'Microsoft Office Specialist World Champion' is a real thing, and these kids are it

Like many teens, John Dumoulin passed the summer before his senior year of high school in front of a computer screen. But he wasn’t playing “League of Legends,” streaming “Game of Thrones” or watching hours on end of YouTube videos.

He was mastering the art of the pivot table.

The 17-year-old from Virginia spent several hours a day perfecting his technique in Microsoft Excel. He was training for what he calls the “Olympics,” after all.

This week, John was one of 150 students from 50 countries competing in the Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. At stake: cash, prizes and the clout that comes with being the best in the world at Excel, PowerPoint or Word.

“I’m going to do my best to bring it home for the United States,” John said as he prepared for the competition.

Microsoft Office is the most widely used suite of workplace software, helping introduce much of the planet to word processing, spreadsheets and digital slideshows that have come to define cubicle culture. But ever since 2001 it has also been the field of play for a peculiar variety of e-sport.

The Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship, according to organizers and sponsors Microsoft and Certiport, encourages young people to learn skills that look good on their college applications and job resumes.

“It’s about preparing students to get a job,” said Anthony Salcito, vice president of worldwide education at Microsoft. “To become more employable to companies that build their businesses around the Microsoft suite.” Past winners have gone on to attend Ivy League colleges and even work at, yes, Microsoft.

For students from overseas, the stakes can be greater, said Craig Bushman, vice president of marketing at Certiport, whose company provides professional certification for software and skills.

“Especially in China you get placed in the top universities in the country and preferred living arrangements for any student that wins a championship,” Bushman said. “There is a lot of press and recognition and a lot of doors open to them.”

The contest also helps promote Microsoft and Certiport. To compete in the world championships, participants between the ages of 13 and 22 must gain Certiport certification — completing a series of tasks in a specified program quickly and accurately.

According to Certiport, some 500,000 people received certification in Microsoft Office programs last year. The fastest and most accurate among them got an invite to a national competition. Only the absolute best made it to the world championship.

That means hours of practice.

Delaware resident Anirudh Narayanan, 17, prepared all summer to compete in the Excel 2013 category, “looking up obscure facts just in case I might need to know it during the test.” He’s hoping the skills he honed will help him at Carnegie Mellon University, where he will begin studying economics in the fall.

“I make sure I do a minimum of five hours a week in Excel,” Anirudh said. “Then for a while I’ll be on YouTube watching videos about Excel.”

John got certified as part of a high school class, the same way most students found their way to the competition. But he had always been adept on Microsoft Office.

“I’m a die-hard Dodgers fan so I used to track baseball stats in Excel,” he said. “I actually did that as a science project in middle school that used Excel to look into player statistics for the Dodgers.”

At the national competition in Orlando, John won in his category, Excel 2016. But in Anaheim — with a first-place finish promising $7,000 and, in a bit of Microsoft cross-promotion, an Xbox — John was nervous.

“It was harder than I expected and there was a lot of competition,” John said. “I just went in and gave it my all.”

Heading into the hotel conference room for the test, students were met with a laptop and a manila envelope filled with instructions. The test gives the students a series of tasks to complete. For example, a student competing in the Excel discipline may be given a complicated equation to complete; one with expertise in PowerPoint may be tasked with re-creating a slideshow down to the exact margin size and snazzy transition. There are separate tests for the 2013 and 2016 versions of the Microsoft suite; competitors are judged for accuracy first and then speed.

After 90 minutes, competitors walked out looking relieved and a little less anxious. The contests were Monday, but results weren't announced until Wednesday — leaving participants plenty of time to take stock of their hours of training, the support they received along the way and the sometimes funny looks they got from friends when they opted to focus on Microsoft Office rather than more traditional youthful pastimes.

“I have family in India who streamed it live and they said it was the only time they would be cheering for team U.S.A. rather than team India,” said PowerPoint 2016 silver medalist Dheya Madhani, 15, of North Carolina — the only female competitor from the U.S. “I was just excited to place for the U.S. I didn’t expect it at all.”

On Wednesday, when the winners were announced they took the stage with flags from their home countries: China, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Macao, New Zealand, Nigeria, Romania, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

John won gold in his category, Excel 2016, and kissed his trophy as he walked off stage.

“I thought when they were about to call first place, ‘Here we go, I’m either going to have a moment of glory or a moment of pride,’” John said. “Turns out I got both.”

alexa.d’angelo@latimes.com

@andangelo15

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