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The popularity of esports has exploded over the past several years.

The popular and profitable esports industry — revolving around organized video game competition and entertainment — continues its meteoric rise across the world, including in Colorado Springs. 

Global revenues for the esports industry are expected to grow to $1.1 billion in 2020 according to Newzoo, an esports analytics and market research company, and could top $1.8 billion as soon as 2022.

The vast majority of revenue — about 75 percent, according to Newzoo’s 2020 Global Esports Market Report — will come from media rights and sponsorship, as viewership for esports competitions continues to grow.

According to advisers at Roundhill Investments, 1.7 million concurrent viewers tuned in to the streaming platform Twitch for an esports tournament last year. And according to Forbes, prize pools for such tournaments have topped the $30 million mark.

The total esports audience is expected to hit 495 million this year, according to Newzoo, marking a nearly 12 percent increase over 2019.

And the industry is primed to press “Start” in Colorado Springs, where businesses, charitable organizations and schools are increasingly seeing its potential.

ENTER THE ARENA

Esports Arena, leased inside a Walmart Supercenter in northwest Colorado Springs, is one in a national chain of event centers specifically dedicated to esports competition.

It offers casual gaming experiences as well as competitive tournaments where gamers can win cash prizes.

Because tournaments can be hosted in a virtual setting, the arena has continued to run four to five tournaments per week during the pandemic, broadcasting them on Twitch to about 90 viewers each time. 

Cody Burket, Esports Arena’s branch general manager, has been with the business since it opened in November 2018, running its day-to-day operations and coordinating tournaments.

When it opened, Burket said the Colorado Springs location was just the third Esports Arena in the country. 

Since then, the chain has expanded to 18 locations, Burket said. “I think that definitely shows that the market is there for esports and esports entertainment,” he said. “And it’s nice to have this local arena to be able to sell the esports dream, and to have local people be able to participate in that.”

Esports Arena operates a semi-professional league for the game Apex Legends called Series E, which provides monetary compensation to teams and allows individual players to attract sponsorships.

“It’s basically a way for our sponsors to sponsor local players under their [company] name,” Burket said. “So we’re providing that middle service of giving players a place to compete and a place for sponsors to see their competitions.”

Burket said local players earning a full-time income on esports alone is rare, but possible — Jaryd Lazar, a retired professional gamer under the online alias Summit1g and one of the most tracked gamers on Twitch, with over 5.4 million followers, lives and plays in Colorado Springs.

Since Esports Arena opened, Burket said, several other gaming businesses have come online. 

But with continued industry growth, he expects room in the market to support a Player 2, and then some.

“You don’t want to saturate the market, but I think gaming is definitely coming to the forefront,” Burket said. “It was already heading that way, slowly, but the pandemic has forced a lot more people to stay inside and pick up a game or figure out something to do to keep themselves entertained. So I think coming out of this, it’s even more of a viable option to get into [an esports] business.”

HOME FRONT MILITARY CHARITY TOURNAMENT

When Brent Sabati, chair of the council of ambassadors for Home Front Military Network, was tasked with helping the organization expand its reach to a younger demographic, he reached out to Burket, whom he’d met networking in Colorado Springs.

Together, they’re launching a virtual esports charity tournament that’s set to take place Oct. 17. 

“We’ve all seen golf tournaments and we’ve all seen the dinner galas and things like that,” Sabati said. “So once I met [Burket] I thought, ‘This would be a great idea to get younger people involved.’ And [Burket] was the man to help me out because he had all the technical expertise.”

Communication for the Rocket League tournament will take place on a group-chatting platform called Discord, and the competition will be streamed on Twitch.

Competitors in teams of two will pay a registration fee to compete, and their fees will go toward the tournament’s cash prize and help fund programs for Home Front Military Network.

Sabati said they hope to attract between 25 and 30 teams for the tournament and there will also be an option on Twitch for spectators to donate directly to the cause.

“The idea is pretty new, especially in the Springs, and it opens up a new demographic for sponsors, too, that they probably weren’t reaching before with other types of charity tournaments,” Sabati said.

Since no physical venue is needed to host the competition, Sabati said the cost to run the tournament has been close to nothing.

“So far there aren’t any upfront expen-

ses, which is a great validator as far as being able to test out a new format like this,” Sabati said. “Obviously it’s unproven, so it’s hard for any organization to throw a ton of money behind. But luckily for us [Burket] was kind enough to volunteer his time to help us get it set up.”

If the inaugural event is successful, Sabati said they’d like to host several each year.

He envisions local defense contractors putting together their own esports teams, sparking friendly competition between business rivals and providing an added selling point when pitching the perks of their companies to young applicants.

“I think there’s vast potential for the expansion of these kind of esports tournaments,” Sabati said. “Who knows? One day, we might see less golf tournaments and more video game tournaments. In my mind, down the road, that’s a possibility as demographics and interests shift and people realize that, as far as return on investment and overhead costs, events like these might be more viable to do.”

COLORADO COLLEGE AND CHSAA

The range of the esports phenomenon now extends to Colorado schools, including many colleges and some high schools.

In the 2019-2020 school year, the Colorado High School Activities Association began a pilot program for esports as a competitive activity, which has since been extended. This year’s regular season begins Oct. 15.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to connect students to their school community in a way they otherwise might not have been involved in,” said Ryan Casey, director of digital media for CHSAA. “By and large, this is a group of kids we don’t yet serve, so esports is a great way for us to involve them in high school activities.”

Casey said he considers the first season a “great success” and feels like esports is an activity that is ready to “take off.”

He said CHSAA heard anecdotally from schools around the state who held informational meetings about their esports programs and were expecting 20 or 30 kids to show up.

“To their surprise,” Casey said, “there were much, much more — sometimes in the hundreds. Needless to say, we are excited about the possibility of potential sanctioning, and then seeing what the future holds from there.”

At Colorado College, 2019 graduate Josh Lauer helped establish the school’s esports club as a student and now works for the school as a paraprofessional. His title is esports coordinator and his job includes helping expand the program,  overseeing student workers and supervising competitive teams.

Lauer said CC’s esports program began as an informal meetup between students to play games but eventually became an official school organization in the 2017-2018 school year.

CC gamers now compete against others in The Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, with multiple competitive teams spanning three official games — League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Overwatch.

“With how quickly esports is gaining traction, whether that be in the professional scene or the now blossoming academic scene, there’s just so many opportunities,” Lauer said. “And the way that technology has kind of integrated itself in daily life, and especially now in childhood, this is something that students want. So having that available to students to begin with is already a great selling point and a lot of colleges and high schools now will leverage esports as a way to get students interested and to retain students as well.”

Since its founding, esports at CC has continuously grown. From the first year to the second, Lauer said, participation more than doubled. And students have remained engaged and competing online even during the pandemic. 

Aside from the recreational benefit, Lauer said esports also helps students develop professional skills.

“Yes, it’s fun, it’s a good time and you get to play video games,” Lauer said. “But you’re also working on your communication skills, punctuality, time management, and kind of figuring out what it’s like to be on a team.”

 

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.