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Professional gamers spend hours with eyes glued to a screen, a controller or keyboard at hand, perfecting their digital dexterity for a chance to win - or lose - tens of thousands of dollars. Gaming has transformed into high-stakes, high-stress big business.
In the aftermath of a tragic shooting rampage at a "Madden 19" video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, that left three dead and 11 wounded, focus is shifting to the pressure on players and security surrounding these events.
This Madden tournament is just one in a growing competitive video game landscape in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. professional players battle in-person and online for millions of dollars in prize money.
With many major esports events upcoming, players and promoters are seriously reconsidering whether they need to beef up security. Another consideration: Should more attention be paid to the mental stress on players, who can train for more than 40 hours a week?
"There can always be better security because the fans' safety and the players' safety is of the utmost importance. But at the end of the day, you just don't expect something like this to happen frequently," said Mike Rufail, 35, a former professional gamer and founder and CEO of Envy Gaming, a popular esports franchise with more than 540,000 Twitter followers.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Rufail supports doing what's necessary to protect fans and players. While his teams now play in larger venues that follow similar security measures to ones used for a concert or traditional sports game, he expects a bigger focus going forward across the industry.
The rise of esports: Video games once were considered a solitary experience, with the common stereotype being that of an adolescent boy holed up in a bedroom blasting away at aliens on screen. But esports, or competitive video game playing, has become a cultural, global and co-ed phenomenon.
Multiplayer games such as "Call of Duty" and broadband internet connectivity fueled online gaming to such a level that it has evolved into a lucrative - and, yes, professional - spectator sport.
As many as 41 million Americans currently consider themselves esports viewers, according to research firm Interpret. Globally, about 258 million watched an esports event last year, according to research firm SuperData.
Even though most esports fans are between 18 and 34, 1 in 3 of them are aged 35 to 54, Interpret says. And the number of women esports viewers in the U.S. has doubled from 5 million in 2016 to 10 million today, the firm says.
Spending on esports is growing, with media rights, streaming advertising and ticket sales expected to grow from a projected $184 million in 2017 to $467 million in 2022, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates.
Growing corporate and pro sport support: Major corporations, traditional sports leagues and TV networks have caught the esports bug with, notably, AT&T in June partnering with esports operator ESL to have a presence at several upcoming events including the ESL One New York event in September "It really also gives us an opportunity to reach that young and diverse audience." Shiz Suzuki, AT&T's assistant vice president for corporate sponsorships said at the time.
Indeed, the accounting firm Deloitte said in a recent report that esports offers a way to reach a demographic that has been increasingly beyond the industry's grasp. And both the players and fans are younger, less likely to watch traditional linear TV and often less interested in professional sports than the population as a whole, the report says.
One of the most popular online games, Activision Blizzard's first-person shooting game "Overwatch," has about 40 million players worldwide. Last month, more than 22,000 attended the Overwatch League Grand Finals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and millions more watched on ESPN and Disney XD.
The current 12-team league, which has teams owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and New York Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon, is expected to expand for the 2019 season with team spots going for $30 million to $60 million. Among reported interested parties: Cox Enterprises, which owns Cox pay-TV and broadband services, and theCox Media Group.
"We view esports as a key accelerant to growing the NFL as it enables new ways for young fans to engage in the sport through Madden NFL competition," Michelle Micone, NFL Senior Vice President, Consumer Products, said in early August, when the league in conjunction with Electronic Arts and ESPN announced the launch of the "Madden NFL 19 Championship Series (MCS)," the largest competition in its history.
"Competitive Madden unlocks great potential as the authenticity it provides enhances engagement and connection between our 32 NFL clubs and football fans around the world," she said.
Last year, the NBA and Take-Two Interactive created an NBA 2K eLeague, the first official esports league run by a professional U.S. sports league. The 17-team league, which plans to add four more teams next season, conducted its first championship Saturday, which was broadcast on Twitch. The winner of the best-of-three competition, Knicks Gaming, won $300,000.
One of the shooting victims in Jacksonville was an NBA 2K player.
Twitch, the video service that was streaming the Madden 19 competition when the shooting occurred, is another sign of esports rise. Amazon four years ago paid $1 billion for Twitch, which now has more than 2 million broadcasters, the majority of whom stream video game-related content. Its TwitchCon convention Oct. 26-28 in San Jose, California will feature esports competitions as well other events.
It's not just attracting corporations. More than 80 schools belong to the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Even high schools have begun adding esports programs.
Possible repercussions for the sport: The shooting is likely to have raised concerns among parents who worry about security at such venues.
"And obviously there are screen-time (addiction) concerns because of the needs that you have to go through to actually become a professional," says Jeff Haynes, senior editor of video games and websites at Common Sense Media. The people who have turned professional "have put in hundreds of thousands of hours just like any athlete. Arguably the only difference is that their time is set in front of a screen versus maybe in a gym or on a practice field or court."
And like other athletes, they're subjected to injuries, from repetitive stress ailments to posture issues and back pain, Haynes says. According to Haynes, some esports teams are mandating that participants engage in physical activities and take a break from the screen.
Professional esports players' specialized training depends on the skills required for various games. Some place the focus on aiming, others on strategy, Rufail says, equating the overall commitment level to one that is not much different than an athlete's.
Players practice six to eight hours a day with the team in a practice facility in addition to spending an hour or two at home for individual practice time, he says. Nutritionists help the players with their diets, coaches and analysts are on staff to go through game film.
The team looks at game leaderboards to find top players in individual games, using those boards as a form of first-level scouting to see if they would fit the team, similar to how traditional professional sports teams search for players. Some top amateur players even have agents and managers.
The payoff: While the salaries vary game by game - similar to how football players and baseball players are not paid the same amount - stars in the esports world can make seven figures annually, with lower-tier players making $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
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