The summer camp for gamers that found COVID's silver lining by staying home

As COVID-19 shuts down summer camps across the nation, The Game Gym finds a way to expand its community by playing from home.

When you think of summer camps you might think of log cabins and s'mores around an open fire under a starry sky. This summer, however, the great American tradition is in peril as programs are cancelled while the COVID-19 pandemic shutters campgrounds in states throughout the country. But one small community-based camp in the Maryland-DC-Virginia tri-state area has found opportunity in adversity to bring that traditional experience to even more communities nationwide – even though the camp itself is about as far from a traditional past-time as you can find.

"I’ve felt as though the experience of our camp that we’ve been able to provide has absolutely been this, I would say, untraditional yet traditional camp experience," says camp founder Josh Hafkin. "You’re not roasting marshmallows over a campfire, but we can all still do team building games, we can all still bond over common experiences, we can all still share in highlights if someone hits an epic shot."

Josh founded The Game Gym, a summer camp for aspiring esports stars and casual gamers alike, to combine his passions and fill a gap in the community. The physical headquarters for this camp, in Washington, D.C., served kids of all skill levels in the surrounding area, running week-long camps for games from Minecraft to League of Legends. But in the age of social distancing, that catchment area has widened as the camp goes online. Next week, they'll be running Minecraft, League of Legends and Fortnite camps from home, with an Esports Extravaganza planned for the last week of August, all available to anyone able to join Discord from 11am to 4pm ET weekdays.

"Y’know it was always my dream to do that, that was always the goal, to have it be bigger and I think there’s no reason why we can’t have Game Gyms all across the world," Josh says, about the camp's decision to go online this summer. "But doing this absolutely pushed us to do this sooner. We are still a very small company, we only have 10 to 15 employees and only a couple of them are doing office work. So, we don’t have the ability to do everything and do everything well, so we really focused on our live camp experience this summer and we would have increased our online opportunities in the future, but this absolutely pushed us to increase that timeline, and I do think that it is a silver lining to this for us."

The Game Gym's commitment to building communities for kids in gaming, no matter how local, comes from Josh's own experiences with developing his hobbies. He grew up playing sports and attending training camps, eventually competing at college in swimming. Then, after graduating, he entered the games industry in marketing which showed him the gaps in gaming's community roots, despite the competitive industry growing around it.

"It helped me see what people were doing and weren’t doing in the space and I saw this huge opportunity for community esports and adding structure to it," Josh says. "One of the things I’m a big proponent of is that a lot of people game without a coach, they don’t have any guidance, so we wanted to provide mentors and coaches to not only help you get better but also kind of help you navigate life as traditional sports coaches do."

The Game Gym's physical headquarters in Washington, D.C., currently closed due to COVID-19

©️The Game Gym

Josh thinks of himself – and that small team of 10 to 15 mentors, coaches and counsellors – as a 'conduit' to the community, the half-step between formal training and kids aimlessly bouncing around PUG servers and forums trying to find a place to fit in. There are countless examples of these organizations in traditional sports, so the absence in gaming and esports became that much more obvious to Josh as he looked around.

"One of the things that blew my mind when I started this is I couldn’t find a single place to learn how to play and get better at a game in my region," he recalls. "If you want to learn how to play basketball there’s courts, and community centres, if you want to learn how to swim there’s pools and lessons. But, there’s LAN centers but no place where I could actually go and talk to a coach and get instruction in this. So I just saw this huge opportunity for adding structure to it as well as giving people a place, kind of a new take on the old arcade."

Taking the structure from existing sports camps, Josh lays out a pretty familiar program to anyone who has ever attended the traditional summer getaway. "We have the morning session, which I call the skills session, that’s when we have meaningful conversations, we bring in guest speakers, we’ll exercise, stretch, do what I like to call eating your veggies before having your dessert," Josh quips. "And during that session we really focus on treating gaming as a holistic endeavor, we talk about everything from self confidence to mental health to careers in the esports industry. And then exercise we do everything from yoga to stretches, to actual physical workouts. Then in the afternoon we do our gaming session, that’s when we break up into different small groups and hop into discord voice chats and we’ll run different workouts based on skill levels."

Despite the level of organization, Josh says the aims of The Game Gym camps are less intense than most skill-focused summer training bootcamps. "One of the things about how we differentiate ourselves is that we are not the kind of program that’s like: 'Do you want to level up and be the best gamer?? Join our camp!!'” Josh says, imitating the booming voice of an extreme sports broadcaster, or an energy drink advert from the 90s. "We are much more, if you’ve seen Dodgeball, we’re much more like Average Joe’s gym. It’s like, hey come as you are and we’re gonna help you get better, help you improve regardless of wherever you’re starting from."

The camp isn't solely about improving in-game skills, much in the same way band camp isn't purely about turning kids into virtuoso composers. Having kids work together and interact with each other in settings outside of their academic environment helps further develop emotional intelligence and social skills. And adopting a holistic approach to gaming at The Game Gym as part and parcel of our lives means Josh and a rotating cast of speakers can address related issues that might not otherwise come up at school.

"We never try to say that we know everything, we bring in experts who talk about different things," Josh says. "There’s gaming specific physical therapists like the Gamer Doc, or our friend Cait McGee from a company called 1HP, they’ll come in and talk health. My brother’s a social worker so I’m really tapped into the mental health community, sometimes we’ll just have a conversation, it may not be led by a mental health professional, but it’s about opening up and having kids talk about, y’know, everybody’s been bullied at some point, how did you feel about it, how did you handle it?"

