ALBUQUERQUE — He doesn’t have a crystal ball and he’ll never be confused as the second coming of Nostradamus, but Daniel Trujillo is convinced he can see clearly into the future.
Ten years from now, he envisions sold-out auditoriums with giant columns of video screens for ticket holders to follow along. The rooms will be packed with energy and tension, creating the kind of atmosphere you might see in the final moments of a championship sporting event.
But Trujillo’s vision of the future isn’t about sports in the traditional sense. It’s esports — the exploding world of competitive organized video gaming that, almost without notice, has taken root and become one of the fastest-growing entities under the purview of the New Mexico Activities Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics and extracurricular disciplines.
Responding to requests from kids who find themselves absorbed by video games instead of sports of the traditional variety, the NMAA created an esports platform two years ago. It sparked a movement unlike anything the association has ever seen. NMAA assistant director Dusty Young says participation nearly doubled in size in its second year to 53 teams and more than 600 participants.
While the numbers have jumped considerably in just two years, Young says it’s too early to tell what kind of impact COVID-19 will have now that traditional team sports are temporarily off limits and there’s little else to do but dive headlong into personal devices to pass the time.
But he says it’s entirely likely that Year Three of esports will see its biggest growth spurt yet — although no one knows for sure.
“We did expect it to get a pretty large following, but not to the extent that we did,” Young said. “Having anything jump as much as this did not only school-wise but student participant-wise, that’s unprecedented for us. I’d compare it to girls wrestling, but I think even esports has grown a little bit faster than girls wrestling has so far.”
International flavor at esports’ roots
After college about a decade ago, Trujillo had a brief tenure as a professional gamer in Southeast Asia. It was there that he was exposed to a lifestyle that has only recently reached the shores of school-aged America. What used to be a solitary existence for introverted kids is now a rapidly growing industry with real upward mobility.
“I’ve seen what it’s like in other countries and, yeah, it’s going in that direction here,” said Trujillo, a native of Tucumcari who now works as a teacher at Rio Rancho High School.
The genesis of the rise of New Mexico’s esports scene dates back about five years when Rio Rancho High culinary arts teacher Mike Mascone and Las Cruces Oñate High instructor Michael Soffera both sponsored their schools’ chess teams. A number of their kids also loved video games so, together, they approached the NMAA with the idea of a gaming platform.
Before then, video games were nothing more than a club activity. Putting it under the NMAA umbrella would inject a competitive feel and give players a chance to compete against other teams around the state.
“When it started we’d have competitions against teams from Hawaii, Colorado, all over the place,” Mascone said.
Young attended a national conference on esports in Atlanta in 2018, and before long, esports — New Mexico style — was off and running.
“I admit when they first approached me I was like, ‘What? Video games?’ ” Young said.
Unprecedented growth in New Mexico
Now the head esports coach at Rio Rancho, Mascone is considered the guru of the state’s coaching circuit. His first club team attracted around 30 players but last year’s had over 100, creating such a demand on gaming systems that more than half the team was forced to use their own home-based computers because they ran out of space on campus.
“Two years ago, when I really started pushing the NMAA and talking to Dusty about getting it started, I did some research and, globally, there was more money put into esports than there was into the NBA,” Mascone said. “Most of that was in Asia and Europe, but now you’re starting to see it more and more in America.”
In recent years networks such as ESPN, Disney and CBS have broadcast esports events, with countless others, specifically the streaming service Twitch, streaming live and archived events online. The entire industry was thrust into the mainstream when the coronavirus pandemic shut down traditional sports in March, leaving content-starved fans scrambling for something to watch.
“And, really, what better thing to put out there than an activity that’s safe during a pandemic?” said J.D. Mead, the esports coach at Portales High School. “I think that’s when a lot of people started to notice us.”
Portales is one of those New Mexico schools that seems an odd place for the emergence of a gaming movement. A blue-collar town nestled against the Texas border, it’s known for team sports, dairy farming and wide-open spaces.
It’s one of a number of small towns that would seem out of place when unearthing the next big thing. And though places like Los Alamos, Albuquerque and Las Cruces make sense because of sheer numbers and the proximity to technology, rural communities like Wagon Mound, Newcomb and Shiprock have teams, as do McCurdy in Española and Hobbs in the deep southeast corner of the state.
