There’s a new kid in town.

eSports—organized, competitive gaming—is everywhere. Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons invested in eSports organization FaZe Clan last year. Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil started his own team. Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Drake—they’re all dipping their toes into gaming ventures.

As eSports has become woven into the national consciousness over the last decade, it’s filtered down to the local level, too. High schools are starting their own teams, complete with practices and coaches. And camps—like the Summers at Pennington eSports programs—are following suit.

Competitive gaming is not new—video game competitions have existed since the 70s and only grew more popular as new platforms hit the market. You could find Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart tournaments at a local hobby shop, or you could catch a League of Legends championship airing on ESPN. With livestreaming services like Twitch, as well as more avenues for virtual collaboration, eSports is truly taking over.

“It’s really underrated how kids now can connect through these devices,” said Elliot Coates, director of summer and auxiliary programs at the Pennington School. “When I was a kid, we would go out and physically see friends, play in the yard. Now, they have a whole social network that they are able to connect with by playing games. It’s a way for parents to create that network of parent-approved friends, and it’s a neat way for kids to build authentic connections with one another.”

Summers at Pennington will offer two eSports programs this year: Pennington eSports and eSports Apprentice: Streamers and Gamers. They’re run through Black Rocket Camps, a company that specializes in running technology-based STEM programs, Coates said. Summers at Pennington first partnered with them last year.

Pennington eSports will run for two sessions: July 6-9 and July 12-16 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Kids will play popular games while learning about teamwork, strategy, safe gaming and how to develop non-gaming life skills from eSports. The camp is intended for kids ages 10 to 15 from beginner to advanced. Week one is $295, and Week 2 is $375.

eSports Apprentice runs June 21-25 from 9 a.m. to noon and is also geared towards kids 10-15 of all skill levels. It teaches the basics of gaming, streaming and casting. Students will work in pairs or on teams to develop game-play skills through Black Rocket games and apps, learn how to produce commentary for live tournaments, use professional streaming software and practice online safety. The cost is $250.

Summers at Pennington also offers a number of other gaming related camps, in addition to the traditional sports, outdoors and artistic fare—kids can learn programming, video game design, coding, board game design, phone photography, robotics, virtual reality, video production and more.

“The whole concept is not just getting kids interested in gaming, but also learning about what the gaming industry is,” Coates said. “It’s so much more than playing games. There are multiple channels and avenues for people who aren’t gamers to go into. It’s a complex, diverse business—when it’s geared down towards the kids’ level, it’s a fun, great way to provide communication and networking in a way that that hasn’t been available before.”

Coates describes the camps as a physical space where students can chat and meet new friends who have similar interests, whether that’s gaming, game design, programming, or entertainment.

“It’s a broad spectrum,” he said. “There’s such a diversity of types and genres, styles of games. Two kids who play totally different games might become best friends because they share the same interests.”

Pennington offered the eSports Apprentice program for the first time last summer—it was fully virtual, so participants were able to connect without breaking pandemic safety guidelines.

It ended up being the perfect camp for that point in time, Coates said.

“Video games and the gaming community in general was always on a path forward, but it has been enhanced,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, connecting virtually is not more acceptable. It’s more of a norm. I think that’s really neat.”

Coates has been able to watch that grow throughout the school year, too—he coaches the Pennington School’s own eSports team.

Students practice and compete against other schools in games like FIFA, Madden, Super Smash Bros. and Rocket League. They meet one socially distant meeting per week; some students participate from home, while others meet up in person. They’re able to communicate and strategize over Discord, and they play against kids from local schools, as well as competitors from across the country.

“For a lot of kids, the eSports team has come at such a needed time,” he said. “Connecting with your friends, that’s bigger than just playing video games. You’re building a rapport and friendship with your peers in a meaningful and deeper way. You share common goals and interests with people you might not be able to find outside of this environment. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from different parts of the community about what eSports has been able to offer kids, especially during times of isolation.”

Parents do sometimes have concerns about screen time, Coates said, and that’s natural. But if it’s going to happen, he added, why not try to make it productive?

eSports has a lot of the same components as traditional sports—practice, training, drills, theory. But it also calls for more verbal communication since, for the most part, competitors are in different rooms or playing on different systems. There’s a lot of self-directed coaching and practicing outside of official team sessions, he said.

“Screen time is going to happen no matter what,” Coates said. “That’s why the quality of screen time is more important. These programs are teaching them how to be smart and safe with their screen time. We’re not telling kids to go out and practice for six hours straight while binge watching streams. It’s more about planning a schedule and saying ‘This is how I can be smart about it’ instead of scrolling through TikTok and Instagram. They’re coordinating just like a normal athletic team would—talking about where they need to go, where the next play is. It might be in a different environment, but they’re still building those skills.”

Coates acknowledged that there are inequalities and access limitations in the sport stemming from the digital divide—high-speed internet, computers, consoles, games and other accessories are luxuries that many families are unable to afford. It’s something that Pennington is hoping to address through camp scholarships and other means, namely in partnership with HomeFront. And it’s something that Coates encourages anyone looking to start an eSports program to explore.

“It’s a socioeconomic issue that every school starting a team needs to address,” he said. “There needs to be access and equality for everyone to be able to play. It’s very much a privileged sport because you have to invest in it, but it’s important for all teams to look at how we can branch out and create these opportunities for everybody.”

For more information about the Summers at Pennington eSports camps and other offerings, visit penningtonsummers.org.