LAKE STEVENS — Calling the shots and making the big plays has 16-year-old Jair Velazquez earning accolades on the virtual football field.
Last month, wielding an Xbox controller from the comfort of his bedroom, Velazquez, a junior at Lake Stevens High School, won the North American Scholastic Esports Federation’s spring 2021 national championship in “Madden NFL 21,” the most recent rendition of the long-running football video game.
Simply saying he won might be underselling Velazquez’s performance. He dominated.
“I just full-on clean sweeped everybody,” the teen said.
After a six-week regular season that started in early March, Velazquez entered the playoffs as the tournament’s top seed and made quick work of his opponents en route to the title game.
On April 23, it took just over an hour for Velazquez to sweep the best-of-5 finals and claim the championship.
Internet lag and a pesky younger brother provided more adversity than his opponents.
Despite his roots as a Lake Stevens Viking, Velazquez carved through the tournament playing as the Green Bay Packers. MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and star wide receiver Davante Adams, along with the team’s fast pace, made the style of play perfect, Velazquez said.
It wasn’t the Super Bowl, but tens of thousands of people watched Velazquez’s performance live, and a recording of the matchup has logged more than 340,000 views on the streaming service Twitch.
Officials from Washington’s high school esports association believe Velazquez is the state’s first esports national champion.
As the pandemic kept students apart, video games at Lake Stevens High School experienced a renaissance.
“People were already only interacting with each other online, digitally, and so it was just a really natural extension,” said Trevor Wood, an 11th-grade English teacher and advisor for the school’s video game club. “The district and the school were really interested in the video game club flourishing, because it was one of the only ways kids could interact with each other socially.”
A recent craze for the game “Among Us,” an online multiplayer contest, attracted Velazquez and many others to the club. Before COVID-19, Wood said, the video game club had fewer than 10 members. Now about 60 students have joined the group’s discussion channel.
This year, the club also dove into the competitive side of gaming, challenging high schoolers from Washington and across the country in a variety of esports.
The group has tackled events in “Mario Kart” and “League of Legends,” with minimal success, but Velazquez’s victory may help propel the club. Wood said the club’s “Super Smash Bros.” team is nearing the playoffs in the state contest and remains undefeated.
“I think there are more people like Jair at your average school than you would think,” Wood said. “People who are crazy good at a video game, they just haven’t had an outlet to have it be anything more than random matchmaking online.”
After moving to Lake Stevens in the fall of 2019, Velazquez didn’t have much time at school before doors were shuttered in the spring. Velazquez said he made friends in the video game club that he hasn’t yet met in person. Still, the students hype each other up during every competition.
Velazquez said he’s been playing the Madden franchise since athletes like Vince Young and Brett Favre graced the game’s cover in the late aughts. Well beyond half of his life.
He said his older brother — more than five years his senior — hasn’t beaten him on the digital gridiron since 2014.
“He’ll normally get mad, but it’s all good,” Velazquez said.
A football fanatic, Velazquez said he has aspirations of being a commentator or coach in the future. He acknowledges the video game isn’t quite as good as the real thing, but he believes it helps with his understanding of the sport.
In coming months, Velazquez hopes to match up with the Madden champion from the collegiate level, as well as the winner of the high school competition contested on the Playstation.
“I want to get better, I am not satisfied,” he said. “It could be a learning experience if I lose, but if I win that’s even better.”
In addition to a trophy and medal from his national championship victory, Velazquez also won a $1,000 grant for the high school. He wasn’t sure what the funds would go toward, but he’s hoping gamers at Lake Stevens will be the beneficiaries.
“I would like it to go to the video game club,” he said. “I am in this, I competed, I started here, I want the money to go here. We could get a system, or games, or more controllers, so other kids could play.”
Wood has similar aspirations for the club he oversees. Long-term, he imagines a gaming den at the school where access is open to all.
“I want people to be able to compete in esports who don’t have a console at home,” Wood said.
Velazquez’s victory may mean more than video game success. The teen said for much of his life he’d considered trade school as his next move after graduation. The recent win has him considering competing in esports at the collegiate level.
If not, Velazquez hopes he can hang his hat on helping expand competitive gaming opportunities for future generations of students.
“If I help (esports) become bigger for kids that are in elementary and come up to Lake Stevens High School, that would be cool,” Velazquez said. “It could be a big thing.”
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.