More than 22,000 people paid their way into the Barclays Center in July to watch people play a video game.
It was the Overwatch League Grand Finals, a two-day event that culminated in two teams competing for their share of a $1.4 million prize pool, including the $1 million grand prize. In addition to the fans cheering in person, there were another 300,000 watching online and on ESPN.
The event proved what people in the gaming industry have long been saying: the Esports Era is upon us.
Last month, esports became the focus of national attention when a gunman opened fire during a Madden video game tournament — named for famed football coach and TV analyst John Madden — in Jacksonville, Florida, leaving two dead and 10 wounded, authorities said. The gunman, a gamer identified as David Katz, 24, of Baltimore, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.
The fatal attack shook the fast-evolving esports universe.
Video games have been around for more than 50 years, but the ability to play online against players anywhere in the world has helped take the competition to a new level.
There are now professional sports leagues for video games, and they are organized just like traditional professional sports leagues. In some cases, players are drafted. Many are paid salaries. They compete for championships, some of which offer multimillion-dollar prizes. Fans can watch the games online, or even fill arenas built specifically for esports.
Esports is growing at such a rate that experts — such as SuperData Research, which examines esports trends — said it is already a billion-dollar industry.
“They’re doing a lot of things similar to what real sports are doing,” said Reggie McKim, a marketing analyst for Super Data.
In 2017, esports was a $765 million industry worldwide, according to SuperData, and 70 percent of that revenue came from sponsorships and ads. Of that $765 million, $153 million came from the U.S. market.
If you include income from investments, though, esports actually made $1.5 billion worldwide, SuperData said.
Colleges and high schools are setting up teams and competitions, too. At least 50 universities are offering esports scholarships, according to ESPN.com.
Eight Long Island schools — Bay Shore, Jericho, Journey Prep, Locust Valley, North Shore, Sachem North, Sayville and St. Anthony’s — are members of the national High School Esports League.
Professional sports teams such as the Knicks and Mets have already bought in. The NBA has started a league that centers on its marquee game, NBA2K, and the Knicks are affiliated with its New York team.
Major League Soccer launched its own esports league.
“It’s growing and you can see that traditional sports team ownership is moving in,” McKim said. “But brands are moving in, too — brands like Mercedes, Toyota, Geico, All-State, Coke. They see the opportunity and they want to get in before it really explodes.”
Sterling Equities, which owns the Mets, also owns the New York Excelsior of the Overwatch League.
“We were looking for something in an early stage [of growth],” said Farzam Kamel, a partner at Sterling V.C., a division of Sterling Equities that handles the esports team. “Esports was sort of a rare opportunity to jump into a high-growth opportunity.”
New York Excelsior won the regular-season championship Overwatch League with a 34-6 record but lost to the Philadelphia Fusion in the Grand Finals tournament.
Gamers can earn more than some professional athletes.
The league minimum for an Overwatch League player is a salary of $50,000 a year, not counting prize money in the hundreds of thousands. The London Spitfire swept the Philadelphia Fusion in the finals at Barclays Center for a $1 million grand prize. The Fusion walked away with $400,000.
Players in the NBA-sanctioned 2K league are paid a base salary of a little more than $30,000 for six months of work, with first-round draft picks making a base of $35,000. That doesn’t count prize money, housing provided by the league, relocation costs and any endorsements. For comparison, the base salary for a basketball player competing in the NBA’s developmental G League last season was $26,000.
According to Esportsearnings.com, the top earner in the world is Kuro “KuroKy” Takhasomi, who made more than $3.7 million in prize money playing Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena game, which gamers call a MOBA. This doesn’t even take into consideration endorsement deals.
He began playing competitively in 2008, when he earned just $123.34.
Hooked on esports
Fans can watch their favorite gamers in person or on a digital livestreaming platform called Twitch — on which players post their video game feeds. YouTube is also a popular medium.
Watching someone play a video game may seem odd to some, but more and more people are getting hooked.
Patchogue’s Joe Ciaramelli — an elite gamer known as Long Island Joe — has more than 41,000 followers on Twitch and nearly 30,000 on Twitter. He even has a sponsor, Notifuro Clothing.
Most of the top players in the world are from Japan and Korea, and Ciaramelli was the last American standing in EVO 2016, a marquee fighting esports event held at a packed Las Vegas Convention Center. There are plenty of YouTube videos from his Street Fighter V triumph in one of the Grand Finals matches, with one garnering nearly 50,000 views. But perhaps one of the most interesting is the video that zooms out to show a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators watching a big screen. As Ciaramelli claims victory, they begin screaming, cheering and chanting “U.S.A.!”
“It was honestly one of the greatest things in my life,” Ciaramelli said. “It’s hard to describe. I went from playing in the arcade with my dad standing me up on a chair so I could play and now I’m on a stage. It’s an indescribable feeling.”
The Grand Finals had 194,000 viewers on Twitch, and though Ciaramelli eventually lost to Hiroyuki “Eita” Nagata, the showing was considered a success.
That’s one of the draws, Ciaramelli said. Esports can be a great unifier. Most people have access to a computer, and many have access to video games. Anyone can play, and though it isn’t easy to become elite, with enough work and dedication, it’s possible. Above all, fans share a love for video games that make watching these tournaments as much of a rush as watching your favorite player hit a walk-off home run.
“I remember [when I first started] seeing how big it was, and how vast it was culturally,” he said. “It attracts all sorts of people — guys, girls, all different colors, shapes, sizes and religions. I was grateful I was brought up around that, people-wise. It was even ground. It didn’t matter who you were and what was going on, the one thing you had in common was just playing.”
What are esports?
Esports is competitive video gaming, often done by playing multiplayer video games in front of spectators (who are either physically present or watching online). It’s generally played by professional gamers, who often get a chance to compete for prize money. There are leagues dedicated to certain games in a variety of genres: first-person shooters, strategy games and multiplayer online battle arena — often abbreviated MOBA — where one player is part of a team that battles another team of players.
How does it work?
Rules vary widely and depend on the game and the league. In Overwatch, teams are made up of teams of six players, who sign contracts, make a base salary, and can earn endorsements and prize money. Most of esports’ profit comes from advertising, and that’s what helps fund it. Overwatch, though, does have franchise owners, like Sterling Enterprises., which also owns the Mets.
Where can you watch esports?
It’s pushing into the mainstream, and networks like ESPN and TBS have televised tournaments. Twitch, a video platform that livestreams video games, is also extremely popular and more accessible. There are also regular viewing parties around the city, often in venues dedicated to gamers. For people who want to play themselves and in person, there are regular meetups around New York and Long Island — in places like AON Gaming in Deer Park — and they’re usually a quick Google search away. In many cases, you can also play on your home computer.
An esports glossary
ESports has a language all its own. Here are some terms to know.
MOBA: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a very popular eSports genre that focuses on team play. It often combines the elements of action games and strategy games.
Real-time strategy: A genre that focuses more on individual competitors. It can be played remotely.
Twitch: Also known as Twtich.tv, it livestreams video games. Fans can interact with gamers and vice versa.
Streamer: A gamer who streams online his or her play. For men and women who want to get on the radar, streaming is a good way to garner a following, since it allows viewers to see both the player’s skill and personality. Streamers can also accept tips from viewers. Twitch is a popular website for streaming.
Caster: A person doing video game commentary. It came from the word “shoutcaster” — a portmanteau of sportscaster and “shout,” which was the preferred method of speech that original casters adopted.