Lori Dipina, site director at The BASE in Roxbury, was one of those parents who used to yell at her children to stop playing video games.
But after helping The BASE team up with Helix eSports in August to launch an esports division, Dipina’s stance on gaming has changed. Over the past few months, she has watched her BASE student-athletes develop critical skills through gaming, an idea she never would have imagined.
“I see that kids are naturally forming teams and getting socialization, critical thinking, and strategizing skills,” Dipina said. “It’s very similar to what you see on a basketball court or a baseball field. They’re getting the same kind of skills. I never would have thought that, and it’s amazing to see.”
The BASE, a nonprofit program founded by Robert Lewis Jr. in 2013, supports inner-city youths ages 7-18 and their families through sports, education, and food security. The program offers training for baseball, softball, and basketball, while also providing educational and career opportunities.
The program’s aim is to help participants excel both on and off the field. With the addition of esports to the curriculum, BASE participants are developing skills and knowledge that could help them secure college scholarships and carve out career paths.
“Esports is taking off all over the globe, but for me, and why I got interested in it, is because of the skills our kids can learn,” Lewis said. “They’re learning coding, marketing, branding, website design, and all the other elements that come along with gaming.
“It’s important for our young kids to realize all the career opportunities that are connected.”
Murphy Vandervelde, the CEO and co-founder of Helix, is a board member for BASE HOOPZ, which helped him form a connection with Lewis and complete the merger.
Vandervelde believes esports and professional sports are more intertwined than ever, as evidenced by the emergence of NBA 2K, FIFA World Cup, and Madden tournaments. For the millennial and Gen-Z generations, gaming skills are critical to land jobs, according to Vandervelde.
“Esports is the great equalizer,” Vandervelde said. “It transcends race, gender, and political persuasion. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6 foot 5 and 220 pounds or 5 foot 4 and 11 years old. There’s a certain skill set, and it allows all these kids a chance to participate in a social yet competitive environment.”
When Helix and The BASE officially partnered in August, Dipina and a group of 30 BASE participants spent two weeks at the Helix headquarters at Patriot Place in Foxborough, learning about computer software, branding, coding, and audio engineering.
At the end of the two-week “boot camp,” the BASE student-athletes made presentations on what they learned about the gaming industry. Dipina witnessed children breaking out of their social shells and giving spirited speeches about their newfound passion. It was her “aha” moment.
“We had one 12-year-old boy who is very quiet and reserved, but he was able to get up on a platform in front of his peers and give a presentation on why he chose that brand,” Dipina said. “And then we had another young man who is from the Dominican Republic and only spoke Spanish, but he had his teammate up there translating for him.
“They were eye-opening experiences.”
As part of the partnership, The BASE opened a state-of-the-art esports room at its headquarters in Roxbury. The room is open six hours per day Monday through Saturday, and student-athletes are free to use the gaming consoles once they’ve completed a two-hour sport workout and 30 minutes of academic learning.
On Fridays and Saturdays, age-group gaming tournaments are held, with the winners advancing to a Helix-sponsored tournament.
Helix already has hired four former BASE student-athletes to work at the Roxbury center and teach kids, and Lewis hopes the addition of esports to The BASE will give kids another avenue for opportunity.
“There are careers and professionals that are being built off this,” Lewis said. “I look and say if others can leverage this for part of their own business growth, why can’t city kids in Boston and throughout the country have the same access if there’s an opportunity for careers, jobs, and revenue?”