Playing the long game: Lost Tribe connects Jewish youth through esports

Pandemic reinforces organization’s purpose.

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
June 4, 2020

By Adam Reinherz

When Lost Tribe Esports was launched in 2016, some people questioned the organization’s founder, Lenny Silberman, on the likelihood of teens congregating online, for prolonged periods, with limited in-person activity. Two-and-a-half months into a pandemic, during which time schooling transitioned to a virtual setting, live sports disappeared and digital engagement largely supplanted face-to-face meetings, the idea to bring home-bound Jewish teens together by the click of a button almost seems prescient, explained Silberman, a former Pittsburgh resident.

Lost Tribe’s plan to coalesce Jewish youth was in place well before people began sheltering indoors, and while the pandemic is this “big black cloud over the world,” Silberman said, “there is a silver lining, and that lining is gaming.”

From the start, Lost Tribe has been a hub for socialization, fun and competition. But as life grew discordant throughout March and April, a surge of new members joined the digital community.

Since March 15, 2020, the organization has welcomed 2,966 new gamers and social media followers.

“That’s a 517 percent growth since the COVID-19 shutdown began,” noted Brian Soileau, Lost Tribe’s director of Community & Project Management.

Those rising figures mirror a larger trend.

Nintendo Switch “more than doubled its sales of a year ago while selling a record number of hardware units in the U.S. for a March month,” reported the NPD group, a market research company.

U.S. video game usage during peak hours increased 75% during the first week that the quarantine went into effect, noted Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, during a conversation with Bloomberg Markets.

“As the quarantines are lifted,” a correction will occur, Jason Lake, founder and CEO of Complexity, a gaming organization, told the Washington Post, but even with the eventual decrease, “esports has been forever popularized in a meaningful way.”

Lost Tribe sees its place within the digital stratosphere of players, consoles and software as the “global home base for Generation Z Jewish gamers.” As such, the nonprofit hosts regular online tournaments, monitors communication, ensures a safe space and partners with multiple Jewish organizations, so that users develop bonds within the greater Jewish community, noted Silberman.

“We see ourselves as facilitators,” he said. “We see ourselves as creators. We see ourselves as inventors. We see ourselves selling popcorn at intermission. We see ourselves doing whatever it takes to have impact.”

Making an impact, though, will require more than a single season on Madden NFL20 or a visit to the arena in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

For that reason, Lost Tribe is committed to “the long game,” explained Silberman. Given the current situation with COVID-19, kids are “gaming a lot right now. We know that. We want to try and make it so that there’s a positive experience and that they might learn something, they might do something, they might make new friends and be involved with other organizations. So when I say, ‘the long game,’ it’s not a three month, six month, a year potential, it’s really looking at three years down the road and staying the course.”

Nearly 35 years in Jewish communal life has given Silberman a bird’s-eye view of teen engagement and the struggles organizations face when vying for young people’s attention. Prior to founding Lost Tribes, he was CEO of Henry Kaufmann Camps, a vice president at JCC Association of North America, director of Emma Kaufmann Camp and director of sports and recreation at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been doing this since my first days at the Pittsburgh JCC. You got to go where the teens are at. When the teens were in front of Mineo’s, I went in front of Mineo’s. When the teens were hanging out at the ball field — if it was Allderdice, or Minadeo or Wightman — I went wherever they were to be able to bring them into activities at the JCC,” said Silberman. “We didn’t invent esports. We didn’t create virtual gaming that kids are playing. This is the way Generation Z socializes.” Lost Tribe simply meets kids “where they are.”

In recent months, an increasing number of organizations has recognized the value in this approach and joined with Lost Tribe in promoting Jewish youth engagement. Apart from early partners BBYO and the JCC Maccabi Games, synagogues from both coasts and Jewish youth groups, such as NCSY and USY, have reached out to work with Lost Tribe, explained
Silberman.

While partnership and user growth are cause for celebration, Silberman has an even greater goal.

“All roads lead to Israel,” he said. “Could you imagine having all these different culminating experiences in Israel where kids will be able to not only play together, but have a traditional Israeli Jewish experience of touring, education and meeting new friends?”

As it currently stands, many of Lost Tribe’s users “would never think about going to Israel. It’s just not who they are, it’s not their DNA,” Silberman said. That calculation changes, however, with partnerships and opportunities. If a gamer can go to Israel, enjoy some competition, meet others in the startup and gaming space, “and by the way, experience a little Jewish education, how cool is that?”

Playing the long game will require additional effort, noted Silberman, but when Lost Tribe gets there it will be next level. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

Teen Engagement and the Pandemic: Crisis and Opportunity – by Seth Merrin & Lenny Silberman

This article was originally published in eJewishPhilanthropy on May 27, 2020.

 

If we were struggling to connect the next generation to Jewish communal life before the pandemic, the effect of a prolonged dislocation from institutions that build Jewish identity may be devastating. Months without in-person convenings are now stretching, for many teens, into a year without summer camp, and without a JCC Maccabi Games. Israel travel experiences are in most cases suspended. The economic fallout of the shutdown threatens enrollment in Jewish day schools and could impact camp participation next year and beyond.

Consider the impact on Jewish communities ten or twenty years from now if significant numbers of teens disengage today. A generation is at risk.

We started Lost Tribe Esports three years ago to help reverse the trend of diminishing teen participation in organized Jewish life. Our audacious goal: leverage the esports phenomenon to reach the estimated 80% of Jewish teens who are disconnected—and lead them toward meaningful Jewish journeys.

