Huffman is one of the world’s most talented Overwatch players. And in an era in which competitive video gaming has carved out a lucrative path for gamers at the collegiate and professional levels, that means Huffman finds himself in a position similar to the NBA’s LeBron James and Zion Williamson, the NFL’s Kyler Murray or any other elite athlete who has had to weigh the benefits of college against a potential payday in the professional ranks.
At the college level, Huffman is being courted by a number of schools — ranging in size from the University of Missouri to tiny Harrisburg University — that offer scholarships ranging between a few thousand dollars and a full ride. At the pro level, with the Overwatch League that began play in 2018, things are riskier but potentially more rewarding. Several teams from the Overwatch League’s minor league level already have asked Huffman to try out. Should he score a spot in the top league, his contract could pay him six figures a year.
The life-altering decision is not imminent, but for Huffman’s parents, its mere existence was unexpected. Chris and Susan Huffman said they did not know their son was so good at the game until a few months ago, when he joined his high school’s esports team and created an online profile through the recruiting platform Next College Student Athlete. At 16, their son is already considered elite globally. He has ranked among the top 50 Overwatch players under the gamertag “MyCrazyCat,” and he recently finished the 2019 season ranked No. 1 in the Americas and No. 18 in the world under a secondary account, “i99980xe,” which he uses to play as the hero Reaper. He has achieved the highest title of “Grandmaster” on both accounts.
He is an amateur competing among professionals in the top 0.0001 percent of all Overwatch players. Requests from college scouts, lower-division Overwatch League teams and reporters come pouring into the Huffman home.
“When Jonathan said he was a really high-ranking player, we were like: ‘Oh, that’s great. You’re good with this game,’ ” his mother said. “But the coach at NCSA has opened our eyes. He’s like, ‘Your son is spectacular.’ ”
“He asked how it felt having a LeBron James or Steph Curry living under our roof all these years,” his father said. “I had no idea!”
‘I want to play on the stage one day’
Huffman joined his high school team in the fall and indicated his interest in pursuing Overwatch at the next level on a recruiting questionnaire. His ranking information caught the attention of Alan Gadbois, an esports recruiting coach at NCSA. Gadbois works with a range of players and typically filters by those ranked in the 50th percentile. While he said he works with some individuals in the top 1 percent across all games, Huffman was “on a plane of his own.”
“Jonathan is definitely the most talented, highest-ranked player that I’ve worked with so far,” Gadbois said.
Not only is Huffman’s game meticulous and mechanically sound, Gadbois said, but his creativity and ability to make unexpected moves distinguishes him from other players at his position (DPS, players primarily tasked with dealing damage to opponents) and earned him attention on the Overwatch Reddit board.
“He hid behind this crate, and there was a three-pixel crack between the crate and the shelving it was on," Gadbois said, recalling one of Huffman’s highlights in which the player unleashed his character’s special attack ability through the tiny gap. “I never would have guessed in a million years that was something you could do.”
The young gamer said his style compares to Do-Hyeon “Pine” Kim and Jae-hyeok “Carpe” Lee, Overwatch League DPS players Huffman described as being aggressive and mechanically skilled. He said they also perform “flashy and unique plays,” similar to the ones he has executed.
But as it does for many elite, young players, Huffman’s talent presents challenges as well as opportunities, especially because the college and professional esports space is relatively new. Some of these challenges are small — such as the fact that Huffman had to buy cameras for his keyboard to record his hands and prove he is not cheating.
Others are larger. For example, without a direct pipeline from college to the Overwatch League, Huffman will have to choose between the routes. He will turn 18 — the minimum age required for players to join the league — in April of his senior year. That means he could enter the league after graduation.
“I really want to join the Overwatch League once I turn 18,” he said. “I want to play on the stage one day.”
The college path and its problem
Joining a college team is a viable option for Huffman, one his parents appear to favor.
“We’re still talking through that because education is super important to us,” his father said. “So it’s something we’re still trying to figure out. The whole college esports thing is still new to us.”
