This elite 16-year-old gamer will have to decide between going pro or accepting college offers

The Washington Post

One of the most talented Overwatch players in the world faces the tough decision of going to university or joining a professional team

The Washington Post |

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Jonathan Huffman, 16, sits at his computer in his home.

For eight hours of the day, Jonathan Huffman is a typical teenager attending high school in the suburbs of Chicago. But by four o’clock in the afternoon, he usually enters his bedroom, logs onto his computer and assumes his identity as one of the world’s most highly ranked competitive video game players.

“I go to school and I’m a normal kid,” said Jonathan. “And then when I get home, I just play all day at the highest level.”

Huffman is one of the world’s most talented players of the video game Overwatch. And in an era in which competitive video gaming has carved out a lucrative path for gamers at the collegiate and professional levels, this means Huffman finds himself in a position similar to the NBA’s LeBron James and Zion Williamson, the NFL’s Kyler Murray, or any other elite athlete who has had to weigh the benefits of college against a potential payday in the pro ranks.

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At the college level, Huffman is already being courted by a number of schools - ranging in size from the University of Missouri to tiny Harrisburg University - which offer scholarships ranging between a few thousand dollars and a full ride. At the pro level, with the Overwatch League that began play in 2018, things are riskier but potentially more rewarding. Several teams from the Overwatch League’s minor-league level have already asked Huffman to try out. Should he ultimately score a spot in the top league, his contract could pay him upward of six figures a year.

The life-altering decision is not imminent, but for Huffman’s parents, its mere existence was unexpected. Chris and Susan Huffman said they did not know their son was so good at the game until a few months ago, when Jonathan joined his high school’s esports team and created an online profile through the recruiting platform Next College Student Athlete (NCSA). At age 16, their son is already considered elite by global standards. He has ranked among the top 50 Overwatch players globally under the gamertag “MyCrazyCat,” and recently finished the 2019 season ranked number one in the Americas and No. 18 in the world under a secondary account, “i99980xe”, which he uses to play as the hero Reaper. He has achieved the highest title of “Grandmaster” on both accounts.

In other words, Jonathan is an amateur competing among professionals in the top 0.0001% of all Overwatch players. Now, requests from college scouts, lower-division Overwatch League teams, and reporters come pouring into the Huffman home.

“When Jonathan said he was a really high ranking player we were like, ‘Oh, that’s great. You’re good with this game,’” Susan said. “But the coach at NCSA has opened our eyes. He’s like, ‘Your son is spectacular.’”

“He asked how it felt having a LeBron James or Steph Curry living under our roof all these years,” Chris said. “I had no idea!”

Jonathan joined his high school team in the fall and indicated his interest in pursuing Overwatch at the next level on a recruiting questionnaire. His ranking information caught the attention of Alan Gadbois, an esports recruiting coach at NCSA. Gadbois works with a range of players and typically filters by those ranked in the 50th percentile. While he said he works with some individuals in the top 1 per cent across all games, Jonathan was “on a plane of his own.”

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“Jonathan is definitely the most talented, highest-ranked player that I’ve worked with so far,” said Gadbois.

Not only is Jonathan’s game meticulous and mechanically sound, Gadbois said, but it is his creativity and ability to make unexpected moves that distinguishes him from other players at his position (DPS, players primarily tasked with dealing damage to opponents) and earned him notoriety on the Overwatch Reddit board.

“He hid behind this crate and there was a three-pixel crack between the crate and the shelving it was on,” Gadbois said, recalling one of Huffman’s highlights in which the player unleashed his character’s special attack ability through the tiny gap. “I never would have guessed in a million years that was something you could do.”

The young gamer said his style compares to Do-Hyeon “Pine” Kim and Jae-hyeok “Carpe” Lee, two Overwatch League DPS players whom Jonathan described as being aggressive and mechanically skilled. He said they both also perform “flashy and unique plays,” similar to the ones he has executed.

