Mark Stockhoff playing 'Rocket League' | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Zach McNees, 18, just started his freshman year at George Fox University as a signed athlete.

But he didn’t need summer workouts, new soccer cleats, or a tennis racket for this venture. That’s because he was signed to the school’s eSports team, where he and dozens of other students will represent George Fox in video gaming tournaments — on computers and consoles like Xbox and PlayStation.

McNees, who’s from Goleta and graduated in May from Providence High School, was recruited to play Rocket League, a virtual soccer game played with rocket-powered cars instead of “human” players.

Because the university’s program is still small, he won’t have his tuition fully paid for as a team member, but he’ll have the chance to win tuition money by playing in various tournaments.

“It seemed like a cool opportunity to be instantly slotted into a community with other people with a similar interest,” he said. “For me it was like, playing video games as a sport in college? That sounds awesome!”

You might not have heard of eSports, and probably haven’t thought of those who play video games as athletes. But the world of competitive gaming is actually a growing, $1 billion global industry, where people of all ages are making big cash playing video games like League of Legends, Fortnite, and even Super Smash Bros.

Rocket League | Credit: Courtesy

eSport athletes like McNees might play at home, with a local club, or even join a larger team in an eSports league where they compete in tournaments against others for prize money and status. A number of national collegiate tournaments host tens of thousands of players from more than 1,000 schools each time.

Whether in the collegiate circuit or the broader eSports community, “there definitely are names you know, like the really good players and teams who have won championships over and over,” McNees said. “Some have their own YouTube channels or have had their own [gaming] careers before going professional.”

Video streaming sites such as YouTube and Twitch are hubs for watching pre-recorded or live eSports content, including follow-along gameplays and videos teaching gaming strategy and techniques. Some of the biggest YouTube gamers make millions of dollars each year, and have hundreds of millions of subscribers, or followers.

What’s more, industry experts estimate eSports will soon garner more viewers than every other sports league in the U.S., besides the NFL.

In Santa Barbara, it has proven to be difficult to find a gaming community outside of the virtual realm, said Nick Hernandez, a student at Santa Barbara City College. This rings even truer amid the recent closing of a beloved local gaming center — Moo Esports in Isla Vista — in June, he said.

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To remedy this, last fall Hernandez founded the college’s first-ever eSports club, which hosts team practices, meet-ups, and coaching sessions for its membership of more than 100 people — college students and broader community members. There are similar efforts around town, including in high schools and at UCSB, which has a vibrant eSports culture of its own.

“[eSports practice] is actually quite similar to other sports, like football or baseball. We practice, learn strategies, and get used to playing with each other,” Hernandez said. “Gamers can often have a stereotype of being antisocial, but there’s actually a lot of great team spirit.”

Mark Stockhoff is another passionate eSports player and mentor who wants to help level up Santa Barbara’s gaming scene, especially for the younger generations.

He lives locally with his wife Whitney and two daughters, and has been playing video games since adolescence. He appreciated it as a necessary and positive outlet for him as a “troubled 16-year-old,” and he eventually joined an eSports team and became a top player in online tournaments.

No longer playing competitively, Stockhoff provides mentorship, consulting, and gaming support — including video and podcast editing for gamers — through his eSports company eConnXn. He’s intent on fostering a supportive and positive gaming community in town.

“So many things come into play with videogames. It’s competition, there’s endorphins, and there’s achievement, too,” he said. “You also can feel more free to be yourself.”

Stockhoff recently merged this advocacy with his other passion — filmmaking — and produced a short film in town, an eSports drama called “Game Face.” The film highlights a young boxer’s shift into competitive eSports gaming after injuring herself in the ring, and Stockhoff plans to make it into a full-length feature film in hopes to enlighten more people about the nuances and value of eSports.

As home to enthusiastic gamers and even Trip Hawkins — the founder of Electronic Arts, the parent company of EA Sports which produces FIFA and other popular sports video games — why couldn’t Santa Barbara’s eSports scene evolve into something bigger?

It seems there’s a taste for it, Hernandez said. He encourages people to expand their perception of gaming and see that it’s much more than simply staring at a television screen or computer monitor for hours.

“A lot of things I’ve taken from eSports have been impactful in my whole life. I’ve had to learn how to trust people, build community with people, how to resolve conflict, how to be on time and get through challenges, and how to keep my chin high when things get rough,” he said. “These are all very important life skills.”

As the eSports industry evolves from being in the “wild wild west” to a more organized entity, Stockhoff said he’s also noticed a shift in the overall perception of gaming — for the better.

“Before, you were a nerd. And then it finally got somewhat culturally acceptable. It’s still not 100% there,” he said. “So we’ve gone from nerd to gamer … and now you’re a professional eSport player, now you’re an athlete.”

For McNees, it’s simple: eSports is “more than just a hobby,” he said.

“It’s cool to be on the cutting edge of something big.”

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