By Spencer Campbell
On Oct. 29, 20,000 fans packed into the Staples Center in Los Angeles — but not to watch the L.A. Lakers play basketball or listen to Justin Bieber belt out some tunes. No, this roiling mass (plus another 14 million viewers online) had formed to see the finals of the League of Legends World Championship, a professional video-game tournament pitting 16 five-person teams against each other in pursuit of a total purse worth $6.7 million.
If those numbers surprise you, chances are you’re already behind the curve. Global revenue for esports, the catchall term for competitive video games, climbed to $325 million in 2015, according to Newzoo, a market research company. It estimates that figure will more than double to $696 million this year and more than quadruple to $1.5 billion by 2020. Although the West Coast is considered the epicenter of esports in the U.S., a Charlotte startup intends to lay the infrastructure of this explosive industry.
Amish Shah, the founding partner of Charlotte venture-capital group SierraMaya360, wants his Weddington-based ReKT Global LLC to write the rules of esports. Shah compares the current state of esports to the “wild, wild west” days of the NFL, NBA and MLB before rules were set to encourage competition and not allow a few teams to dominate
The company will be split into three groups: ReKT Agency will help broker broadcast, concessions and merchandising agreements between providers and teams. (All-Star Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz became the first NBA player to sign an esports advertising deal last year; buying the jersey of your favorite pro gamer runs around $75.) ReKT also plans to arrange esports tournaments when Charlotte’s Spectrum Center sits vacant on an event-free night, or maybe erect a gaming lounge to help draw millennials to Hornets games.
Meanwhile, ReKT Jobs and ReKT University will focus on the collegiate side of the sport as more schools add gaming as a varsity sport. “In 2014, there was one college that gave out scholarships for esports,” says Manny Anekal, founder and CEO of The Next Level, a website that covers the industry. Now, there are about 30. This fall, Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk will become the first North Carolina school to offer esports scholarships.
Even state schools that don’t offer scholarships still maintain a large esports contingent. Clubs at UNC Charlotte and UNC Chapel Hill boast more than 1,500 students apiece, many of whom want to transition into the industry when they graduate. Just as many college basketball players dream of becoming the next LeBron James, becoming the next pro video gamer might not be a realistic goal for most students. While there are nearly 2 billion gamers around the globe, a small percentage play professionally. But there are still ample opportunities to make money in the industry as trainers, nutritionists, quality-assurance testers or sales, media and customer-service representatives.
“If you don’t think it’s as stressful as traditional sports, you haven’t clicked a mouse 1,000 times a minute,” says Ryan Griffin, who runs ReKT Jobs and ReKT University. “You get depressed, you hurt your wrist and fingers. It’s terrible.” ReKT Jobs will serve as a job board. “People want to know how they can get into esports. ReKT is trying to be the bridge.”
ReKT isn’t the only entity trying to turn Charlotte into an esports hub. Team EnVyUs, a professional video-game franchise that won the 2016 Call of Duty World Championships, moved from Greensboro to the Queen City last year. And in 2018, the NBA will debut its own esports league. Its teams will be ownedand managed by NBA franchises. Out of the 17 teams initially participating, the Charlotte Hornets won’t be among them, but Commissioner Adam Silver has said that eventually all 30 teams will take part. Shah is already imagining an event in which Hornets star Kemba Walker competes against a regular fan on the court at the Spectrum Center — an event organized, promoted and produced by ReKT, of course.