Other topics may stretch outside of gaming to social issues, Josh said he was considering leading discussions on the Black Lives Matter movement and what the gaming community can do to help provide a voice to marginalized members. Other topics open a dialogue between counsellors and kids to interrogate deeper questions, such as why they play games in the first place.

"Are you gaming because life is really hard and you need an escape? Are you gaming just because you want to do it with your friends?" Josh prompts. "Those are things that kids aren’t asking themselves but are really important to ask. The more that we pose those questions to the kids and get them thinking about it and articulating why they are gaming, it can help them articulate things better to their parents, articulate things better to themselves and hopefully make their gaming experience more positive."

The World Health Organization's recent classification of Gaming Disorder in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) has caused some alarm among parents. Josh sees The Game Gym as a way for both kids and parents to gain a resource to explain the benefits of gaming, but also ensure that the pattern of online behavior that led to that classification isn't being ignored.

"Our whole main thing is that we’re trying to think of gaming holistically, we want to provide people a meaningful experience, and we want to help you get better," Josh says. "The other thing is that even if our camps aren’t right for you, we still want to be a resource, so if you’re a parent and you want to know if this game is appropriate for my kid or not, reach out to us, we’ll help you navigate that."

Usually all these speaker sessions and discussions would happen in person, but they haven't stopped with the move to online camps from home. As with most of our social interactions over the past half year, everything is run through Zoom and Discord. This is fine for communication in game and during morning skills sessions which brief campers on the lessons of the day. But coaches still need to see the player to help them improve, and that's still a goal of The Game Gym.

"There’s a number of different ways that we can watch what the kids are watching, even though we’re not standing behind them," Josh says. "I wish it was simple and each game was the same and we could use the same avenues, but each game is different and they have to be difficult."

Through a combination of screen-sharing via Discord, joining servers as a spectator and simply checking the statistics in post-match breakdowns – such as Valorant's match history – the coaches can keep track of how their players are improving. For some games they'll run assessments to check kids' abilities and decide the best way to help them improve ("I'm not really doing assessments on your building skills in Minecraft") but for the most part the improvement they're looking for isn't quantifiable.

"A lot of kids are still very new to esports competition, so it’s a very new experience that we’re just trying to give them a taste of," Josh says. "So it’s not about, at the end of camp, me being able to say: ‘your accuracy has improved 25%’, that’s obviously something that we want but our main things, and the things we focus on, are making sure that you are growing as a human. Having a great time, being respectful, communicating effectively, taking your opportunity to be a leader, and if you’re doing those things I don’t really care how much your accuracy jumps, as long as you’re improving on those life skills."

This early introduction and familiarity with the experience of organized esports could be helpful in the formative years that lead to most rookies entering the field. The number of collegiate varsity programs in esports has ballooned to 125 programs nationwide since Robert Morris University in Illinois announced a scholarship-sponsored League of Legends team in 2014. So if anyone got a taste for glory at The Game Gym, there's a ready-made pipeline to where they'd find more of that experience in later years.

"We have a couple kids who are off in college playing now, one of our guys is the head analyst for League of Legends at Ohio State, which is pretty cool," Josh says. "And the coolest thing, I think also, is we’re building that same structure that traditional sports camps have where our campers are becoming our counsellors, and then our counsellors are becoming our coaches, and then our coaches are going off and getting better jobs in esports. And to me, creating that avenue, that pipeline, is exactly what our whole point is. So it’s been cool to see people go through that process."

Despite its untraditional activities, and current online venue, The Game Gym still operates on that classic American summer camp structure. And the jobs former campers go onto aren't limited just to players. Experience with the production side of esports opens up jobs in video, marketing, casting, creative roles, and data and analytics. Not letting a global pandemic get in the way of what could be a crucial spark in the journey of all these potential careers is one thing, but the shift to online has also served as a lightbulb moment for Josh, shining a light on even more kids who may have been missing out on his attempt to plug a gap in the community.

"I think that even when we do go back and can have live camps, we will also run an online program that gives us a broader reach," he says. "It allows us to connect to more communities and there are some kids that can’t go to camp. This summer, maybe you’re immunocompromised and maybe you’re a little bit nervous about going to camp, that's going to exist beyond this summer so we want to make sure we have both a live and digital presence in our camp programs as we go forward."

There were some worries that the summer camp experience couldn't translate through screens, but hearing kids on Fridays at the end of their sessions say that they were sad not to be jumping on Zoom on Saturday morning to hang out again has convinced Josh this was the right path.

"Those are things that, to me, it doesn’t matter if you’re live or online. If I see a kid pop off and do something epic, I’m stoked," Josh says. "I’m just as stoked as I would be if I was looking over the kid’s shoulder. I really don’t think that us being online diminishes our ability to create that meaningful experience. It’s just different, you have to play different games and do different things, facilitate conversation in different ways and that’s our challenge, y’know."

Editor-in-Chief

Chris is the captain of the good ship AllGamers, which would explain everything you're seeing here. Get in touch to talk about work or the $6 million Echo Slam by emailing chris.higgins@allgamers.com or finding him on Twitter. 

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