Published August 18th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
A look of shock flashed across the face of Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas as a teenager brazenly accused him of murder. Lucas has been called many things, but this might be the first time anyone has attacked him for being “sus.”
Last Saturday, Lucas joined the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City in kicking off the partnership between Generation Esports and premiere esports team the Kansas City Pioneers with a few passionate rounds of Among Us. (It’s a space-themed online game in which players have to deduce who among them is an imposter trying to sabotage the team’s mission.)
Some parental figures may still crusade against video games for being time wasters or encouraging violence. Nevertheless, esports has grown into a billion dollar industry.
“Esports is everything that you would imagine a traditional sport like basketball or football or baseball would be, but with video games,” said Douglas Martin.
Martin has become a household name in the esports world under his screen name Censor.
Martin won his first Call of Duty championship at age 17. The title came with a $50,000 prize.
“I thought, esports has no future,” Martin said. “I’m just going to take this money and go to college.”
That was nearly a decade ago.
Since then, Martin has helped usher in an era in which gaming is a booming industry with legitimate career opportunities. He recently signed on with the Kansas City Pioneers as a professional Call of Duty player.
“You need coaches, you need a team, you have a team dynamic, you do things mostly in person,” said Nehemiah Odior. “You’re not really sitting in a dark room, just playing by yourself and wearing a hoodie. That perception isn’t really realistic anymore.”
Odior is the director of programs and partnerships at Generation Esports. He said that the organization is working to engage youth in the gaming industry, particularly in underserved communities.
Odior started gaming at a young age. Growing up in Texas, he was the self-proclaimed “top dog” when it came to fighting games. He took out every opponent in his neighborhood with ease.
Around age 18, he took his talents to his first gaming competition where he was swiftly crushed by a 12-year-old girl. (She went on to become a world champion, so Odior was able to maintain his dignity.)
Odior quickly learned to never underestimate an opponent when it comes to gaming. In esports there are typically no age or gender brackets, which lowers the barriers to entry for many young people.
The benefits of gaming for youth range from career opportunities in STEM to the invaluable feeling of belonging to a group.
“They’re not really looking to be on the football team or the basketball team, but they would love to be a part of a Super Smash team and then have their friends come and cheer them on for a competition that they’re a part of,” Odior said.
KC Pioneers Rocket League player Courtney Johnson experienced this personally when her esports teammates stepped in to support her in one of the darker times of her life.
About three years ago, Johnson came out as transgender. Then the bullying began.
“I started transitioning to a woman and a lot of my friends really cut me off and I wasn’t in the best place,” Johnson said. “And then I met some of my best friends that year, all online.”
She said that the atmosphere is exactly like her old baseball team. Gaming is her opportunity to push herself to be her best.
When she first started gaming five years ago, people thought that she was wasting her time. Now even her grandmother will poke her head in to watch Johnson crush the competition in Rocket League.
“Knowing that older generations are actually trying to understand — it’s just a really cool feeling,” she said.
Kansas City Pioneers founder Lorenzo (LJ) Browne is working hard to put Kansas City esports on the map.
Browne said that because the Midwest is generally slower to accept change, a lot of gamers stay quiet about their passion out of either fear of judgment or a lack of knowledge about the industry.
“I’m an inner city kid, you know. There’s inner city kids that probably come home and game every day and they don’t even know they’re good enough to win 100 bucks, 200 bucks here and there,” Browne said. “I think that if we can help these kids and their parents understand that, more people will start appreciating what we actually do.”
Through KC Pioneers, Browne is raising awareness and making gaming more accessible to those who might not be able to afford an expensive gaming system. With the help of Generation Esports, they will be helping to establish computer labs across the metro.
One of their partnerships is with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City. They are hoping to expose kids who already love gaming to the professional side of esports.
“Obviously young people across the world are interested in video games and esports, but we want to take that interest and really leverage it into professional opportunities and employment opportunities for kids,” said local Boys and Girls Club president Dr. Dred Scott. “It’s a great opportunity for them to take a passion and make it into a career.”
Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.