OAKLAND — While the Warriors were staging an amazing comeback in Philadelphia, their home court had been taken over by guys with names like Dev1ce, Hobbit and Skadoodle, all of them intent on blowing one another’s brains out.
I spent my Saturday watching video games. Specifically, I watched young men compete in two games, Counter Strike: Global Offensive (known as CS:GO) and PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG), at IEM Oakland 2017. Intel Extreme Masters is billed as “the world’s oldest and most prestigious pro gaming tour.” It plays major arenas throughout the world.
If this sounds like a bizarre way to spend a weekend — if you think a sporting event is primarily a way to get away from kids playing video games — you should know that esports (that’s “sports” preceded by the electronic “e”) are exploding as a live entertainment product.
According to projections by Newzoo, which charts the industry, competitive video gaming will enjoy an economy of about $700 million in 2017, a figure it believes will grow to $1.5 billion in 2020. More than 40 American universities now have varsity esports teams, including Division I schools like Boise State, Utah and UC Irvine.
IEM Oakland attracted about 6,500 spectators on each of its two days in 2016, with approximately 6.4 million hours consumed by online viewers via platforms like Twitch, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. ESL, the company that runs the tournament (and the largest esports purveyor in the world), is expecting similar attendance this year. Ticket prices range from $19 for one-day general seating to $899 For two-day Global Elite packages that included backstage tours and comfy leather-couch seating on the floor.
Growth industry? Ask Michal Blicharz, ESL’s vice president of pro gaming.
Blicharz competed in video tournaments when he was a teenager in Poland. As he described it, that basically meant 20 people toggling in an Internet café, and maybe 10 more watching over their shoulders. Blicharz, now 37, went to work for ESL in 2009. But their first arena-based event didn’t happen until January of 2013.
Blicharz remembers it well. It was in Katowice, Poland, in a large venue used for major sporting events and concerts. Blicharz was terrified that no one would come, that sponsors would be livid when they saw all the empty seats. An hour before the event, he walked on stage to find that every seat was full, with overflow in the aisles. “You should go outside,” a coworker told Blicharz. Outside the arena, a line of 2,000 people braved a freezing day in the middle of a Polish winter.
“If you told me in 2002 that we’d have 10,000 butts in seats, I would tell you you’re on drugs,” Blicharz said.
Traditional sports have noticed. Several NBA team owners also own teams in the North American League of Legends Championship Series. Warriors co-owner Peter Guber joined them in September, as part of a group that bought Team Liquid for $13 million.
Pro gaming has expanded so quickly that its regulation has not kept pace. That’s a challenge for the World Esports Association, which functions as sort of an umbrella organization for the various tours and competitions. Ken Hershman, WESA’s commissioner and executive chairman, told me the group is trying to standardize scheduling and firm up rules governing things like multi-team ownership, dispute resolution and anti-cheating efforts.