Aiden Petro, left, receives a prize of a $1,000 Amazon gift card from Jack Ngan for winning a Call of Duty tournament in March at the Maricopa Esports Arena in Copper Sky.

MARICOPA — When the city started its Esports programming at Copper Sky, many might have shrugged it off as a way for some kids to have fun after school without playing more traditional athletics.

But now, it seems pretty clear that not only is the Maricopa Esports Arena here to stay, but that it has the potential to grow beyond what the uninitiated might have imagined. In fact, there is already real money flowing through those games.

Take Aiden Petro, an eighth grader at Heritage Academy-Maricopa who has been competing in the city’s Esports leagues since they began in 2020. Throughout that time, he’s played APEX Legends, Rocket League, Overwatch, Smash Bros. and more, getting to know his opponents and fostering a community.

“I think a lot of parents think it’s a waste of time, but it gets kids social in a safe space, and they have some fun,” said his mother, Brandi. “What more can a parent ask for?”

In those early days, Petro would win a small gift card here or a prize there. But the level of competition at the arena was formidable. There have even been competitive college teams from the likes of Grand Canyon University that travel to Maricopa to compete.

“The atmosphere is very tense,” Aiden said. You can try to buddy things up to make things more comfortable, but you usually go in there expecting to lose. I usually try to get somewhere between third and fifth.”

That was easier in the beginning, when there were only a handful of competitors at the competition. But this was one of those rare things that actually got stronger during the pandemic, as everyone competed by using a Discord channel online. The numbers kept growing and growing.

In a March 13 competition, there were as many as 150 people going at it in Call of Duty. What used to be a few benches in front of TVs is now a sophisticated playing area where everybody gets their own space.

During that event, Petro played as well as he ever has, and was rewarded handsomely for it. He left the arena with a $1,000 Amazon gift card. Something like that gives a kid a different perspective on what’s possible while having fun.

“Esports might be really frowned upon in terms of employment, but honestly people make so much money,” he said. “Plus you’re playing games you enjoy. So this would be my ideal career choice.”

As for his mom, Brandi said she’s been supportive of Petro’s involvement in Esports from the beginning, and is just glad he’s found a place where he belongs.

“He plays sports and he has great grades, but he loves video games too,” she said. “So I think it’s great that he has a place to do it.”

Those wanting to get involved in these competitions should keep up with the Maricopa Esports Lounge Facebook page.