JuJu Smith-Schuster – WR Pittsburgh Steelers
Smith-Schuster is one of the NFL’s most vocal proponents of esports. He made headlines last March when he squaded up in Fortnite with Ninja, Drake and Travis Scott in a twitch stream that broke the individual record for viewers on the streaming platform.
Even before joining that stream, Smith-Schuster signed an apparel deal with esports organization FaZe Clan. FaZe originally started as a Call of Duty trick-shot clan. They were immensely popular in the “golden age” of COD on YouTube and have since expanded to represent top players in a variety of games.
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) January 18, 2018
At only 21 years old, Smith-Schuster was the youngest player in the NFL in the 2017 season. Like other fans of Call of Duty, he probably tried to emulate the insane moves pulled off by members of the group considered COD’s most elite snipers.
While Smith-Schuster probably never progressed to the level of pulling off a double-ladder spin quick scope – shown here by FaZe Fakie – he did play the game on “insane,” the highest sensitivity possible which requires a deft touch on the joystick. According to his teammates, he’s the man to beat in a Steelers locker room that offers plenty of competition
Le’Veon Bell – RB Pittsburgh Steelers
Another key part of Pittsburgh’s high-octane offense, Bell is also a huge gamer. He is relentless on the field and, while growing up, was relentless on the sticks as well.
“My mom used to have to take the game from me ’cause I would play it so much,” Bell told SB Nation. “Call of Duty is what got me started, I got so addicted to the game, I’d do my homework before school so that after practice I would be able to instantly go home and get on the game. When I was younger, it was Grand Theft Auto, but now it’s mostly COD and Madden.”
Now, not only is Bell a fan of the game, he is actually a character in COD:WWII. Alongside teammate Alejandro Villanueva, Bell was featured in the game’s “Headquarters” mode.
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) September 19, 2017
“Oh, I’ve always been a “Call of Duty” fan, but I didn’t expect to ever be in the game,” Bell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’d never even thought about that. It was crazy that I had the opportunity to do it. I’ve been playing Call of Duty for years, since I had PS3.”
For him and Villanueva to be in the game took seven hours of motion capture over two days. The motion capture is the most extensive for a COD game to date as the franchise returned to its gritty, realistic roots for WWII. Before that version, the series had taken a futuristic vibe with titles like Black Ops III and Infinite Warfare.
Alejandro Villanueva – LT Pittsburgh Steelers
He was mentioned alongside, Bell but he has a unique perspective on Call of Duty that few NFL players can share. After graduating from West Point, Villanueva served in three tours in Afghanistan where he was awarded a Bronze Star, for rescuing injured soldiers under enemy fire.
A common thread in his life, from being an Army Ranger overseas to now being a starting left tackle, has been Call of Duty.
“I was [in Afghanistan] in 2011, ’12, ’13, ’14 and ’15, so I played every single game that came out,” Villanueva told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I played all of them. Whatever one was the new one, I was playing.”
On the surface, people may be surprised that soldiers spend their free time playing a model of war, but Villanueva explains that video games are a symbol of home. Villanueva, who was entered the army as a second lieutenant, often played with enlisted soldiers.
“When we were doing the real thing, we were still playing video games,” he said in the same interview. “Enlisted soldiers, they’re young guys who just got out of high school. You graduate from high school, you’re living your high-school life, and then a year and a half later, you’re in Afghanistan and doing the real life.”
Baker Mayfield – QB Cleveland Browns
Finally moving away from Pittsburgh, we turn to Cleveland’s new bastion of hope. The No. 1 overall pick, Baker Mayfield, lit up offenses at Oklahoma and now will lead a Brown’s offense that has the potential to be explosive for the first time in years.
Now that he has won a Heisman, and been drafted first overall, it’s hard to imagine Mayfield doing anything other than football. But, according to his college roommate Sooners fullback Jaxon Uhles, Mayfield once considered a career as a pro gamer.
“He told me at one point he was about to quit football when he was in high school and just play video games; become a professional video gamer,” Uhles told NCAA.com.
Mayfield’s dedication is obvious, going from a three-star recruit to a Heisman winner, so it’s hard to bet against his success in the virtual arena. As for what game Mayfield would be competing in? It would likely be Halo.
“One-on-one, I don’t think there’s anyone on campus who can beat me,” Mayfield told NCAA.com. “I’m gonna put that out there.”
While Halo’s competitive scene has fallen off since Mayfield’s high school days, many old pros in that scene have found a new home in Fortnite. Most notable is Ninja, who was one of the best Halo players before being vaulted to international stardom as the streaming face of Fortnite. Mayfield also made the switch and can be seen getting dubs in the game on his Instagram account with his girlfriend on his back.
AJ Green – WR Cincinnati Bengals
Green was mentioned in the AFC East iteration of this series when he went head-to-head against LeSean McCoy in a Call of Duty: Ghosts Grudge Match. While McCoy won that contest, Green didn’t take it sitting down, accusing the Bills RB of screen peeking.
“You cheating mayne, you been watching my screen,” Green said in this video.
Green is a huge fan of the game and says when football season ends, Call of Duty season begins.
“That’s all I do, I play Call of Duty non-stop,” Green told the PostGame.
In addition to COD, he also plays a lot of NBA 2K. That is similar to many other players around the league. They typically play shooters and sports simulation games like Madden, NBA 2K and FIFA.
This is part seven of our division-by-division look at some of the star gamers around the league. If you want to read more here are the completed divisions: AFC East, AFC West, NFC South, NFC North, NFC East and NFC West.
Mitch Reames – The intersection of the NFL and esports
After graduating from the University of Oregon’s Journalism program, Mitch began writing about esports for SportTechie.
He identified the potential for content serving fans of both sports and esports, and will be focusing on that fan sector in his writing for NFP.
When he’s not playing Fortnite, Rocket League or Hearthstone, Mitch is rooting on the LA Rams, Oregon Ducks and his fantasy team.
Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Reames