Ashe Zolomij wandered into Level13 a few days before the new year. By Thursday, he said, he’d been back several times, hooked on the “collective gaming” or “social gaming” environment.
“All these games, I do have them at home,” said Zolomij, 15. “But here, there’s this sense of community. I feel at home.”
That’s how Kevin Mash, 42, wants all gamers to feel when they walk into Level13, an esports center that opened last month on the unit block of South High Street in downtown West Chester. Inside, players do many of the same things they can do from the computers in their kitchens or bedrooms or basements. But at Level13, they can socialize, too, Mash said, turning a solitary activity into a group one.
More than 40 percent of American adults say they play video games sometimes or often, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center. Among teenagers, that number is much higher: 90 percent of people between the ages of 13 and 17 say they play video games on a computer, console, or cellphone, according to another Pew survey.
In an effort to cater to this group, a growing number of physical esports venues have opened nationwide. In the spring, the opening of an Oakland, Calif., esports arena — where folks can compete against each other or simply spectate others' games — drew 4,000 people on its first day, according to the New York Times. Last month, the $10-million Esports Stadium Arlington opened in Texas, becoming the largest such venue in North America, according to ESPN.
In the Philadelphia region, gamers have places to congregate. Among them: A shop called Coatl that offers social gaming on Saturdays and Sundays in Collegeville, and N3rd Street Gamers, which serves “semi-professional, amateur, and developing competitive gamers” in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.
Mash said he was inspired to open Level13 after reading Ready Player One, a science-fiction novel set in a virtual-reality game. Mash, who grew up in the area and already owned the computer repair store West Chester Computer Doctors, said he thought West Chester would be the perfect place for an esports space.
In the Chester County borough, “there were plenty of places to eat, places to drink, but not a lot to do,” he said.
So in December, Level13 opened its doors along picturesque, brick-sidewalk-lined High Street, two doors down from the popular bar-restaurant Barnaby’s of West Chester. Curious patrons trickled in — some interested to learn what the place was all about, others avid gamers psyched about having an esports facility in their neighborhood.
“It’s been kind of magical,” Mash said. “It’s higher energy and way higher excitement.”
Most of his early customers were young teenagers, he said, and he’s already hosted several birthday parties. When students at West Chester University return from winter break, Mash said, he expects the average age to increase a bit.
He spent much of December spreading the word, chatting up nearby bartenders, store owners, and restaurant managers in the hope they’d suggest Level13 to their patrons looking for something to do.
Mash talked to residents one-on-one, too, and felt pushback from some parents concerned that their children were already overloaded with technology or who worried about the violence in certain games.
“Screen time for kids is something every parent struggles with,” Mash said. “We’re not looking for Level13 to be the only time kids are getting screen time, but we can let it be a carrot for parents."
If children focus on school during the week with limited screen time, for example, parents can reward them with an hour or two at Level13, where they can play with friends or make new ones, Mash said.
While Mash works in technology, he said he tries to limit the amount of time his children spend on their devices. During the week, his four children — Rachel, 11; Carleigh, 9; Sylvia, 6; and Logan, 4 — only use electronics for schoolwork, he said.
“We tried to resist the screen-time situation that’s going on in the world,” Mash said, standing amid the 40 computers in Level13. Researchers, parents, and doctors have debated whether screen time has detrimental effects on developing brains.
But to Mash, video games can be a good outlet for children when done in moderation, especially in a social setting, he said.
For children who are skilled at gaming, and maybe not so much at traditional activities like sports, places like Level13 can serve as a place where they are embraced and understood, Mash said.