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Seeking fun and glory, prospective pro gamers hone their skills in digital dojos

Aiden Keneally, Roman Wright and Benny O’Neill enjoy a game of Super Smash Brothers at a Game Gym camp in late August. (Doug Kapustin For The Washington Post)
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Among the guest speakers who attended the first week of esports summer camp in Potomac, Md., were a personal trainer, a video-game-focused physical therapist and a broadcast news anchor. The next generation of professional video gamers needs good posture, limber thumbs and the confidence to handle a postgame interview.

A dozen preteens absorb it here at The Game Gym, a suburban office suite turned gamer hangout. Jerseys from professional esports teams hang on the walls. Couches are pulled around large TV screens with Xbox Ones and Nintendo Wiis underneath. In the back room, a chilly den adorned with yellow Christmas lights holds 12 gaming-optimized computers with brand new gaming keyboards, mice and headsets.

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As the esports market continues to boom — by one estimate, the industry is worth $905 million and could grow to near $1.4 billion by 2020 — video games continue to take on a new role in America’s recreational landscape, not just as a legitimate competition but also as a primary hobby for adults and children alike.

Competitive video gamers can attract massive audiences in person and online for their matches. Professionals can win millions of dollars in prize money in worldwide competitions. The championship match for the Overwatch League, based on a team battle game, was played before a sold-out Barclays Center in New York in July, while hundreds of thousands more streamed the event online via Twitch. The NBA even launched its own esports league on the NBA 2K title this year.

Gaming connoisseurs have realized the rapid growth in the industry, particularly among competitive gamers, has left it lacking an infrastructure at the lowest rungs of the developmental ladder. While Little League and Pop Warner provide the entry points for aspiring baseball and football players, there is a dearth of organized options for aspiring gamers. Likewise, there are few mentors to help younger players navigate a terrain that includes pitfalls — ranging from simple poor sportsmanship to toxic work environments — as well as lucrative rewards.

“If I want to learn how to swim, there’s a pool. I want to play basketball, there’s camps or courts. Where do you go if you want to learn how to do this?” asks Josh Hafkin, 30, who founded The Game Gym in February.

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Previous generations of gamers learned to play by competing with friends on home PCs or gaming consoles without a legitimate professional tier to aspire toward or with which to compare their skill. Gaming lacked a standardized body, or even agreed-upon best practices, to cultivate young talent and enforce basic ethical conduct.

Now some industry entrepreneurs such as Hafkin have established skills clinics for aspiring youth gamers looking for a future in esports — either as competitors or in peripheral roles such as broadcasting or marketing — and for hobbyists simply looking to improve.

Boston-based Gamer Sensei, another esports coaching firm founded in 2016, provides online tutoring sessions via a shared-screen experience like a video conference call. Hafkin’s Game Gym offers one-on-one lessons and practice time with local coaches in game titles with established pro circuits.

Coaches from both firms can help with everything from finger positioning on keyboards and mice to overall game strategy to executing individual in-game maneuvers.

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And the market demand for these services continues to grow. Millennials who grew up playing video games aren’t showing indications of giving them up as they age. Instead, they want to improve, and play games with the next generation of gamers — their kids.

A national 2017 survey conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell found 73 percent of Americans ages 14 to 21 played an online multiplayer video game or watched someone else play video games online in the past year.

“It’s the family game night of this generation,” said Jim Drewry, chief executive of Gamer Sensei.

A number of parents Gamer Sensei coached, Drewry said, have purchased another console so they can “squad up” and play together with their children, taking down enemies in cyberspace as a family.

The formalization of practicing video games the same way kids would practice any traditional sport is both an opening into a brand new side of the gaming market and another notch of legitimacy for an activity that has long struggled to shed stereotypical views tied to obesity and reclusiveness.

“And that’s changing very quickly,” said Maya Kushner, The Game Gym’s chief operating officer. “I think people don’t realize how big esports are and that there are many young people right now making a killing in the industry. Once people realize that, then they’re much more open to having their children trained in that area.”

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For Hafkin, the instruction process doesn’t mean simply winning matches more often. (“If we’re going to game,” he told campers during one lesson, “we have to do it the right way.”) He wants gamers to be prepared for a life in which esports and video gaming is a single component. Lessons learned while playing video games can be applied to solve other problems, he reasons, similar to a way parenting experts speak of learning music or playing team sports.

“It’s as social as a game of basketball. You’re just not using the physical exercise, but you’re still making friends and using your brain,” said David McWhorter, whose 12-year-old son is a gym member. “I like it because it’s structured. I know it’s not sitting down in the basement for 12 hours there.”

The Game Gym doesn’t have any local brick-and-mortar competition, according to Hafkin, who said he sees the operation expanding soon to accommodate high demand. (Gamer Sensei offers esports coaching on 15 popular game titles, but tutoring sessions are exclusively online.)

“I always wanted it to be this big because I used to get picked on a lot,” said Joe Bieda, a coach at The Game Gym. “People asked me what I did on the weekends, and I said, ‘I play [Super] Smash [Bros].’ Now the people who made fun of me are asking me to teach them to play.”

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