The campers' day starts outside, doing exercises, stretches, and team-building games.

Once they're loose and communicating, they head back inside to get into their assigned teams and scrimmage. The air is thick with concentration as counselors oversee the digital combat, punctuated by an occasional shout of excitement or frustration.

It may not focus on traditional sports, but N3rd Street Gamers' e-sports camp for kids ages 10 to 18 takes a holistic approach to teaching young gamers about the professional industry, said Robert Hilsky, cofounder and head of product and experience at the Philadelphia e-sports firm. He and cofounder and chief executive John Fazio designed the camp with the hockey and soccer camps they attended as kids in mind, Hilsky said.

"These kids come in here with a preconceived notion that they're going to be sitting on a computer all day," he said. "And when we start taking them outside to exercise and we start telling them how it's important to eat right and get your seven hours of sleep at night, in the beginning the kids kind of push back a little bit."

Robert Hilsky at N3rd Street Gamers in Philadelphia.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Robert Hilsky at N3rd Street Gamers in Philadelphia.

Hilsky said most resistance disappears once N3rd Street starts bringing in professionals in the e-sports industry to discuss what it takes to have a career in the field. The guest speakers cover "the full gamut" of jobs in the e-sports industry, he said, because the camp is intended to help kids "get a better foundation for their future in e-sports — not just become better athletes, but understand the industry."

N3rd Street has partnered with Julian Krinsky Camps and Programs to offer two sessions of the camp, which both run for two weeks, covering popular first-person shooting games such as Overwatch and Fortnite as well as character-based fighting games like Super Smash Bros.

Hilsky, whom the campers call "Papa E-sports," said 25 kids came to the first session, which ended July 20, while 18 are attending the current one. He said some campers are from Philadelphia, but others have traveled from as far as Seattle and Austin, Texas, to learn about gaming.

The cost of the current summer camp is $4,375 for nonlocal kids, Hilsky said, though the local price is "dramatically reduced." He said the camp is a new enterprise for N3rd Street Gamers, which has hosted boot camps for more mature, serious gamers over the past three years. Those offerings are more focused on in-game skills, Hilsky said, rather than the full approach to gaming that the summer camp teaches young e-sport athletes.

N3rd Street's Fazio said partnering with Julian Krinsky enables the firm to explore whether "interest was out there" for e-sports camps. Fazio said Julian Krinsky creates more "expensive camps aimed at affluent individuals," but N3rd Street is working on "programming day camps that are much more affordable" at under $500 a week.

The organization put a conscious effort into creating camp content to show "parents that this isn't just playing video games, this is an exploding industry with a lot of opportunities," Fazio said.

"E-sports actually have more career opportunities than traditional sports because all of the professions that exist in traditional sports now exist in e-sports," he added. "But e-sports is also built on technology and software," so the industry needs professionals such as coders, software engineers, and design engineers in addition to the other jobs found in traditional sports entertainment.

One camper, 15-year-old Aidan Vanroyen from Center City, said he has improved and would "personally love to" be an e-sports play-by-play broadcaster — or "caster" — if he doesn't become a professional player.

While the chances of going professional are slim, N3rd Street Gamers' partnership with Comcast Spectacor — which owns the Philadelphia Fusion team in the e-sports Overwatch League — allows it to make the possibility more likely for local gamers. In February, N3rd Street hosted a "Hometown Heroes" Overwatch tournament with the goal of signing a player to the franchise's development team, Fusion University.

The event attracted almost 100 Philadelphia-area Overwatch gamers, and 16-year-old David Long of Haverford ended up winning a one-year contract to compete exclusively for Fusion University, with his parents' consent.

Long said he wasn't expecting to get signed when he went into the event, but he was "really happy overall" with the opportunity to become a professional e-sports athlete. Five months in, Long said he is pushing himself to "get good enough to maintain a spot" on the team once his contract is up.

"I'd like to put all of my effort into the e-sports potential" while still focusing on school and computer science as a backup to being an athlete, he said. "E-sports are something I'm really passionate about right now."