Today our focus is on the engaged 20%—keeping them involved, while simultaneously building structures that will attract the 80% to Jewish organizations when doors open again. Since mid-March we have provided a robust, online teen engagement platform to BBYO, JCCs, Maccabi athletes, and Jewish camps—at no charge. NCSY and USY will come on board later this month.

As Jewish teens around the world flock to the platform, we are witnessing how Generation Z builds community through gaming and its communications channels. Several takeaways suggest ways the Jewish community can emerge from the pandemic better positioned to engage teens than we have been in decades.

 

Gaming is the New Social Media

Connecting with peers when the shutdown began required little effort from teen gamers—who have been mavens of virtual interaction since they got their first XBox or PlayStation. In many ways, the remote connection tools of esports are more sophisticated than Zoom or Google Hangouts—and they are engineered specifically to build community.

Ten to fifteen years ago, Jewish communal organizations embraced Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to connect with Millennials; as we pivot to Generation Z, it’s time to add Discord, Twitch, and Mixer to the toolkit.

On a similar note, literacy in gaming and fluency in the communications channels used by gamers will become essential skills for any Jewish communal staff expected engage Generation Z—for decades to come.

A cultural, social, and media phenomenon, gaming will be a through-line of the Generation Z experience much as rock ‘n’ roll was for the Boomers. Speaking the language of gaming creates an opening with Gen Z and a level of trust—and confers a tremendous advantage to any organization seeking to engage them.

 

Virtual Spaces: The Next Jewish Frontier 

Since video games first met the Internet, gamers have interacted in shared worlds online. Can any of these worlds become virtual Jewish spaces?

With many resident and day camps forced to close for the summer, Lost Tribe Esports is using Minecraft to recreate Jewish environments online. This video demonstration shows how it works.

We will provide Jewish camps with virtual spaces in which they can host thousands of campers for interactive, Jewish communal experiences during the shutdown—and beyond.

“This can be a true game-changer,” says Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp, “allowing camps to adapt their engagement models and connect with their communities beyond the summer—both year-round and lifelong.”

 

Focus on Reaching a Diversity of Teens

Nearly all teens play video games—just not the same one. Most titles enjoy a low single-digit share of the teen market at best. Building a large tent for Jewish teens through esports is a process of experimenting to find the right mix of games.

The upside? Offering new games can attract a whole new set of teens.

In January, we hosted an in-person esports event for Jewish teens in Atlanta—produced in partnership with JumpSpark. We were delighted by the participation of dozens of Jewish teens not considered the “usual faces” by the communal professionals in attendance.

One mother expressed gratitude as she dropped her son off. “He’s shy about any group activity,” she confided. “I’ve tried to get him to participate in anything, with no luck—but he insisted on coming to this.”

Our mix of games had drawn teens not inclined towards Maccabi, to recreation at the JCC, or to the outgoing atmosphere of youth groups. But they are willing to participate in Jewish activities if given the right opening, and if they can connect with their Jewish tribe. Understanding different games—and the personalities of teens who love them—offers a key to reaching new swaths of disengaged Jewish youth.

 

‘Jewish’ Is the Edge

Video games alone are not a magic solution. Gaming consoles—in a JCC’s teen lounge, for example—will be popular, but will not, on their own, drive a sustained increase in participation or encourage teens to bring friends into the fold; teens already game whenever, wherever, and with whomever they want. Esports and tournaments will get teens’ attention—but we need a differentiator to keep them coming back.

The edge that will set us apart from all other experiences in teens’ gaming world? It’s all about Jewish context…

  • It’s the network of Jewish peers that teens connect with.
  • It’s gaming under rules informed by Jewish values—where a higher level of ethical behavior, greater sportsmanship, and deeper consideration of others are expected.
  • It’s competing in an environment that cares about each individual and celebrates them not just for winning, but for competing with class.
  • It’s a tournament schedule attuned to the Jewish calendar.
  • It’s an esports community expressive of connection to—and passion for—Israel.
  • It’s Tzedakah opportunities built-in to each tournament, so teens compete not just for bragging rights or prizes, but to give back, supporting charities they nominate and vote on.
  • It’s a platform that give teens access to Jewish esports figures and leaders who will share not only how they achieved their success, but also what Judaism means to them.

We’re going to hear a lot about how the COVID-19 pandemic is driving a revolution in remote connection. When we do, let’s remember that our teen gamers are way ahead of us: not only connected, but building community. It’s time to listen to them, learn from them—and catch up to them.

Our future depends upon it.

 

Seth Merrin is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author.

Lenny Silberman is founder and CEO of Lost Tribe Esports. He was formerly CEO of Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in New York City, continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games, and director of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh’s Emma Kaufmann Camp.

MAZAL TOV TO THREE-TOURNAMENT WINNER, TOBY FROM MAX FISHER AZA, MICHIGAN REGION!

Congratulations to Toby Buckfire of Michigan, who is now the champ of THREE of our Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments. Toby, who won the BBYO On Demand/Lost Tribe Esports event on March 22, repeated as champ on April 19—then went on to take the title in our Smash tournament for JCCs, Maccabi, and Camps two days later, on April 21. Kol HaKavod!

Toby is a member of Max Fisher AZA of BBYO’s Michigan Region.

Ryan from Cherry Hill, NJ takes the first Lost Tribe Esports JCC/Maccabi/Camp title!

Mazal tov to Ryan Bloom of Cherry Hill, NJ, the winner of Lost Tribe Esports first tournament in our new JCC/Maccabi/Camp series! Ryan, winner of one of our Continental Kick-Off tournaments in December, flashed his NBA 2K skills again on April 13, 2020, topping four dozen rivals in one of our largest fields to date. That’s two… Is it too early to talk threepeat? 🏀