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Next Level

Esports is a fast-rising, billion-dollar industry that is threatening to overtake traditional sports. So what is it, exactly?

By Dan Morrell
Illustrations by Canopy Design LLC

All right, boys!”

After a careful selection of characters, weapons and some pregame strategy talk, UCF student Luke McKinley kicks off a league playoff match against Arizona State University.

McKinley’s feed on Twitch, a video game-streaming platform, follows a blur of action as he and his four team members busy themselves fortifying their assigned onscreen locations. The dozen or so people tuned in to the match hear the UCF team’s chatter and see a view of McKinley’s computer screen — a first-person perspective of a tactical shooter, a purple assault rifle adorned with a tiny yellow duck bouncing in front of him.

McKinley, who is manager and team leader of the UCF Gaming Knights’ top Rainbow Six Siege team, calls out orders. “Jelly and Zombie, make your way to the workshop.” The teammates check in with reports from their various locations. He compliments skillful kills. “Nice. Niiiiiice.” He doles out advice. He is quarterbacking.

There are several different ways to win a round, and they include killing all of the opposing team’s characters, not dying or defusing a bomb during a three-minute scrum. The first team to six rounds wins the match; the first to two matches wins the whole thing. ASU takes the first match, 6-3. “We’re a second-half team,” says one of the UCF players. It’s prophetic. The next round goes 6-1 for UCF, and UCF wins the final round, 6-2.

The game, which began about 10 p.m., ends around 1 a.m. McKinley reminds his team to be good sports and type “gg” (“good game”) to the other team. The stream then flashes to a live shot of McKinley — close-cropped hair, a few days of beard growth and a black headset. He raises his arms in victory, fists up, mouth open in a celebratory cheer. He thanks the audience, making special note of a financial supporter. Then he announces an upcoming $50 follower giveaway and reminds them that he’ll be streaming tomorrow at 5 p.m. and will have some scrimmages after that. But for now, sleep. “I have to be up early for class in the morning.”

McKinley is part of a revolution. Market intelligence company Newzoo estimates that the global esports industry will be worth $1 billion this year and $650 million in North America alone by 2021. Epic Games, creator of the smash hit game Fortnite, has a reported valuation of $15 billion, making them worth about as much as Pinterest and Lyft. The Overwatch League — the first-ever professional league dedicated to a specific video game — drew 861,000 viewers per minute via both streaming and TV broadcasts in its inaugural season this year, with the finals broadcast on ESPN.

McKinley is surprised it took this long. “Why didn’t [this happen] sooner?” he says. “Because the opportunities were there.” Either way, the masses are waking to the revolution underway.

the first known video game competition is thought to have been held in October 1972 with the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Chronicled in a 9,000-word article in Rolling Stone — and photographed by the now-iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz — the event featured about 20 players hovering over a small screen controlling little spaceships trying to eradicate other vessels with digital torpedoes. The winner received a subscription to Rolling Stone.

With the mass availability of home gaming consoles in the 1980s, there was the odd tournament here or there — a National Space Invaders Championship run by Atari in 1980 that brought out a reported 10,000 people; the Nintendo World Championship series that started in 1990, touring 30 U.S. cities in its inaugural year.

“The momentum that esports has today is the result of a grassroots movement finally finding a market.”
Alex Chiricosta ’14

But while the growth of competitive gaming was sporadic in the U.S., Asia was undergoing a revolution, says Ben Noel, executive director of UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. He saw that region’s ascendance in competitive gaming while working as an executive for video game giant EA Sports in the 1990s. It was aided by both the spread of broadband internet access and a unique cultural factor: “Very few Asian cultures have their living rooms set up like American families might — with game systems at the center of it,” says Noel. “So kids have to go out to game centers and places like that to get their gaming on.” The gradual evolution to larger competitions in larger spaces was natural.

As broadband access swept across the United States, connected gaming competitions began to rise, and with it, interest in taking those gaming battles into real spaces.

