Without high school football in California this fall, San Francisco 49ers-owned highlights show the Cal-Hi Sports Report, which airs on NBC Sports California, is partnering with esports startup the Ultimate Gaming League to fill airtime.
The entities will host and air highlights from a 13-week Madden franchise tournament. The event will feature players — it’s open to both boys and girls — from 32 high schools across the Bay Area. Cal-Hi Sports Report co-host Robert Braunstein will show highlights from the tournament’s game of the week on Sunday nights, beginning Sept. 27, and the UGL will stream the full game on Twitch afterwards.
The UGL was co-founded by current free agent professional quarterback Josh Johnson, whose highlights appeared on the Cal-Hi Sports Report when he played at Oakland Tech High School, where he lettered in football, basketball and track & field in the early 2000s and played alongside his cousin, Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch and Johnson, along with Marcus Peters, also founded the Fam 1st Foundation together, which aims to provide Oakland youth with opportunities to “expand their horizons through sports and family support services.”
Johnson last played professional football for XFL’s LA Wildcats in 2020. He was the highest-rated quarterback in the league before it folded due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UGL was founded by Johnson, Brad Flewellen and Chuck Johnson with the goal of making a media platform that encourages participation in gaming lifestyle and culture across all demographics, and shows that “gamers are all the same on the sticks.” But Johnson also says it shows that there’s an avenue for African-American people to get involved on the business side of the gaming industry.
“The growth of the [esports] industry as a whole, from when we were younger to what it is now, it’s not just fun — I mean, obviously it’s a great time for you and your friends — but now I see opportunities to got to school off of it, careers, cross opportunities for broadcasting and production and so many different opportunities now,” Johnson said.
Efforts to increase diversity in gaming — from developers to in-game characters — have picked up steam as of late.
In July, Twitch partnered with Cxmmunity — an organization that facilitates participation of minorities in esports and the video game industry — to launch an esports league for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and help end the racial disparity between video game creators and those who play video games.
Two weeks earlier, Greg Selkoe, former president of esports team and lifestyle organization FaZe Clan, left the company to start XSET, another gaming organization that aims to be more diverse and inclusive.
Famed streamer Ninja, in announcing his return to Twitch earlier this month, also said he now plans to “elevate and bring more eyes to underrepresented creators.”
Braunstein is entering his 29th year covering high school sports in the Bay Area. In 1992, he created the Emmy-winning Friday night highlights show “High School Sports Focus” on KTVU, then the first show of its kind ever produced in a major television market.
He later started his own production company to produce Cal-Hi Sports Bay Area in cooperation with the Cal-Hi Sports website, and the 49ers bought the majority stake in the Cal-Hi Sports Report in August 2017. Braunstein and Johnson developed a personal relationship over the years, the 34-year-old quarterback said, which led to the tournament.
For Johnson, the tournament is a way to provide an opportunity for kids that could lead to future career advancement.
“I know for us when we were younger, there wasn’t Instagram, there wasn’t anything, so Cal-Hi was the only way that you could be seen. So to provide that opportunity is huge,” Johnson said. “Just to really start not only creating opportunities, but show people how they can use these opportunities for themselves to grow and do things and actually make a living out of it, I think that’s what’s dope about this.”