JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – LaVar Arrington, the man with a video-game-worthy play named for him, helped launch an esports center Thursday in his home region of western Pennsylvania.
Then a Penn State linebacker, Arrington made a fourth-down stop of Illinois fullback Elmer Hickman during an Oct. 31, 1998, contest that saw him jump over the Fighting Illini line and crunch the ball carrier for a loss on a fourth-and-1 carry.
The iconic play became known as "The LaVar Leap."
To make it to Thursday’s grand opening of American Esports at The Galleria in Johnstown took more than a leap. Arrington’s itinerary found him traveling from Los Angeles to Detroit to Pittsburgh by air with a two-hour drive to Richland Township from Pittsburgh International Airport.
Once the two-time All-American and three-time Pro Bowler arrived, it wasn’t about him, but his belief in the booming esports industry and how it can help the 41-year-old Pittsburgh native and the current head football coach at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, California, connect with the next generation.
“Esports means the future to me, because I deal with young adults,” Arrington said. “I deal with teenagers and youth. They say ‘fish where the fish are’ – and this is where the youth are. I stay current, and up-to-date and educated on things that are going on, so that I can be as effective in my mentorship and my journey in terms of trying to help raise as many strong and productive young people as I possibly can. Egaming, the sports industry, is a tremendous vehicle for me to be able to do what my life’s work is.”
Was that iconic play inspired by something he saw in a video game?
“I would probably say that anything that happens in e-gaming that shows something like that, I inspired it versus being inspired to do it,” Arrington said with a smile. “I’d have to say I’m more of a pioneer of that move being put on video games than seeing it.
"When I was egaming, it wasn’t as advanced. You weren’t going to build a graphic to do what it is that I did when I was young enough to egame and when I was doing leaps.”
'He loves the industry'
Seth Mason – the gaming center director at American Esports’ Johnstown location – can verify Arrington’s enthusiasm for the industry.
“He loves video games and esports.” Mason said. “He loves the industry and where it’s going and what it’s really doing for the kids as well. LaVar is definitely interested in video games and esports in general.”
Arrington was not hesitant to lend his name and services to the new gaming facility, which has the support of a number of executives and investors, led by founder and CEO Dani Canubas.
“We’ve been building a working relationship for a little bit of time now,” Arrington said. “Just to see the discussion points come to fruition, being here today, it’s really a pretty awesome opportunity. I’m from here … I’m not from Johnstown, but I’m from western Pennsylvania, so to have the opportunity to come here and share in this triumphant moment is pretty cool.”
Tom Mason, Seth’s father, and co-owner of the gaming center, said he was excited to see Arrington in town for the grand opening.
“When you get a high-profile name making a journey from California all the way to here, to speak and to interact with the people like that,” Tom Mason said, “that’s a huge belief that American Esports can be successful.”
'Circle on No. 11'
Arrington played three seasons at Penn State before being taken No. 2 overall by the Washington Redskins in the 2000 NFL draft.
He has a long history with gaming, including the rush of having his likeness appear in games that he was playing.
“It was pretty cool,” Arrington recalled. “Being in college was the coolest, because we were rated the highest. Our defense was pretty good. Our offense was pretty good. Our team was ranked No. 1 my last year in school. It was pretty awesome being able to play the game and use yourself.
"At one point, I was maybe one of the best-rated players on the game, so of course I always kept the circle on No. 11. That’s pretty cool.”
Arrington was quick to point out that he still has a little left in the tank if challenged on the sticks.
“I’m more of a spectator,” Arrington said. “But here’s the thing, if I did the virtual reality, I’d probably get whooped on that. But if we go on to the other stuff like football or basketball, I’d probably give you a good little run.”