Story by Chris Taylor, junior at St. John the Baptist Magnet STEM High School Program
As you walk into a Major League Gaming (MLG) event, with fog at your feet and lasers glaring in your eyes, you can feel the electricity from esports fans cheering on a round-winning kill. Tons of tables are set up with gaming consoles for gamers to warm up, with sponsors lined up across the wall selling gear to fans stoked to rep their favorite squad.
In the past five years, esports has stepped squarely into the sporting spotlight. Videogame-based competitions range from smaller, local festivals filled with aspiring pros and video game fanatics to multi-million dollar professional tournaments that attract tens of thousands of live fans and millions watching online.
The League of Legends 2014 World Final that took place in Seoul’s Sangam Stadium—which hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup matches—had over 45,000 people in attendance with 27 million more people spectating online, according to Bet O’Clock. This past July, a 16-year-old gamer named Bugha won $3 million at the Fortnite World Cup, and pro gamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins earned nearly $10 million in 2018, per CNN.
And esports’ popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing down—viewership has been growing constantly over the past two years. From 2017 to 2018 esports total viewership has grown to over 380 million viewers, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. By 2021 esports is estimated to have more viewers than every professional sports league except the NFL.
With esports growing to reach the heights of more traditional sports, so too are the incentives to get there. Esports has already proven its viability as a market, and now there are various new methods of getting a leg up to reach pro gamer level. From colleges offering esports scholarships to automated bots doing real time coaching to tracking gamer stats sabermetrics, the path to professional gaming that was once murky is now becoming much, much clearer.
Year after year more colleges are beginning to promote esports programs. According to gamedesigning.org, only seven colleges and universities had varsity esports programs in July of 2016, but by 2018 there were 63 institutions that had added esports to their curriculum. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio is the first major Division I school to create a varsity esports program. Other major schools like Boise State University, Georgia Southern University, Georgia State University, and the University of Akron have followed in their footsteps.
These schools all compete in the National Association of Collegiate esports (NACE). The NACE is a nonprofit organization that helps promote esports programs in colleges across the nation. NACE provides aspiring professional esports gamers with a free education and continue to participate in esports at the collegiate level.
In a sit down with Bill Dever, the chief strategy officer of Harena Data, and Shawn Smith, the CEO of Harena Data, they both stressed the fact that one of the biggest problems they’ve discovered in the esports community is finding up-and-coming talent. Harena Data created GYO, an esports recruiting database that logs sabermetrics for gamers. Think of what Billy Beane did for the Oakland A’s—these guys are trying to do the same for esports.
“There are a lot of people who have this dream of going pro in esports, and they don’t know where to start,” Smith said. “There is no path to the pros, and we believe we can build a path to the pros… and ultimately they can get discovered.”
Smith believes the esports industry was, “too top-heavy for too long…. Nobody thinks about where the players come from.” Dever and Smith wanted to give those amateur gamers who couldn’t open the door to a professional gaming career, a “chainsaw to cut their own down and walk right into esports,” Dever said.
When gamers join GYO they are given an automated coach; this coach aids them on their path with pre-written tips, helping to improve their gaming style based on the particular game they play. Then players are given analytical data that helps them improve their gameplay, making them a better overall player. GYO allows players to get noticed by college recruiters, pro esports scouts, and teams that are searching for players by logging their data.
“The discipline acquired [from esports] leads kids to do tons of other things, opening the world up to them,” Dever said.
Introducing kids to esports allows them a chance to discover a passion that they would have never found without esports. The recently-deceased founder of the Independent Gaming League or IGL Foundation, Derek Thomas, believed this wholeheartedly. The IGL Foundation is based out of Louisiana, and hosts a digital arts training academy for in-person summer camps. The gaming league is the main source of fundraising for their education programs. These programs have been around for the last eight years and take place after school and during the summer.
“There’s gamers that will never play an actual sport,” Thomas said. “We try to instill that mentoring and life skills aspect in our youth programs and competitions that we host.” Thomas was widely considered to be one of the founding fathers esports in Louisiana. Thomas mentioned that he even remembered hosting gaming tournaments in trailers during Hurricane Katrina.
With different organizations like GYO and the IGL foundation, kids are more motivated to join the gaming community because they are now encouraged to use their gift of gaming to positively impact their lives. Esports has given gamers a platform to showcase their talents in tournaments that reward sometimes millions of dollars in prize money.
Even though the gaming world has received such a bad reputation for years, it’s time to respect the game. Gaming is no longer just something for “nerds” or “lazy bums.” Esports has allowed for people to find a passion and love for something. It has given people opportunities to go to college and play for collegiate esports teams, through organizations like GYO. Foundations like IGL has provided kids of Louisiana an opportunity to experience having a mentorship and getting that discipline that you may acquire from other sports like baseball or soccer. Walls are being knocked down and the world is starting to see that esports is here to stay.
In April 2020 the first ever esports combine, “Path to Pros,” will be held in New Orleans by GYO, Harena Data, and Metacomet. This event will give aspiring professional gamers a path to the pros. Competitors will be tested for their hand-eye speed, decision making, and actions per speed. They will also undergo team and individual player interviews and the Wonderlic test, just like the NFL combine. Yet another avenue for gamers to move from their living room to all star status.