Nearly 200 varsity esports programs have emerged in the United States, many of which offer full-tuition scholarships. The Harrisburg Overwatch team has contacted Huffman about playing for it, but it did not realize he was not yet 18. Huffman said he is remaining in touch with the Harrisburg coaches until he graduates from high school. He has also had discussions with other high-caliber college esports programs, including UC Irvine, Boise State, California Berkeley, Missouri and Robert Morris in Chicago, the last of which his parents like because it’s close to home, Gadbois said.
Perhaps the biggest problem with choosing the college route and then pursuing a pro career revolves around what are considered the prime years of an esports athlete’s career. With an emphasis on fast-twitch muscles and split-second decision-making, a player’s peak ages are thought to be the late teens and early 20s, which overlaps with the years most students spend in college. Players who participated in the Overwatch League’s 2019 season varied in age from 18 to 28.
There’s also the fact that the “path to pro” for Overwatch players does not typically include collegiate experience. Instead, it usually requires a player to climb the international ladder, as Huffman already has done, then thrive in the Open Division and Contenders levels before the best players graduate to the Overwatch League. By the time Huffman graduates college then grinds through the Overwatch League’s lesser levels, his prime may be behind him.
Even for talented players, the odds of earning a spot in the Overwatch League are small. There are between 160 and 240 players in the Overwatch League at any time, and teams also factor in aspects beyond skill, such as communication and team chemistry.
On the whole, only one out of every 20,000 Overwatch players goes pro, according to CNBC. While Huffman’s chances are probably higher, the odds are still significantly less than the chance college athletes have of making it to the professional level in sports such as basketball, baseball, hockey or football. That’s one of the main reasons Gadbois said he encourages players to go to college.
Those who oversee Overwatch League teams also see the merits of a collegiate level for esports.
“The addition of varsity scholarships and club teams is awesome,” said Grant Paranjape, vice president of esports business for the Washington Justice, D.C.’s professional Overwatch team. “I think there is a lot of perspective that’s lost on incoming players about just what the odds of making it pro are.”
Paranjape said he believes the decision comes down to how determined a player is to pursue a pro career.
“I think a lot of the time the answer is if you’re serious about your education, you join a collegiate team. And if you’re a little bit more serious about going pro, you join a Contenders team,” Paranjape said.
The potential of a pro payday
The average collegiate esports player receives $4,800 in scholarship money each year, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports. But some college programs, such as Harrisburg, offer full-tuition scholarships worth nearly $24,000, plus additional housing stipends.
Because collegiate esports falls outside of the NCAA and its amateurism rules, Huffman could attend college and still earn money from live-streaming or sponsorships. Though live-streaming can be lucrative for gamers with massive audiences, such as Tyler “Ninja” Blevins or Turner “Tfue” Tenney, barring a massive increase in Huffman’s current subscriber base on platforms such as YouTube, the real money would be found on the pro circuit.
On the professional side, lucrative OWL contracts make that path high risk, high reward. The minimum salary in the Overwatch League is $50,000, but star players typically make a lot more, according to Ryan Morrison, whose law firm and talent agency represents several prominent esports pros.
Morrison said his OWL clients average $150,000 as a base salary before additional prize money, sponsorships and YouTube and Twitch earnings from streaming their game play. Some players earn up to $400,000 per year. In the most extreme example, a pro player of League of Legends, a more widely played game with a more developed pro league, recently signed a $2.3 million contract.
The world of agents and lawyers might soon become very real for Huffman, who is already being recruited by college, Open Division and Contenders teams. So far, he said he has played with On The Flank and NMSL, both Open teams, and he has been asked to try out for the Contenders team Square One.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets [direct messages] from teams asking him to come on,” Gadbois said, “and gets scouted by a big team as soon as he turns 18.”
That means some big decisions are ahead for the Huffman family. While Jonathan is unequivocal about taking his chances in the Overwatch League, his parents said they will seriously consider all options.
“Both paths kind of sound like a fairy tale, so unexpected and so promising,” his mother said. “I think it’s just going to be a matter of when he turns 18, looking at both of those paths and seeing which one his heart is more drawn to and which will give him a solid start.”
Alex Andrejev is a former intern and current freelance contributor to The Washington Post. You can view her other stories here.