Oddly, there isn’t a single team in Santa Fe. Mascone says there was a recent push to start a club at Academy for Technology and the Classics, but it fell through when the school couldn’t find a coach.
“There’s a stereotype, I think, of what kind of kid a video game club would attract, but I’ve found that that’s not the case,” Mascone said. “If you have the system to support the games and you have a sponsor willing to keep an eye on the team, you can have a team.”
Redefining the ‘gamer’
The NMAA has partnered with PlayVS to provide the basic infrastructure of the state’s esports platform. Young says it costs $85 per student to access the company’s league. Then, of course, comes whatever expense the individual schools might incur to meet the technological demands the systems require.
Mascone said some schools have the infrastructure to field large teams while others might require upgrades or additional computers, none of which is cheap.
Still, the esports movement has begun to attract all types. One of the top players at Portales is an established track and field athlete, while other schools have gamers who are school leaders in sports and other activities.
“Some of these students are ripped, some are pretty outgoing and then there’s some who are your quiet types who are right at home with video games,” Mead said. “They come in all types.”
“It’s not just the chubby kid in mom’s basement,” Trujillo said. “You’re seeing these professional teams demand a lot of their players and appearance matters. They want you to be in shape, eat right and stay active if you’re going to represent them. If you’re on that top level, you have to look the part.”
Colleges have begun offering esports scholarships and the emergence of a global professional circuit has transformed a growing number of gamers into high-paid niche celebrities. Twitch and YouTube are launching pads to learn and watch others play, be it live or in archival footage.
Mascone said it’s part of his routine as Rio Rancho’s coach to record each player’s movements and break it down on film during training sessions.
“It’s so competitive that I would liken it to any sport because at this point, every edge matters,” Trujillo said. “If you have better equipment it allows you to see the game milliseconds faster, you can react milliseconds faster than your opponent and have that edge. If you’re younger and already have those reflexes, you’re way ahead of the game.”
Trujillo considers himself one of the top gamers in New Mexico but, at the ripe old age of 32, he says those lightning-quick reflexes have left him behind. It’s the younger generation, 10- to 18-year-olds, who have emerged as a rising force in the gaming world.
“They’re quicker and better, plus the systems are getting better around them,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo said a low-level professional player can make between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, with the top-level gamers raking in six figures. Elite players can earn millions, creating a following that generates huge profits through advertising and streaming rights.
He was witness to the passion esports has created while living in South Korea less than a decade ago. Trujillo was invited to play for a professional team from Vietnam and was a regular at that region’s biggest esports events. Arenas would be packed with fans clamoring for a chance to watch their favorite players click their way to victory.
“I can see that happening here eventually,” Trujillo said. “The way it’s going, yeah.”
Just scratching the surface
Mead predicts that within a decade esports will have the same footprint as New Mexico’s high school volleyball state tournament, which draws large crowds to the 6,000-seat Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho.
Young had plans to host the state’s first centralized championship event in Albuquerque last spring before the pandemic shut things down. Typically the NMAA esports season runs from January through May, but the association is moving to host an informal exhibition league this fall before resuming regular gaming events in spring 2021.
For now, the NMAA’s esports players compete in just three games: Rocket League, League of Legends and Smite. They’re based on the MOBA principle, an acronym for “multiplayer online battle arena.” It requires players to work together in teams to complete objectives, such as taking out an opposing team. Communication and teamwork, Mascone says, are critical.
The possibility of adding the wildly popular Fortnite to the mix is something everyone is frothing over.
“You add Fortnite and you’re going to see a lot more people come into the esports world, I promise you,” Mead said. “It takes a lot to make a great gamer out of some of these players, but there are a lot of kids who are growing up knowing there’s a place for them now. It’s not just you sitting alone in a room with a couple of friends watching. Esports is a thing now.”
A thing with an unlimited ceiling.
Correction, Aug. 25, 2020: A previous version of this story included a photo caption that misidentified the teacher and students featured in the photo. The photo was of Jason Rutledge and students at Los Alamos High School, not Mike Mascone and students from Rio Rancho High School.