When Seth Mason first started to learn about the fledgling esports scene, Johnstown was not a place that came to mind.
But it wasn’t long until the now-21-year-old saw a chance to make an impact in the region through video games, first by co-founding Altoona Gaming, which opened in The Galleria in 2018 after relocating from its original home in Blair County.
On Thursday, the next stage in establishing the Johnstown region as an egaming hub took shape when American Esports hosted its grand opening on the mall’s upper level, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring local dignitaries, American Esports executives and investors, and former Penn State and NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington.
“I thought it was only meant for the bigger cities,” Mason said. "Pittsburgh, Philly, Los Angeles … That’s where sports really took off, in the bigger cities. For my purposes, doing this was to bring it to the rural communities and grow it around here and make it bigger than the cities.”
While competition is at the heart of the esports boom, thanks to popular games such as “Fortnite” and “Overwatch,” Mason is viewing the near-5,000 gaming center – stuffed with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 gaming consoles, along with a number of gaming-specific PCs and even a virtual-reality station – as a place where gamers of all ages can add to their friends lists in person.
Or even put a face next to a gamer tag one had known for years.
“The most important part is socializing,” Mason said. “Esports have a stigma of not being a social activity, but with this center, we’re proving that it’s a very social place to meet new friends, (and to) create and build teams. We’ve had people from New Jersey and Philadelphia that played online together for six years; they came to one of my tournaments and met each other for the first time in person.
"It’s great to bring people together that have been playing online for years, to get that face-to-face interaction.”
'Swarm' of activity
It was that belief in camaraderie through gaming that helped launch an esports program at Ferndale Area High School, believed to be the first of its kind on the scholastic level in this region.
Karl Hofmann, the esports coach at Ferndale and and BCIT (business, computer and information technology) teacher at the school, saw the good in gaming and what it could mean for today’s students.
“It is a passion of mine and I know it’s an outlet for a lot of the kids,” Hofmann said during the center’s grand opening Thursday.
Despite some early delays, Hofmann was able to launch what eventually became the "Swarm" at Ferndale – with big results for the small school.
“I worked with our IT person, Toby Bialas, he’s actually my assistant coach as well,” Hofmann said. “We went to the school board with it. Gave them the idea. Told them about how the community is building and getting bigger. They were good with it. They supported us.”
'A lot of connections'
St. Francis University recently announced the launch of an esports program, with Mount Aloysius seeking to establish its own squad this year.
Membership options are available for gamers at $20 per year, with a discounted hourly rate of $5 included. Walk-in gamers without membership can play at the Galleria facility for $8 per hour. Birthday parties and even a summer camp based on “Fortnite” are also available.
So far, the response has been incredibly positive, Mason said.
“I’m getting a lot of connections, a lot of support from the local community,” Mason said. “(We’re) giving the kids something to do. Having tournaments, events and birthday parties. Partnering up with the local universities here and we’re also doing instruction for the high-school level. We’re excited to announce that.”
Those connections helped turn the center from a good idea to a grand opening, with backing from Johnstown Area Regional Industries and the Cambria Regional Chamber.
“We met with JARI, and asked ‘Hey, is there any type of grant money? Is there any guidance you can give us as a business starting out?’ ” co-owner Tom Mason, Seth’s father, said. “José (Otero from Startup Alleghenies), I’d say he’s the one who forefronted everything. He reached out to my son. From that point José put (Seth) in contact with the people that he knows now.”
Through the journey, the elder Mason had another powerful inspiration.
“The belief in my son,” Tom Mason said. “Believing that he can make something out of nothing and make it big. That’s the belief I have in him. That’s why I recommend to any parent, that if they have that belief in their (child), that anything is possible in life.
"Sometimes you’ve got to take the risks in life to be successful.”
Shawn Curtis is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @shawncurtis430.