But as it does for many elite, young players, Jonathan’s talent presents as many challenges as it does opportunities, especially since the college and professional esports space is relatively new compared to traditional sports. Some of these challenges are small - like the fact that Huffman had to buy cameras for his keyboard to record his hands and prove he is not cheating.

Others are larger. For example, without a direct pipeline from college to the professional Overwatch League (OWL), Jonathan will have to choose between the two routes. He will turn 18 - the minimum age required for players to join the OWL - in April of his senior year. This means he could enter the League after graduation.

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“I really want to join the Overwatch League once I turn 18,” said Jonathan. “I want to play on the stage one day.”

Joining a college team is also a viable option for Jonathan, one his parents appear to favor.

“We’re still talking through that because education is super important to us,” said Chris. “So it’s something we’re still trying to figure out. The whole college esports thing is still new to us.”

Nearly 200 varsity esports programs have emerged in the United States, many of which offer full-tuition scholarships. The Harrisburg University Overwatch team already contacted Jonathan about playing for them, but they did not realize he was not yet 18. Jonathan said he is remaining in touch with the Harrisburg coaches until he graduates high school. He has also had discussions with other high caliber college esports programs, including UC Irvine, Boise State, UC Berkeley, Missouri and Robert Morris University in Chicago, the last of which his parents like because it’s close to home, according to Gadbois.

Perhaps the biggest problem with choosing the college route and then pursuing a pro career revolves around what are considered the prime years of an esports athlete’s career. With an emphasis on fast-twitch muscles and split-second decision-making, most regard a player’s peak ages as their late teens and early 20s, which overlaps with the years most students spend in college. Players that participated in the Overwatch League’s 2019 season varied in age from 18 to 28.

There’s also the fact that the so-called “path to pro” for Overwatch players does not typically include collegiate experience. Instead, it usually requires a player prove themselves by climbing the international ladder, as Jonathan has already done, then thriving in the Open Division and then Contenders levels before the best players graduate to the Overwatch League. By the time Huffman graduates college then grinds through the Overwatch League’s lesser levels, his prime may be behind him.

Even for talented players, the odds of earning a spot in the Overwatch League are small. There are between 160 and 240 players in the Overwatch League at any time, and teams also factor in other aspects beyond sheer skill, such as communication and team chemistry.

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Since collegiate esports falls outside of the NCAA and its amateurism rules, Huffman could attend college and still earn money from live-streaming or sponsorships. While live-streaming can be very lucrative for gamers with massive audiences like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins or Turner “Tfue” Tenney, barring a massive increase in Huffman’s current subscriber base on platforms like YouTube, the real money would be found on the pro circuit.

On the professional side, lucrative OWL contracts make that path high risk, high reward. The minimum salary in the Overwatch League is $50,000, but star players typically make a lot more, according to Ryan Morrison, whose law firm and talent agency represents several prominent esports pros.

Morrison said his OWL clients average $150,000 as a base salary before additional prize money, sponsorships, and YouTube and Twitch earnings from streaming their gameplay. As such, some players earn up to $400,000 a year. In the most extreme example, a pro player of League of Legends, a more widely played game with a more developed pro league, recently signed a $2.3 million contract.

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The world of agents and lawyers might soon become very real for Jonathan, who is already being recruited by college, Open Division and Contenders teams. So far, he said he has played with On The Flank and NMSL, two Open teams, and he has been asked to try out for the Contenders team Square One.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets DMs from teams asking him to come on,” said Gadbois. “And gets scouted by a big team as soon as he turns 18.”

That means some big decisions are ahead for the Huffman family. While Jonathan is unequivocal about taking his chances in the Overwatch League, his parents said they will seriously consider all options.

“Both paths kind of sound like a fairy tale, so unexpected and so promising,” said his mother, Susan. “I think it’s just going to be a matter of when he turns 18, looking at both of those paths and seeing which one his heart is more drawn to and which will give him a solid start.”