A Dearborn Wolverine's esports team levels up

November 16, 2022

College of Business senior Stephen Juncaj, an entrepreneur and longtime gamer, created a professional esports team — 26 Rising — that’s nationally ranked with local talent who are among the best in the world.

Photo of 26 Rising esports player Angel "Onin" Mireles. He's on an esports team that's owned by COB student Stephen Juncaj
26 Rising esports player Angel "Onin" Mireles is one of the nation's top-ranking Smash Bros. players in the nation, particularly when playing the Steve character. He's on an esports team that's owned by COB student Stephen Juncaj. 📷 = @TridentSkrt

Video gaming: What was once considered an activity for mom’s basement is now a billion-dollar opportunity. Yes, billions.

Esports teams publicly list and sell shares on the stock markets. Online bookmakers are increasingly offering esports bets, especially with blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies offering a secure and transparent integration of digital assets, gaming, and betting. And then there’s the prize money. With millions of dollars up for grabs, the world's very tip-top players can easily earn seven figures in a year. 

All while playing the games they like most, like Call of Duty, Rocket League, Fortnite or Super Smash Bros.

COB students Stephen Juncaj talks to parents about the benefits of esports.
COB students Stephen Juncaj talks to parents about the benefits of esports.

College of Business senior Stephen Juncaj, a longtime gamer and entrepreneur, has taken note. His Michigan-based professional esports team, 26 Rising, is a nationally ranked team that boasts some of the best players in the world. Noticing the growth trend in esports, Juncaj decided that he wanted to create a locally focused pro team in 2021.

Juncaj’s team has been recently featured in multiple esports tournaments streamed on the Twitch app. Last month one of the team’s players placed third at “The Big House 10” — out of more than 600 players — during a Super Smash Bros. Major Tournament.

And earlier this month, the team tied for 14th Place in the North American Rocket League Championship Series (Fall Invitational). One point of pride from that series? They beat the previous Fall Cup Champion team Version1, which is owned by the Minnesota Vikings.

“We are made up of people that are mostly from Michigan and we are all about that Detroit hustle and grind. That’s where the name comes from. Michigan was the nation’s 26th state. And Detroit is rising up,” Juncaj said. “We might be underdogs, but we will surprise you. When we compete, we bring the Detroit spirit.”

Juncaj said he’s always liked the design, marketing and competition of gaming — and he’s been in the gaming world since about 10. He’s played in local tournaments for fun. But now, as an owner, he’s bringing in the business angle of the venture too. 

“It’s really great to say I’ve seen the team from the ground up because it’s something I built. I’ve also learned that I really like making connections, scouting players and cold-calling people. That’s how opportunities become reality — you find out what people need and if it matches with what you are looking for,” he said. “And maybe this moment in time isn’t the right fit, but you never know what is down the road.”

Juncaj is an esports coach for Detroit Catholic Central High School and a board member of the Michigan High School Esports Federation (MiHSEF). He said he’d like to see an esports team represent UM-Dearborn’s campus, and could envision himself as a mentor and helping with the marketing and business side of the organization.

The campus has the talent for a strong team, he explained. And there are faculty members who would be great advisers. Juncaj — who worked with investors to raise $250,000 in seed money to start 26 Rising — said his COB professors helped him work through questions he had about management strategies and how to use data to steer how money is invested. 

We have all this data that helps us make business decisions. But if you don’t know how to think critically, the numbers mean nothing. You need to know how to apply it,” he said. “For example, we’ve signed good and great players that are entertaining. To get the most eyes on us, we enter tournaments so we can compete with the best players. That pushes our social metrics way up and leverages marketing dollars to get our players' personalities and skills noticed, and to create brand awareness.”

Thanks to his parents, Juncaj said he’s always balanced tech with physical sports like soccer and looked for real-world educational opportunities like jobs and internships. These gave him well-rounded experiences, and also helped him see through-line connections. 

In those activities, as in competitive gaming, there's an opportunity to gain and enhance real-world skills through work with broadcasting, production, social media and team management, he said. Esports athletes also gain experience in collaboration, team-building, problem-solving, communication, leadership and critical thinking. 

When it comes to esports, Juncaj said he still enjoys the games. But, for him, the excitement is creating a team that has chemistry — and that helps bring out each player’s talents. And with esports forecasted to grow by 20% by 2025, he’s glad to be in a growing industry at the right time.

Want to join the team? In January, Juncaj is hosting a Super Smash Bros. tournament and the top players will get a sponsorship deal. Contact him for details.

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.