Mason Bush got his first taste of video gaming when he was 10, playing Wii Sports on the Nintendo Wii with his family.
He was hooked.
As he grew older, his tastes changed.
The Seneca Valley High School senior's love of gaming did not.
Last August he and his older cousin, Chaise Tantalo, started Team Divine, an esports organization based in San Diego that has quickly gained traction in the rapidly growing industry.
Team Divine has built a loyal following of 200,000 viewers, has secured several sponsorships and even sells its own team merchandise on its website.
The coronavirus pandemic has only helped business.
The company has seen a social media user increase of 28 percent and its viewership on Twitch — the premiere esports streaming service — grown by 65 percent since COVID-19 quarantine measures began.
“This quarantine is crazy,” said Bush, who was a standout basketball player for the Raiders this winter. “It's been awesome for esports. That's across all social media and across every platform.”
Bush, who will attend Penn State-Altoona in the fall to study business, said even though he feels a little guilty about flourishing in a time of such upheaval, there's never been a better time to be involved in esports, which was already a growing industry before the coronavirus pandemic shut people inside their homes.
“It's a lot of fun right now,” Bush said.
The world of esports
Since the invention of online gaming, esports have thrived.
Esports is competitive, organized gaming. Competitors from different teams square off against each other for money and prizes. In some of the bigger events, hundreds of thousands watch on platforms such as Twitch.
More than two million concurrent viewers tuned in to the livestream of the Fortnite World Cup last summer.
Esports generated more than $1 billion in revenue in 2019.
Bush and Team Divine are trying to get a piece of that pie.
“The hardest thing we do ... is gathering sponsors, which is hard as a young company to prove your worth,” Bush said. “After our first tournament, we proved that the money is worth it and now we are hosting a $5,000 tournament this month in Counter-Strike.
Team Divine has squads playing competitively in top games, such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch and, of course, Fortnite.
It is also delving into a new game that is growing rapidly in popularity, Valorant.
That game is still in the beta stage, but esports teams are running it through the paces.
“It's basically a Counter-Strike game, but more kid friendly,” Bush said. “It has some cartoonish elements.”
Team Divine already hosted a $1,000 Valorant tournament and had an impressive list of teams participate.
“Two of the top 10 teams in the United States, in my opinion, competed in it,” Bush said. “(We got) 200,000 impressions in one day off that tournament. (Valorant) is huge right now.”
That's the thing about esports: it's constantly evolving.
That makes it challenging for Bush, Tantalo and Team Divine.
It's what also makes things exciting.
Bush hinted at a big announcement for his company coming soon.
“Right now is a great time to be an esports owner,” Bush said.
Rolling at The Rock
It's also a good time to be in an esports club.
Slippery Rock University has one and it's trying to be a national player.
More than 50 colleges have varsity esports teams and that number is expected to climb. SRU would one day like to be in those ranks.
For now, SRU esports president Adam Schultz is content to reach out to many students, hard-core and casual gamers alike.
“We're trying to be all-inclusive,” Schultz said. “Our mission is to appeal to all gamers.”
That doesn't mean the club is content with merely participating in collegiate tournaments.
It wants to win.
Former president Zeve Olbum said the SRU team is growing in prominence around the nation because of its showings in tournaments.
He said the team was the No. 1 squad in Pennsylvania in the game Overwatch.
“Having that title is really cool,” Olbum said.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Schultz has seen membership skyrocket.
Olbum reported 90 members last fall. Schultz said that figure has more than doubled with participants in the club swelling to 200.
“We're probably the fastest-rising club on campus,” he said.
Schultz, a sophomore from State College, took over as president of the club in April, right in the middle of the stay-at-home order from Gov. Tom Wolf.
“It was interesting to sort of rise into my role during this pandemic,” he said. “It wasn't that much different, though.”
That's because of the nature of online gaming.
The club did have to cancel an event scheduled in April because of the coronavirus. They are still holding community game nights, which appeal to the more casual players in the club.
That's the draw of esports: it can be alluring to a broad range of gamers.
Putting the sports in esports
One of the biggest esports games is Madden, a virtual football game named after John Madden, the legendary coach and announcer.
Madden tournaments are big business. The Madden Championship Series paid out more than $700,000 to its top 128 players last year.
Tournament winner, Michael “Volterax” Bryant, won $100,000 while playing as the Arizona Cardinals.
But he had few digital Cardinals on his roster. Most of his players were a mix of current and legendary players as part of his “Ultimate Team,” a game mechanic raft allowing players to collect player cards and use them on their squads.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Madden Championship Series received national exposure in ESPN, which televised this year's Last Chance Tournament.
NFL players have also participated in live tournaments during quarantine.
It has helped slash the stigma of gamers.
“It's not frowned upon to play video games anymore,” Bush said.
Casual gamers can also get in on the team-building fun.
Slippery Rock junior Alex Duffalo has been crafting his killer MLB: The Show lineup for more than a year. He takes his digital hardball Murderer's Row, which features prime Ken Griffey Jr. in the heart of it, online to challenge all comers.
He said he enjoys collecting the cards and building his team. He said he has seen a spike in online users during the pandemic.
“There's no problem getting a game,” he said.
His team rating is 98 out of 100. With a back end of his bullpen of lefties Billy Wagner, Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman, challengers better get a lead early.
And Frank Thomas is on his bench.
“His defensive rating is bad,” Duffalo said. “I can't have him dropping outs at first. I use him as a pinch hitter for my pitcher.”
Part of the reason why Bush is so enamored with esports has nothing to do with competition.
And everything to do with people.
That is what keep people coming back, Bush said. That is why esports are booming — even more so now in an age of social distancing and isolation.
“The best aspect of esports is the connections,” Bush said. “I've met NFL players, WNBA players, and some of my best friends through video games.”