When David Roebuck arrived in Las Vegas last year for the inaugural NHL Gaming World Championship at the city's Esports Arena, he was blown away.
The league put the players competing in the tournament in the same hotel as the players who were there for the NHL Awards, which Roebuck got to attend while also competing against the best players from the U.S., Canada and Europe in EA Sports' NHL 18.
It was a surreal experience for the 22-year-old, who grew up just outside of Wilkes-Barre in Forty Fort, Pa., and first picked up a controller to play NHL Breakaway 99 and Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey '98 on his Nintendo 64 at the age of 3 - a couple of years before he took the ice for the first time.
"They treated us like celebrities," Roebuck reminisced. "I was just blown away. When I was growing up I never thought that esports could happen. My parents were yelling at me to go outside."
He added with a laugh, "Now it's like, 'Do you need water? What do you need?'"
Roebuck, who finished as the runner-up, will be competing in the Live U.S. Regional at the NBC Sports Studio in Connecticut on May 30 to battle for the chance to return to Las Vegas for the 2019 NHL Gaming World Championship.
Roebuck finished as the No. 1 seed in a field of eight players, which consists of the top four players for each of the Xbox and PS4 consoles. With that, he earned the first-overall pick and the right to choose the NHL team he will represent in the tournament - which was an easy decision, seeing as the Pens are his favorite team.
"For the U.S., I'm the Pens and that's all I wanted," said Roebuck, whose gamer tag is JrPens91. "I think that was more of a reason I wanted the No. 1 seed than the actual draft pick. Plus, I'm so used to seeing their jerseys when I play that if I didn't have those, it just wouldn't feel right."
Roebuck has exceled in the sport of hockey both on the ice and the video screen throughout his life. His love for the game started with watching the WBS Penguins as a kid.
"Going to those games growing up, that's pretty much where it started for every hockey kid in our area," he said. "You watch that and think oh, I want to play this. Then you go to Learn to Skates and you got the video games and it just grows from there."
Roebuck grew up playing for the Wilkes-Barre Junior Penguins, and while video games were relegated to more of a hobby during that time, he found that the two of them did go hand-in-hand.
"A lot of stuff I learned from my coaches playing hockey, I do in the video game," he said. "Just some of my strategies and that. But some of the moves in the game, I do in real life. Some of it looks stupid, but it works. I know growing up, some of my teammates, they'd make fun of it - like oh, that's a glitch goal (laughs)."
Roebuck really began getting serious about esports during his junior and senior years of high school, but couldn't participate in tournaments because he was too young. So he refocused on playing ice hockey and made the men's Division I club team at Robert Morris University, where he is a forward for the Colonials.
Two summers ago, Roebuck decided to start playing video games again, and a couple of months after that, the inaugural Gaming World Championship was announced.
"I was like, I guess this was a good time to start up again," he said with a laugh.
It can be tough to balance competitive gaming with being a student-athlete, but Roebuck's priorities are on hockey and school, where he is studying statistics and predictive analytics and will be a senior in the fall. His dream job is to be in analytics for an NHL team. In the meantime, he's having a great time competing in eSports both on a national and local level.
This year, the NHL encouraged their clubs to get involved with eSports and try to host or co-host a tournament, so the Penguins teamed with Point Park University, the Pittsburgh Knights (the city's professional eSports franchise) and the Cavs Legion GC (the Cleveland Cavaliers' professional NBA 2K League franchise) to host a multi-game esports tournament called the Steel City Showdown this past weekend at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
There were three video games featured: Super Smash Bros., NBA 2K19 and NHL 19. Roebuck won the NHL '19 tournament and earned a $1,500 prize.
"I met up with a buddy and he said, you've got to go check out the NHL room, it's pretty packed," Roebuck said. "I walked up and it was packed! I was thinking, 'Where did all these people come from?' I thought with it being a localized event that it wasn't going to be that big. It definitely exceeded what my expectations were going in. It's definitely good for the city in terms of esports."
And hopefully, Roebuck's win in Pittsburgh is a sign of things to come in Vegas.