Over the course of the pandemic, gaming trends have enjoyed a popularity boost, as people—in particular, children and teenagers—spent more time at home. According to multiple reports by Inside Intelligence, viewership of video-game-related content spiked in 2020, with viewership across Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook Gaming averaging over 650 million hours in 2021.

These reports highlight what Raleigh entrepreneur Jay Melamed, who founded XP League in September 2020, aims to tap into: a market slowly expanding in size and reach. Melamed, alongside his wife and business partner Eva Melamed, has sought to create an environment where the traditional elements of youth sports can work in an electronic sports-based arena.  According to the Inside Intelligence reports, digital gamers in the United States are expected to hit over 180 million in 2023, up from 178 million in 2021. Further research has found that 20 percent of gamers identified as under the age of 18—and those numbers continue to grow.

This correlates to a decline in traditional sports: a recent New York Times report found that participation in youth sports has been waning since before the pandemic, with the percentage of kids ages 6-12 who participated in youth sports dropping from 45 percent to 38 percent between 2008 and 2018.

With Raleigh as its backdrop, XP League seeks to stake a claim in an industry dominated by dollar signs. And Melamed, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, an ardent fan of esports, and a father of four, is off to a good start: The league now has over 20 locations nationwide.

“Raleigh is my hometown. While I wasn’t born here, I have lived in the area since 2002,” Melamed said over email. “It’s the perfect place for an esports organization like XP League.”

Since he launched XP League, Melamed noted in his email, North Carolina has passed legislation focused on attracting esports to the area, and institutions like NC State University and William Peace University have both announced major esports plans.

Melamed says that he prioritizes keeping family at the core of his esports experience—a mission that stems from his relationship with his own children.

“It’s hard to find kids who aren’t active in gaming,” he says. “I recently saw a statistic that over 80 percent of kids under 17 have played at least an hour of video games in the last week. My kids are no different. My wife, Eva (who is also the chief brand officer of XPL), and I have 13-year-old triplets and a bonus 10-year-old, all of whom are active gamers.”

A​ccording to the organization’s website, XP League is Positive Coaching Alliance’s (PCA’s) first youth-based esports partner, with a mission of connecting parents with kids that works much the same way that intramural youth sports have in the past. (In Hanover, PA, for example, one group of parents organized the Hanover XP League Parents Association to extend support and resources to regional children involved in esports.)

The PCA’s mission of providing participants with supportive and constructive criticism could nudge the current trend of gaming culture in a more positive direction with XP League now in its alliance.

“At XPL, we have decided to take this even one step further,” Melamed says. “We have partnered with a recognized esports coaching training and certification organization, Next Level Esports, to design a custom program that interweaves the skill-building and tools to coach younger esports players within the positive framework designed by the PCA. This will be an exclusive training and certification program offered to XP League coaches.”

While Melamed’s ambitions for XP League are many, the esports landscape in his own backyard is ripe for cultivation, with studios and developers like Epic Games, Ubisoft, and FUNCOM having laid the groundwork.

Ed Tomasi, a former senior executive at ESL Gaming and current co-chair of the Greater Raleigh Esports Local Organizing Committee, said competitive gaming took off with some seriousness 12 years ago when Major League Gaming (MLG) hosted an annual tour stop between 2010 and 2012.

Additionally, from 2019 to 2021, Raleigh played host to a number of esports events, including the Rainbow Six Major and the XP League National Finals, Tomasi adds.

“What Jay and Eva have created for youth esports is innovative and remarkable,” Tomasi says. “If you look at the competitive video-gaming landscape today, most of it is celebrated and focused from the top-down—meaning it’s all about the professional players who are franchised teams [reportedly] making/winning millions of dollars.”

Video games have long had the capacity to reach across different social and cultural barriers, and competitive gaming is no different. With the XP League, Melamed has the opportunity to be a trailblazer in youth esports.

“What we saw, following the pandemic, was a global phenomenon [and] not just in greater Raleigh,” Tomasi said. “The return to live, in-person esports events is, in my opinion, where Raleigh is going to reap benefits.”

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