Video games can get a bad rap—especially from parents, who might bemoan their kids spending hours alone cooped up in their rooms. Esports, on the other hand, is gaining popularity in part because many view it as a more productive and educational form of video gaming that focuses on competitive and team-based games.
Caleb Smith, owner of the eSports facility Contender eSports Cary, sees eSports not only a way to help kids build life skills but as a way to expose them early on to potential tech careers. Running an operation that’s nestled in the Triangle surrounded by a bevy of tech and gaming giants, Smith is well-positioned—literally—to fulfill that mission.
“Our goal is to start teaching them skills that set them up for a career in tech,” Smith said, “because they’re great careers and there’s plenty of space and need in the industry.”
Smith grew up playing soccer—he even played professionally in Germany for a few years after high school—until his passion for video gaming and competitiveness led him to open Contender eSports Cary in October 2020 with his dad, Vinny Smith. The Contender eSports franchise is based in Springfield, Mo., and has 21 gaming centers across the country, including one in Charlotte.
“Growing up I played lots of sports recreationally and went to training camps, and I noticed there wasn’t really anything like that in eSports,” said Smith, who is also a goalkeepers coach for a high school soccer team in Chatham County. “So I thought, how can I take this sports model that helped turn me into a professional athlete and implement that within eSports.”
In addition to drop-in gaming hours, Contender eSports Cary—the Triangle’s largest eSports gaming center—also offers after-school programs for elementary and middle schoolers and hosts competitions. Although some people might not think of eSports as an extracurricular activity, Smith said it provides a way for kids to develop sportsmanship, character and social skills.
“There are a lot of kids out there who don’t play sports, or who can’t,” Smith said. “Like we get a good amount of kids who are diagnosed with autism whose parents said how much they enjoy it and benefit from the social aspect of it, which has been really fulfilling.”
For kids wanting to play eSports on a collegiate level or simply level up their gaming, the center also offers one-on-one coaching and the option to participate in one of their youth teams.
However, like sports, only a small minority of eSports players will actually make it as professionals later in life. The rest will go on to other careers. So, Smith wondered, why not start preparing them for those other roles now?
This summer, Contender eSports Cary began hosting week-long STEM camps for kids in first through eighth grade. In addition to video game training, time is set aside for STEM education, when coaches use popular games like Minecraft and Fortnite to teach video game design and the beginning stages of coding.
“This sets them up to have more options available in the future, because besides tech and computer skills, even skills like graphic design and video editing are transferable to so many careers,” Smith said.
This summer, Contender eSports partnered with Apex Friendship High School for its inaugural internship program, where Smith taught a handful of students business, finance, sales and networking skills.
Smith’s goal is to open five or six more gaming centers in North Carolina, with his sights tentatively set on Garner for the next one. Smith believes the potential for eSports in the Triangle is huge, with Epic Games and tech companies like Lenovo calling the area home and hopefully opening the doors for possible partnerships with his gaming center in the future, he said.
And that potential is already bubbling up. Just last week, at the Raleigh Convention Center, XP League hosted its inaugural North American finals youth championship simultaneously with Carolina Games Summit hosting its 15th annual eSports event. Players ages 8 to 15 flew in from all across the country.
The weekend before that championship, Contender eSports Cary hosted the first-ever North American championship for the eSports game Diabotical, where players from as far as Texas, New Jersey and even Canada came to play.