 teams in the league.
Like every other team, the Blazer5 play five-on-five, each as one of a limited number of archetype players by basketball position under their own gamertags – so, none of them is controlling Zach Collins or Damian Lillard – and each game is streamed live on various platforms.
Under normal circumstances, these games are played in person with fans in attendance, but this season has moved fully online.
Each gamer accumulates stats, and at the end of the year awards are handed out. Mama Im Dat Man was the League MVP last season and this year leads the league at 23.1 points per game.
Gamers also get paid a salary of $33,000 to $37,500, receive medical benefits, and their room and board at the team housing facility is covered. They may supplement their income with endorsements as well.
This is the world of esports, where virtual basketball games are covered and followed like those played on actual basketball courts.
This is the world Jake Simpson, a 17-year-old 2020 graduate of Gonzaga Prep, is breaking into, pursuing a career that only in the last few years was even a possibility.
“Sophomore year, I don’t know what triggered the decision in me,” Simpson said. “I’ve played video games the majority of my life, and I’ve been pretty good at it and I thought, why am I doing this 24/7 for free? Why not take this somewhere and make some money on it?”
But Simpson cannot simply walk into professional esports on talent alone. He needs followers, sponsors and attention – a lot more than just the ability to trounce all his friends at NBA2K20.
So, Simpson keeps an irregular schedule, creating videos, connecting with potential sponsors, streaming on Twitch and doing as much as he can to build the brand of his gamertag, because with followers in countries from Australia to the United Kingdom, the sun does not go down on the followership of @IQContained.
‘More than gaming’
At first, his parents were skeptical, though they could see clearly their son was really good at video games.
“I took 30 days and started to do a whole bunch of research: where esports were going and how many schools were adding scholarships,” said Lisa Simpson, Jake’s mother. “So that’s when I drew up the entrepreneurial contract with him. He said, ‘couldn’t this be an agreement between mother and son?’ I said ‘No. You want to do more than gaming. You want to be a businessperson.’ ”
Lisa Simpson was concerned that her son was going to abandon playing baseball and that his GPA would drop, but Jake signed on the dotted line and assured none of that would happen.
“He met all the goals, got a $500 loan and paid it back with 10% interest in 6 months,” Lisa said. “He sees himself as a professional gamer, and I see him as accumulating a set of life skills and business skills he can’t get in a classroom.”
Jake Simpson has increased his earnings drastically since the pandemic, Lisa Simpson said, as he has had more time to devote to it. Simpson, 6-f oot-4 , was a left-handed, sidearm pitcher for the G-Prep varsity baseball team.
He turns 18 in July, which will allow him to be eligible for the NBA2K League draft next season. Until then, he plans to continue hosting tournaments, streaming live on Twitch while interacting with other gamers and developing a positive image and presence online.
He has nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter, more than 13,000 on YouTube and 28,400 on Twitch.
“The people who end up big in it have big personalities,” Lisa Simpson said. “He sits in front of two screens, watches other games, does commentary, watches his feed come in with commentary. It’s no different than being in a broadcast booth.”
Equipment-wise, Jake Simpson said he has everything he needs and has built working relationships with editors and graphic designers.
“It’s all about building connections,” he said.
A path toward sponsorship
Just as Simpson is leaving high school, the WIAA is starting to take steps toward making esports a sponsored event.
During the 2020 Representative Assembly in May, the WIAA amended its process for adopting new activities and sports, allowing its Executive Board to approve two-year trials based upon seven criteria.
The first criteria, which is what esports still needs to meet, requires 20% of member schools to commit to adding an activity or sport in the first year of the trial. Esports “could be at the top of that list,” said Casey Johnson, the WIAA Sports and Activities Information Director.
“It reaches a different audience than a lot of our sports do,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re looking for as an association, to provide as many opportunities to as many students as we can.”
Johnson said the WIAA is in the process of surveying its members to see how many already sponsor an esports club or are willing to do so.
Gonzaga Prep, from which Simpson graduated this spring, is already putting together a program for the fall, athletic director Paul Manfred said, and he is also hoping G-Prep can join an esports league of Jesuit schools across the country.
Potentially then, G-Prep students soon could represent the Bulldogs on the national level in a Jesuit league and at the state level in a WIAA league.
“At one point I heard the comment that kids don’t play now as they played in the 1990s,” Manfred said. “It just kind of opened my eyes that our kids are different, and we need to start looking at this differently, and we need to explore new opportunities.”
It has actually been 18 years since the WIAA added a new sport, girls’ bowling in 2002, Johnson said.
While the process is in place, the reality of creating activities and teams that are sanctioned by the school is not so straightforward in practice. At least, it hasn’t been so at Cheney High School, where Adam Smith is the advisor for an esports program that hasn’t grown beyond a handful of participants.
Smith, a business teacher at Cheney High School, didn’t know much about esports until last summer. It was then, at the 2019 summer Washington Association for Career and Technical Education conference, that he saw a presentation about esports.
“Holy cow, there’s a whole world going on here, and no one really knows about it because they’re all in their basements,” Smith said. “But once you get into it, you’re like, whoa. It was definitely an eye-opener for me.”
The realities of making it a club at Cheney, however, ran into a number of practical difficulties.
While at that conference, Smith learned about the NBA2K League and how teams have managers, and how they practice four hours a day, realities with which Simpson is already familiar .
Smith also learned it’s not simply about being good at video games; players need to learn about marketing as well.
It is that marketing part Smith said students don’t appreciate. Most just want to play video games, he said, and to have the school sponsor the equipment.
Simpson said in his experience with really talented gamers in high school, the vast majority aren’t all that interested in doing what he does, either.
“I would honestly say it’s 90% people who just wanna play the game,” Simpson said. “It’s really difficult to do this. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
There are cultural forces that work against esports as well, because most teachers didn’t grow up playing video games online. It’s not like football, for example, that has been a part of school culture for generations.
“The whole education institution itself is very technology illiterate and very behind on this kind of stuff, even though it’s in their life all the time,” Smith said. “The teachers are having to deal with kids (watching esports) on their phones, and it has actually turned them off to it. I think there’s a huge gap right there as far as education itself embracing what this culture and group actually means.”
However, that doesn’t mean it won’t change, Smith said, and he predicted most schools in the area will sponsor teams by 2025.
Manfred is moving forward with doing so at G-Prep also because he sees esports as a way to create a platform for students to represent their school when previously they might not have done so: the basement LAN party that has evolved into a school-sponsored activity or club.
“It’ll be exciting to watch it play out,” Manfred said.
For Simpson, attending college is still an option, but for now at least he is taking a gap year to pursue an esports career, something he is often asked by adults to explain or justify. It’s something he said he has grown tired of doing and often leaves to his mother.
Over time, he said, people’s reactions have changed.
“At the beginning, they thought I was crazy,” Simpson said, “but they support me now.”
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