Video games were once looked at as little more than a hobby but, today, they are a multimillion dollar industry, and a homegrown athlete is looking to change the game for local youth.

While attending Roosevelt Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School and Samohi, Luke Zelon, founder of NXT UP Esports, would often spend time playing titles like Diablo and World of Warcraft when he wasn’t on the football field.

“It was just a fun and cool way to connect,” Zelon said, recalling the simplicity of games when online play was first starting to emerge.

Zelon took a break from playing games in high school to focus on his athletic endeavors. The decision paid off when the linebacker accepted a scholarship offer to play at Harvard University. The former Viking moved around and wound up mostly playing defensive end by the time he graduated from the Ivy League university in 2014.

And like most college graduates, he had no idea what he wanted to do after school.

“I quickly realized that sports is the only thing I’m really interested in and want to think about for a long period of time, so I got into the traditional sports world, working for a sports agency,” Zelon said. “We represented basketball, baseball, football players and they were big names. We had DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, John Wall… big time players; so I was doing that for a bit and I loved it.”

Soon after, Zelon found himself working at another agency, but this time the focus was on esports.

“We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do and quickly became this kind of consulting marketing agency for different kinds of companies that wanted to make the change from traditional sports to esports,” Zelon said, rattling off companies like Dr. Pepper who sponsored events like the College Football Playoffs but didn’t know how to get off the ground in esports. “This was back in early 2016… and at that point, esports was still in its infancy, so we had this really unique value proposition because we understood both sides. We also helped the Golden State Warriors start an esports team and ultimately got them a spot in League of Legends, which is the biggest esport in the world. We got them one of 10 teams in North America. It was a really sought after position.”

A year later, the Santa Monica resident found himself doing sponsorship sales for LAFC before the soccer club had played its first game in Major League Soccer.

“My first day on the job, I went to the stadium to see the construction and got a hardhat tour. I was also at the first game up in Seattle at the first game at Banc of California stadium and the first game they played the Galaxy,” Zelon said, adding, “It was really an awesome experience but it was wonderful for my career too because I learned so much about how teams work and how sponsorships work, the process of opening a stadium; it was really awesome, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be a part of a project like that again. But it’s been invaluable and changed how I think about business.”

When Zelon landed a job with Team SoloMid, which is known as TSM and is one of the biggest professional esports organizations, his views only continued to evolve.

“So, one of the like trends that I noticed in eSports is that a lot of people are looking at the traditional sports model and trying to implement that in eSports and video game; from how you develop a team, to how you sell a sponsorship for a team, to developing a league’s broadcast and all of that.

They look at traditional sports because it’s been done and it’s successful, so why recreate the wheel?” he said. “But there’s a major talent problem in eSports in regards to talent development because what happens in my own experience and in talking to a lot of friends and parents, is parents will buy their kids a system and then buy them a game, and then they just say, ‘Okay, go play and figure it out on your own.’”

Some kids have success with this method, Zelon recognizes, but this isn’t how families teach children to play traditional sports like Tee-ball.

“You have a coach who’s teaching you the rules, who’s teaching you how to hit the ball, how to throw the ball, how to catch — all of those things — and that just doesn’t exist in video games,” Zelon said. “And then I thought about, well what are some of the other pain points in gaming and online-play came right to mind. Look, if you play enough video games and you don’t have to play that much to have had an experience where you enter a lobby and you hear people cursing at you. It’s not a great world and it’s not appropriate for kids at that age. If you’re 13, is that the best way for you to learn the game and is that the social experience you want to have? It’s certainly not the experience your parents want you to have.”

Zelon also contrasted the online world of esports with traditional sports where children are put in a league with athletes of their age group and there’s a coach to supervise.

“So, that’s exactly what we created,” he said, detailing how he and his peers at NXT UP have partnered with Lincoln Middle School, various Boys and Girls Clubs and other organizations to create a Little League baseball model for video games and young children wishing to explore the world of esports. “We create an enclosed ecosystem so their kids aren’t exposed to strangers online, and they’re getting an intro to learning the game and life skills all while they’re having fun.”

And since video games are a phenomenal way for people to connect socially, especially in the times of COVID-19, Zelon is confident youth esports programs will only see more demand in the future.

“Santa Monica Boys and Girls Clubs and several other boys and girls clubs in Southern California were the first kids in the program and it was a great way to test small, but it was also a way to kind of give back to the community as well. And it’s been really successful,” he said, stating all of the programs are all virtual so kids can connect from home with a headset to their teammates and coach in the game. “It’s not necessarily an in-person activity, but it can be when things resume regularly.”

And Zelon is certainly looking forward to getting a group together because he and coaches regularly witness kids become more social during their time in the program.

“They play with the same group and are on the same team every week so they really get to know each other and a lot of the kids will end up playing with kids that they met in the program later on. The parents love that because they know it’s you know it’s someone that is a stranger and it’s safe,” Zelon said. “And I have to say I thought this was gonna be a highly competitive thing but that is not the case at all. This is about having fun and playing with other kids and improving your play along the way. But the most important thing is the kids have fun.”

Brennon@smdp.com