Alex Chiricosta ’14 has been part of that scene since its early days. The founding president of the Gaming Knights, Chiricosta is a gaming events specialist at Red Bull. Chiricosta says the momentum that esports has today is the result of a grassroots movement finally finding a market.

“There’s more involvement and more opportunity,” he says. “Today, anybody can become a full-time streamer.” Someone, such as McKinley, who streams their play live online, getting money either from adoring fans making donations or from sponsorships or both. “It’s obviously very hard, and there’s a lot of luck and skill and hard work that goes with it, but 10 years ago, that wasn’t a thing at all.”

Streaming has enabled the growth of esports, he says, and has provided a platform for stars to emerge. One of them: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a gamer known for his masterful playing of the game Fortnite and who has 10 million followers on the Twitch streaming platform, became the first esports player to appear on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and reportedly makes more than $500,000 a month.

And streaming has flourished because it’s become democratized, says Chiricosta. “It’s easy now. You don’t need a $3,000 computer to stream.”

Robert Wing ’10, associate esports manager at Blizzard — makers of the popular Overwatch game — still hears stories of the “olden days” from some of his colleagues. “Back when people were driving themselves out to events and bringing their consoles with them,” he says.

It was more casual back then. Today, there’s more of a focus on the business side. “I think what you’re seeing now across the industry is much more of a shift into, ‘How do we make this a thing that’s going to be around in 30 years?’ ” Wing says.

There was a cultural hurdle that gaming had to overcome, too, says McKinley. Video gaming used to be considered nerdy. Today, he says, the rise of global sensations like Fortnite have erased that stigma. “My brother, he’s in high school, all of his friends play [Fortnite] — and if you don’t play it, then they all ask you why you don’t play it, and it’s like you have to come up with a specific reason.”

The industry’s rise has created new career paths. When Gaming Knights vice president Audrey Luce started at UCF, she wanted to be a YouTuber. “Now I’m thinking of becoming a Twitch streamer,” she says. She’s on the A team for UCF’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds team and the B team for the Rainbow Six Siege team. But to be a successful streamer who is able to garner the necessary subscriptions and donations, she needs to develop a supportive online fan base.

But there are myriad options in esports beyond the actual gameplay.

“There are marketing roles, there are coaching roles, there are athlete support roles for lack of a better term,” says Paul Jarley, dean of the College of Business. “I don’t know yet if esports participants have agents, but it wouldn’t shock me. I mean, they have their own sneakers.” (Shoemaker K-Swiss unveiled a signature sneaker for the Immortals esports franchise in April 2018.)

At Red Bull, Chiricosta focuses on event production. “I’m traveling probably three times a month minimum to events,” he says. There’s also practical work negotiating sponsorship agreements and creative work in determining how his team can elevate the audience experience.

Wing’s focus is communications. Every morning, he checks some of the popular online community gaming hubs to see both what’s trending and what fires might need to be put out. Then, the communications plan: plotting editorial content, scheduling blog posts, strategizing social media. “I think the way esports is growing, there’s just a ton of opportunity for folks from different disciplines to come in and be involved,” he says.

According to Jarley, the student interest in esports gigs is surging. “In the sports business program, probably more than half are students who would take jobs in esports if they were offered them,” he says.

Mike Redlick*, director of external affairs and partnership relations for UCF’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program, says he’s seen the pronounced interest in esports while leading New York City student networking trips. “We can arrange meetings for the students at different league offices, and they have no interest in going to Major League Baseball. They have very little interest in meeting with motor sports, or meeting with golf or tennis,” says Redlick, who spent more than 20 years working in professional sports prior to joining UCF. “And yet, if I put an esports project in front of them, they’re falling over each other to volunteer to work on it.”

Even traditional sports powers are seeing the promise of esports. Owners of the New York Mets and Los Angeles Rams, among others, bought an Overwatch franchise league team last year. Icons Joe Montana and Michael Jordan have made substantial investments in the industry. The NBA even has its own esports league, which held its inaugural season this summer, with teams competing against each other in the league’s trademark NBA 2K game.

