Everything began calmly enough on that Friday night in December.
Five North Carolina teens had gathered online from their homes in Raleigh for the big showdown. Ranging in age from 13 to 16, the boys powered up their gaming PCs and donned their headsets, eager to take on five members of an esports team from a nearby college – a clash of boys versus men in the world of competitive gaming.
Their virtual playing field was Valorant, a first-person shooter game set in the year 2050.
From the first minutes of the scrimmage, it was clear the Carolina boys excelled at Valorant tactics and cherished sportsmanship, byproducts of their time in XP League, North America’s largest youth esports organization. Wearing their Triangle Minotaur team jerseys, the teens’ first move was to type a respectful message into the game chat: “glhf,” or “good luck, have fun.”
The college team, meanwhile, used voice chat to trash-talk the teens, who ignored the barbs and dominated the action. Playing from their campus and falling behind, the college teammates started mocking one another. Moments later, the Triangle Minotaur took the opening game, causing one of the college players to smash his computer monitor and rage quit.
“It was a great, teachable moment for my kids,” says Jay Melamed, XP League’s co-founder and CEO. He also helps coach the Triangle Minotaur, one of hundreds of XP League teams across the U.S. and Canada. Spanning elementary, middle and high school students, teams compete in Fortnite, Overwatch 2 and other online video games.
The organization bills itself as “the Little League of esports.” But its true mission is to build character and reinforce positive behaviors – traits that can mold college candidates, future leaders and better people, Melamed says. That vision, he believes, also may repair the sometimes-toxic culture of competitive gaming.
“That night, the conversation I had with my team was: ‘This is why colleges are going to go crazy for you because you know how to communicate and work as a team,’” Melamed recalled.
Since its 2020 launch in Raleigh, XP League has awarded 50 franchises with dozens more coming soon, each coordinating its own cluster of local teams. The total initial investment for franchisees to own their own mobile XP League franchise ranges from $58,200 to $152,760. The monthly cost for players ranges from $120 to $150. Owners receive a steady flow of resources from league headquarters, including coach and player training, marketing plans, branded gear, scheduling assistance and game-day support.
To scale and sustain its franchise network, XP League relies on an array of Microsoft technologies, such as SharePoint, a web-based collaboration platform that the organization’s staff and franchise owners use to communicate and share files, Melamed says.
XP League also distributes training videos to franchises through Microsoft Stream, a video-sharing service. The Microsoft Power Automate platform, which simplifies recurring tasks, enables the organization to manage monthly reminder emails. Microsoft Forms helps the company create surveys that collect key data from the franchises.
And Microsoft Power BI, a data visualization tool, shows performance trends like sales, registrations and growth across the franchise network.
“We can look at that and get an immediate idea about where the (overall) business is at and where it’s going, and then be able to break it out by location,” Melamed says.
While that rapid expansion is healthy for the business, it also gives the players – about 1,000 strong across the league – a rich and diverse base of talent against which they can test their skills and, often, test themselves.
Alexis Lacell, 16, has been gaming since age 2. When she joined XP League in 2020, she was “very quiet,” says her mom, Rochelle Lacell. They live in a town just south of Raleigh.
“She and I are both introverts,” says Rochelle Lacell, who also volunteers as an XP League coach. “So it was exciting and hard at the same time because we knew we’d have to talk to people. The reason I wanted her to be in this was to learn to be able to talk to people.”
Two years later? Alexis now serves as an XP League shoutcaster, the esports equivalent of a play-by-play announcer. She narrates and analyzes live games on Twitch, the livestreaming service where players’ parents and friends can watch and listen remotely. Fair to say, she’s found her voice.
“That’s a work in progress,” Alexis says with a laugh. Occasionally, she literally does shout: “when things go very right – or very wrong.” Away from the mic, she plays on an Overwatch 2 team. Her gamer tag is Fizix. But through it all, she basks in XP League’s welcoming environment. Think: Ted Lasso comes to esports.
“It makes it a little easier, like when things don’t go correctly, everyone’s nice to each other and it’s not like a horrible thing,” Alexis says. “It’s more of a ‘Let’s do it better next time.’’’
Need proof? Listen to one snippet of chatter from a recent XP League scrimmage. At a Raleigh-area tech business – a venue where local players and their parents gather for matches – five boys collaborated to figure out the latest changes to the maps, story and weaponry of Fortnite.
In the darkened room, sitting shoulder to shoulder at a long table in front of XP League computer screens, the boys furiously clicked their controllers and unleashed a stream of wry remarks and animated commentary as they played the game’s updated version.
At one end of the table, Kayden Seeley (gamer tag: KaydenMonster) struggled to move his Fortnite character from one ledge across a deep chasm to another ledge where he could join the character operated by his friend, Brysyn Monck, (gamer tag: TreeKoko), who sat next to him.
“You can’t make that jump!” Brysyn warned.
“OK, wait. You have a fishing rod, right?” Kayden asked. “Can you get onto this (ledge) and use that to pull me over?”
“I can’t!” Brysyn fired back with a dash of panic.
“You’re on it. Pull me! Pull me!” Kayden pleaded.
“Alright,” Brysyn said, ’ll get you over there,” He then used his controller to fling the end of the fishing line across the virtual expanse to his friend’s character, ultimately yanking him to safety.
“Thank you, thank you,” Kayden responded, sounding truly relieved.
Nearby, Melamed watched the scene with a smile.
He’s a father of four, including three triplets aged 14. All his children have been gaming for years. They typically played with friends and used esports as a form of social media, especially during the first months of the pandemic. Sometimes, however, they played against people they didn’t know.
“It was a very weird environment and totally unsupervised,” Melamed says.
That reality sparked a conversation between Melamed and his wife Eva, who today serves as XP League’s chief brand officer.
“One of the things that we saw, was like, ‘They’re spending so much time doing this. There’s an opportunity to add structure to that screen time,’” Melamed recalls.
He was inspired to create an esports league modeled after traditional youth sports with team names, team jerseys and team coaches who talk sportsmanship along with game strategy, with practices, nine-week seasons, a North Americanl championship, even partnerships with professional esports organizations like DarkZero.
These days, Melamed can point to several metrics that, he says, highlight XP League’s swift success. There’s the burgeoning franchise base. There are the three former XP League players – all aged 16 or younger – who recently signed professional esports contracts and now compete at tournaments that award prize money.
More importantly, though, there are the letters and emails Melamed has received from players’ parents sharing how much their kids have blossomed within an atmosphere that preaches positivity.
“Sometimes, those emails bring me to tears,” Melamed says.
Of course, he only needs to look at how the league has benefitted his own kids, including 14-year-old Zev, one of the Triangle Minotaur players who beat the college team.
“In games, when somebody does something that would be considered bad manners or toxic, the kids will be like, ‘Oh, man, that’s not XP League values.’ They throw that out all the time. My son is like a crusader,” Melamed says.
“If somebody says something inappropriate, my son will just give them what-for, like, ‘You should mute yourself because that’s really offensive.’ That’s amazing. Those are the wins. I am so much more excited and prouder of those moments than I am about growing the business. As a dad, it’s awesome.”
Top photo: Kayden Seeley celebrates a big moment at an XP League gathering near Raleigh. To his left is William Sharp. (All photos by Steve Jamroz/Azul Photography.)