(JTA) — One day last year, when she was on a break from playing basketball at a Jewish community center, Sara Levenson came upon a room full of people playing video games.
She joined in on a lark and soon found herself drawn into a game called Rocket League, a video game, or “esport,” where cars play soccer against each other, occasionally colliding. Like most members of Gen Z, Sara, 14, has been playing esports for years, first on her older brother’s Xbox console, then on her own. She also plays the popular shooting game Fortnite on her computer.
A few months ago, with most in-person basketball (and other sports) on hold due to the pandemic, Sara started playing in a Jewish video game league called Lost Tribe Esports, and recently found herself going deep in a Rocket League tournament on a team with a friend she’s met only virtually — in fact, through playing Rocket League against him.
“It’s really interesting how far esports have come, and how some people see it as kind of equal to physical sports now, and just the level of competitiveness,” she said, counting herself among those who see esports and traditional sports as equivalent.
Sara is one of the thousands of Jewish teens who have played esports with Lost Tribe, which has garnered a lot of interest since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Jewish camps, teen trips and youth group programs were cancelled this year and more people have stayed inside. Some 4,000 kids have played in its tournaments since the start of the pandemic.
The league was founded in 2018 by Lenny Silberman, a former Jewish camp director and the former director in North America for the JCC Maccabi Games, an international Jewish athletic tournament. Just as Jewish organizations have long used sports to connect Jewish kids, Silberman says Lost Tribe hopes to do the same thing with video gaming, which is now usually known as just “gaming.”
“You have to go where the kids are at,” Silberman said. “There’s nothing Jewish about esports just like there’s nothing Jewish about basketball or tennis or baseball before the JCC Maccabi Games.”
Sara’s experience appears to be a case in point: She said she’s drawn to Lost Tribe for the gaming and the ability to meet friends — not necessarily due to anything explicitly Jewish. But she added that, as a girl in a space thought to be dominated by men, she appreciates the league’s focus on safety in online spaces, something Silberman said is informed by its Jewish values.
“There’s definitely a lot of girls in esports, but I think a lot of them are too scared to show up because there’s a toxic community that’s been formed — that esports is just for guys and meant for them,” Sara said. “So I think Lost Tribe is really just a safe space to get more girls to do it.”
Lost Tribe’s tournaments are restricted to kids who…
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