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‘Little League of eSports’ is set to launch in Newport Beach

Convincing kids to play video games after school shouldn’t be too difficult, but the Boys & Girls Club in Newport Beach is adding a layer: organized, competitive leagues.

With guidance from the startup Bravous Youth eSports, the elementary school-aged kids of the Newport clubhouse leaned, rocked, whooped, yipped and narrated their progress as they played Super Smash Bros. Ultimate this week in a gym where long-established basketball leagues typically play.

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Bouncing off the hardwood was one cheerfully epic battle of Jigglypuff and Kirby, played by fourth-graders Caden Bennett and Sara Morrison.

“I like playing games with other people and my friends,” said Caden, whose Jigglypuff emerged victorious.

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Smash Bros. is a bestselling fighting game for the Nintendo Switch platform and long popular on a competition circuit that reaches all ages, making it a natural to launch the league. Official play starts later this month, and spots are filling for the eight-week season.

ESports, or electronic sports, are multiplayer video game experiences and competitions in which players play against one another through a digital platform, and Orange County has been at the forefront.

The 15,000-square-foot eSports Arena in Santa Ana was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it opened in 2015, and gaming as a spectator sport has reached the biggest stages previously reserved for conventional athletics and entertainment, such as Madison Square Garden.

As the profile and purses rise for professional gaming, universities and high schools have started fielding competitive teams. UC Irvine opened its own eSports arena in 2016 and offers scholarships for student-gamers to play “League of Legends” and “Overwatch” for the Anteaters.

The North America Scholastic Esports Federation, which organizes high school tournaments for players in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, is based in Orange County and partnered with UCI.

Boys & Girls Club kids in grades third through fifth will be like the Little Leaguers of eSports, said Joel Carlson, a regional executive for the Arizona-based Bravous. Bravous is expanding from its Phoenix-area base to New York and, with Newport, into California.

Carlson and several other Bravous employees — “coaches” — floated around the Boys & Girls Club gym where tables were set up with hand-held Switches, some hooked up to television-sized monitors, to give encouragement to a couple dozen rapt players.

“The infrastructure for traditional youth sports is static, but the population base is growing,” Carlson said.

Combined with the reality that not all children are athletically equal, and costs, especially for travel teams, that can be demanding, some youngsters are unable to participate in the healthy competition of sports like basketball or soccer, he added.

Structuring video game play like conventional sports opens up opportunities, imparts the same philosophical lessons and recalibrates the playing field.

“In our program, there is no bench,” Carlson said.

The Boys & Girls Club season starts April 15. The fee is $150. Players will participate in one practice and one game per week. All gaming equipment is provided.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Orange Coast Newport Beach Branch is at 2555 Vista Del Oro. Visit bit.ly/2WRAkaN to register.

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