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Tampa’s first esports academy offers coaching, player development

Mark Parker

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The Esports Players Club, Tampa Bay's first esports academy and tournament venue, opens today. Photos provided.

With hundreds of major universities around the country offering esports scholarships, and thousands of professional gamers taking home prize pools in the millions, Tampa Bay’s first esports academy and tournament venue opens to the public this weekend.

The Esports Players Club (ESPC), founded by brothers and Tampa natives Alex and Josh Matzkin, made history Friday as the region’s first facility of its kind. More than a place to play games and host tournaments, ESPC also fosters skills needed for professional gaming.

In addition to theme nights, tournaments with cash prizes and professional coaching services, EPSC also provides classes on content creation, graphic design and video editing – valuable skills in both gaming and other careers. The idea for ESPC came to Alex Matzkin after he noticed the number of colleges adopting esports teams and clubs and realized there was an unfulfilled need for player development. He said over 200 colleges now formally participate in esports, equating to around $200 million in scholarships.

“So, to me, what that said was we’re starting to treat this like a traditional sport,” said Matzkin. “And if that’s the case, where’s the player development for kids that want to get into college?”

Matzkin, a former college football player, relayed that players make recruiting tapes showcasing their highlights in traditional high school sports. Coaches also reach out to their college counterparts on the player’s behalf. There is currently no recruiting process for esports.

Unlike traditional athletes, Matzkin said esports players peak between 16-18, meaning they have to start their professional journey at a younger age. He said that was the basis for the academy aspect of ESPC.

“Let’s fill that gap,” he said. “Let’s teach kids how to improve their gameplay, as well as teach them valuable life skills outside of gaming … things they can actually use regardless of what industry they end up in.”

Matzkin also hopes to create some separation between gaming and life at home. He said when many kids get home from school, they immediately lock themselves in their rooms and play video games throughout the night – much to their parent’s dismay.

ESPC provides an after-school and weekend facility to socialize, compete, learn new skills – and, perhaps most importantly, have fun.

“Then when they go home, game time is over,” he added. “It’s family, homework and chores time.”

The competitive aspect of ESPC serves the role of recruiting tapes, as no regional high school competitive esports leagues exist for amateurs to prove their capabilities. Players must join as many competitions as possible and hope a competitive team owner or sponsor notices their skills. ESPC hopes to streamline that process by hosting a cash tournament every Saturday, along with nightly competitions.

ESPC is open seven days a week, starting at noon.

In addition to providing a venue for players to showcase their skills, ESPC offers professional coaches to help hone their craft. Matzkin said when a university looks at a player that has received professional coaching while participating in weekly tournaments, it puts them in a better position to receive a scholarship over someone that plays from home in public lobbies.

Not only does the University of South Florida field esports teams, but the college also offers the USF Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program through the Muma College of Business. The program, which began in the spring of 2021, provides students with an education on the business side of esports.

“It’s not small technical schools that have these esports teams,” said Matzkin. “It’s USF, University of Miami, UCLA, Wisconsin, Ohio State – these are major schools and major programs that provide esports.”

ESPC, located at 1802 West Kennedy Blvd., is open seven days a week, starting at noon. From Sunday through Thursday, or school nights, it closes at 10 p.m., and on the weekends, it closes at midnight.

ESPC provides 40 gaming PCs in its two tournament spaces that double as classrooms. A large section of the facility features the latest Xbox and Playstation consoles, and there is also a streaming room for members to rent. The streaming room includes a “super high-end custom PC,” on par with what the biggest names in esports utilize.

Over 200 colleges now formally participate in esports, equating to around $200 million in scholarships.

Every Saturday, ESPC hosts a tournament featuring a different game. As part of the grand opening festivities, ESPC hosts an Apex Legends tournament Saturday, capped at 70 participants.  In honor of next week’s Super Bowl, gamers will compete in the iconic Madden NFL franchise. This weekend’s Apex tournament offers a $2,500 cash prize, and if a winner is a minor, ESPC will present their parents with the money or put it into a scholarship fund.

Matzkin’s ultimate goal is to create competitions between area colleges and grade schools and create the next generation of esports players and streamers.

“You can learn something here and have a great time,” he said. “We’re really just trying to be that community center and create a culture here that people want to be a part of.”

For more information on ESPC, visit its website here.

 

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