Why so much interest from the world of traditional sports? For all of its unique structures, esports has some familiar components, says Jarley. “Arenas, stages, coaches, trainers, participants — some of those things are the same.”

“You have to keep up your physique, you have to be healthy, you have to sleep right, you have to keep a clear mental state for every game, you need to learn how to pick yourself up from losing games.”
Kevin Quiroga

Showing advertisers and sponsors that there is an audience is crucial. “[Esports is] reaching a specific demographic that’s very difficult for sports teams and sports marketers to reach,” Redlick says. This audience is the younger generation — the ones who grew up idolizing Ninja instead of Nolan Ryan.

The Gaming Knights became an official sports club in April 2018. It now has about 150 dues-paying members and, over the summer, added a special esports chapter.

The difference between the regular Gaming Knights club members and the esports members, says the club’s esports director Kevin Quiroga, is that the esports members have an athlete’s approach.

“You have to keep up your physique, you have to be healthy, you have to sleep right, you have to keep a clear mental state for every game, you need to learn how to pick yourself up from losing games,” he says. There’s practice, skill-honing exercises, team-building work — just like any other sport. And while the esports players might be competing in the same games as the rest of their Gaming Knights peers, the settings are constricted to make the games purer tests of skill.

Quiroga uses the analogy of backyard soccer. When you are playing casually, maybe you don’t blow a whistle for every little infraction. Maybe the goal posts are two ferns. “But when you play competitive soccer, you’re always going to play on the same size field, you’re always going to play with the same rules,” he says.

“The whole nine yards that everyone else has as UCF football or soccer or basketball — we want the same exact thing.”
Kevin Quiroga

Quiroga is in the midst of restructuring the Gaming Knights’ esports division with the hope of eventually readying the teams for the next level: scholarship sports, with bigger facilities, bright lights and screaming fans. “The whole nine yards that everyone else has as UCF football or soccer or basketball — we want the same exact thing,” Quiroga says.

So where does esports go from here?

Wall Street forecasts huge growth. Goldman Sachs estimates esports will have 300 million fans and be a $3 billion business by 2022. Morgan Stanley estimates that a forthcoming Call of Duty esports franchise will be worth $100 million alone by 2020. Venture capital investment — money that is looking to make money — in esports totaled $701 million in the first half of 2018 alone, according to Crunchbase research. And just down the street from UCF, Full Sail unveiled a $6 million, 11,200-square-foot esports arena in March, which will officially open in May.

But Ben Noel is cautious in the face of the hype. “I compare it to a young person’s version of the World Series of Poker,” he says. It’s a phenomenon that came along, generated some crossover interest, but stayed within its niche. “The younger generation has played a lot of games, but many times kids will outgrow that.”

McKinley is preparing for the longer haul — he plans on going pro. He doesn’t need to make the amount of money that Ninja does, though that would be great. There is an acceptable middle ground.

“I know smaller-time streamers that transition to full-time streamers, and essentially they quit their day job,” McKinley says. “They, on average, are making about $4,000 a month.”

There are basically two paths ahead he sees as an esports competitor. There’s the more casual celebrity player who excels at the social aspect of gaming. “They may not be the best at the game, but they’re a really good person to watch [and] talk to because of how active they are with the community,” McKinley says. And then you have the athletes — the serious competitors who are revered for their technical acumen. “Personally, I want to see myself fall into more of the professional side,” he says. “I love that competitive aspect.”

It’s intense, McKinley says. “It may not be physical, but mentally, there is a lot of pressure.” This is especially true during live competitions. “When you’re on that main stage, when you’re looking at that monitor, you may not necessarily see it, but you know for a fact that thousands of people are watching you.”

*Redlick died earlier this year. This feature was finalized a month prior to his death, and he had reviewed and approved his quotes. We honor his memory and expertise.