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Beyond the Super Bowl: An E-Sports Arena for Youth Scores a Touchdown in Atlanta

Alongside NFL Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Steve Young, LISC has invested in a cutting-edge arena where Atlanta youth can face off for competitive eSports. Part of the Johnson STEM Activity Center, the venue offers a level playing field for young people from underinvested communities, where they'll develop strategic thinking, teamwork, coding and video design skills that can help prepare them for 21st-century careers in the tech world.

This weekend, as Atlanta prepares to host the Super Bowl, two legendary NFL players and a civic-minded rocket scientist will be opening a new Atlanta venue where young people can learn to compete on sporting’s latest frontier.

This 3,500-square-foot “eSports Arena” will have a stage, a control room, a sound booth, four 75-inch TV monitors, and 20 specially equipped gaming computers.

That’s right, we’re talking about competitive video gaming.

Quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice, both three-time Super Bowl champions retired from the San Francisco 49ers, will celebrate the arena’s grand opening Saturday with its founder Lonnie Johnson, an engineer whose extraordinary resume includes helping design a robot to probe the icy rings of Saturn and inventing one of the best-selling toys of all time, the Super Soaker.

Johnson, Young, and Rice are leading donors to the gaming arena’s $300,000 build-out, an addition to the Johnson STEM Activity Center, a sprawling science and technology “gym” for school-aged techies-in-the-making. LISC's Sports & Recreation program is also backing the new eSports Arena.

In case you hadn’t noticed, competitive video gaming has become a lucrative spectator sport; though still no rival to professional football, it attracts live, ticket-holding audiences and garners an online viewership of hundreds of millions.

In Georgia, it’s also a varsity high school sport. Atlanta’s new technology-rich eSports Arena will open its doors just in time to begin prepping local kids to face off in the state’s first-ever eSports season, which opens February 25.

“It’s a free resource for students,” says Brian Prokes, executive director of the Johnson STEM Activity Center. “A public school can’t drop $15,000 on computers geared specifically for gaming. We’re making sure it’s not just endowed private schools, but that everybody who wants to compete gets the chance to do so.” The STEM center will even bus students, free of charge, to and from the facility.

Participating in immersive, multi-player eSports develops strategic thinking, teamwork, and perseverance.

Participating in immersive, multi-player eSports develops strategic thinking, teamwork, and perseverance, just like traditional sports. But instead of physical prowess, eSports builds technical chops. Young people at the eSports Arena will have the chance not just to play the games but also to stage and broadcast contests as well as develop their own games, which involves storytelling, art and design, and coding.

The new gaming venue is a way to reach youth “where they are,” says Young, who has partnered with Rice on other youth projects through his Forever Young Foundation. “We want to stimulate their minds and creativity by utilizing platforms that they are already passionate about.”

For LISC, the initiative dovetails with our commitment to investing in sports and recreation for young people in underserved communities, like our work building and refurbishing football fields in cities that are home to a professional team. Over the course of a 20-year partnership with the NFL Foundation Grassroots program, LISC has established fields in more than 330 communities.

There are ten such fields in Atlanta, sponsored by the Falcons. New England, home turf of the Patriots, boasts 11 revitalized fields. And the Patriots’ rival in this year’s Super Bowl, the Los Angeles Rams, now hail from a city dotted with four state-of-the-art football facilities where young Angelenos can come together to raise their game and have a good time.

“In the new eSports Arena, the sport is definitely different, but the principle is the same,” says Beverly Smith, LISC senior program director for Sports & Recreation. “Participating in sports is beneficial in so many ways for kids, for families, for communities. There are so many ways to engage in sports and recreation, and we’re so appreciative of how the Johnson STEM Center provides more ways for young people to get involved.”

That level playing field, she adds, is fundamental to the thrill of the game, whether it takes place in a 75,000-seat stadium or an arena lit by the glow of computer monitors. So grab some popcorn, sports fans, because in Atlanta, the game’s on.