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 have 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
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 email@example.com.