For most video game players, spending an hour or two in front of a television screen is a bit of a distraction from school or work.
But for Forty Fort native David Roebuck, that time holding a controller IS work.
Roebuck, 21, is one of six finalists competing in the NHL Gaming World Championship, being held in the new Esports Arena inside the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on June 19. The total prize pot for the event is $100,000.00, with the winner taking home $50,000.00 himself.
“It’s just amazing, the fact that you can make money over a video game,” said Roebuck, whose gamer tag is JrPens91 (he grew up playing for the Jr. Pens program in Wilkes-Barre).
Roebuck played his first video games when he was about three years old, popping a cartridge into a Nintendo 64.
“There were a couple of NHL games on there I would play a lot. And then from there I was hooked on video games,” he stated.
A lot has changed in the world of video games since Roebuck sat down with that first console. Graphics have evolved thanks to systems from Sony (Playstation) and Microsoft (XBox), and the advent of online gaming has allowed players across the world to compete against one another.
And that’s just how Roebuck made the move from casual player to competitive gamer.
The EA Sports NHL franchise allows players to face off in one-on-one battles, or compete with friends as a team against other groups. It also keeps a tally of the best players competing in online action.
“I would play NHL a lot against my buddies for fun. I just loved the game,” he explained. “And then NHL 13, I was playing the leaderboard a bit. And I beat a guy 4-3, and I thought he was pretty good. I went to look up after the game where he was, and he was actually ranked number one.”
That spurred Roebuck’s interest even further, and he began honing his craft, even working HIS way up to the number one ranking in NHL 14. From there, he started competing in tournaments via World Gaming, an organization that not only allows you to compete for money, but also holds qualifiers for larger tournaments.
The road to the finals of the NHL Gaming World Championship was a long and challenging one. More than 1,000 competitors took part in an online, single elimination tournament, which whittled the field down to just eight American players (similar competitions were held for gamers in Canada and Europe).
Those eight gamers (Roebuck included) then met up for a face-to-face competition at the NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Connecticut on May 20 It was the first time most of the virtual opponents had met in real life.
“For the most part, all of the top guys, we know each other, [from playing online],” he said. “But what was neat about it, some of these guys that I’ve talked to for years or seen their streams, when I went to Connecticut to play, we all met for the first time. And it was more like a reunion than anything. We felt more like teammates than opponents, it was a really neat experience.”
The event itself was first class as well according to Roebuck. The NHL provided limousines to get the players to the station, hosted a media day and photo shoot, and gave them five star accommodations (“We were like celebrities”).
But the tournament itself was all business. The winner of the qualifier would take home $5,000.00, and only the top two finishers would earn spots in the championship competition. One loss would put a player into a lower bracket. A second loss would send him home instead of to Vegas.
“My first game, I was by far the most nervous for that.” Roebuck said. “But I was lucky enough to pull that one out, it was a real close game. But after that I was in the swing of things and kind of just was able to tune everything out.”
He won his first two contests before falling in the upper bracket final. But Roebuck was able to rebound and win the lower bracket finale, setting up a rematch with John Casagranda (aka JohnWaynee90) for the overall championship. And although he eventually fell by a 5-2 score, Roebuck had secured his spot on the game’s big stage.
The new Esports arena in Vegas boasts 50-foot LED screens and seating for hundreds of fans to follow the action live. It’s an experience Roebuck is looking forward to.
“Connecticut was my first land event, and they kind of kept it closed off since it was in a [television] studio,” he said. But when it aired on Twitch (a streaming platform which allows you to broadcast video game play), there was over 22,000 people, which was crazy to see. I think it will be a different experience though having that crowd in Vegas.”