Josh Hafkin knows what it means to be competitive. A top-ranked swimmer at Georgetown Prep and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he competed in the 2012 Olympic trials.
Exhausted after swim practices, he and his teammates would play “esports,” a form of competition using video games, often with multiple players on teams. Growing up in Potomac, Hafkin loved playing with a Game Boy and his older brother’s Game Gear. But unlike in swimming, there was no infrastructure to support kids who excelled at video games.
He wondered why not, and whether he could be the one to create it.
So in May, Hafkin, 30, left his job at video game publisher Bethesda Softworks to open The Game Gym, the region’s first esports training center.
The windowless room of The Game Gym at the Cabin John Shopping Center in Potomac is bright, with multicolor decorations on the walls and a music and art corner. There are couches and screens, and a private room with rows of computers. One set of couches is reserved for parents to use while the kids take lessons with one of the six staff members.
The gym’s membership rate of $150 per month includes time for free play and two group lessons a week. The Game Gym is designed for kids ages 10-18.
“I want parents to know what their kids are playing, and who they are playing with,” Hafkin says. “We had to take this out of the basements,” he says, where kids often play games by themselves.
At 6 p.m. on a Tuesday in July, Chris Cardno, 43, sits in the parents area as his 12-year-old son, Allan, gets a 90-minute lesson on the computer game League of Legends, the most popular game for The Game Gym coaching. Cardno, a television producer who lives in Potomac, remembers playing video games with his friends—including Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—while growing up in the U.K.
“These were all two-, three-, or four-player games,” he says. “You got together at someone’s house or an arcade to play.”
He and his wife came up with a rule for Allan: no first-person shooter games, such as Call of Duty. “We wanted him to have a character to associate with,” Cardno says.
And since Allan, a seventh-grader at Cabin John Middle School, has been coming to The Game Gym, he’s talked nonstop about the different characters and strategies of League of Legends.
“There is a depth to the game that has sucked him in,” Cardno says.
Maya Kushner, The Game Gym’s chief operating officer and an attorney in the District, says places like The Game Gym will encourage kids to see the positive side of the gaming culture, with its strategies, intricacies and community. Contrary to stereotypes about gaming being an isolating endeavor, Kushner says the community she’s found in gaming has led to close friendships. In addition to coaching League of Legends, Kushner coaches and participates in international Pokémon competitions. At her D.C. job, she stays quiet about her involvement in gaming.
“In the legal profession, people will think it’s childish, like ‘you should stop playing games,’ ” she says. “But I don’t think that’s the case. I think you should always have interesting hobbies.”
Super Smash Bros. from Nintendo is the other popular game for coaching at The Game Gym, and it happens to be Hafkin’s favorite. His gaming name is “ExtraBBQ,” which he was assigned when he purchased an Xbox.
Hafkin decided that Fortnite would not be permitted at The Game Gym. He says parents he’s spoken to are wary of the game, and he sees fewer career opportunities for kids associated with it. “League of Legends has nearly 3,000 employees,” he says, referring to the designers, engineers, artists and storytellers who work at Riot Games, which produces League of Legends. He wants kids coming to The Game Gym to see esports as something on which to build a career. Some colleges now offer scholarships for kids to play in a gaming league. The U.S. video-game industry revenue now tops $36 billion, according to the Entertainment Software Association. That figure is expected to increase.
Hafkin compares learning the intricacies of a video game with learning a new skill, such as playing the guitar, which he’s teaching himself now. “Anything done in balance can be good in your life,” he says.