Eyeing an esports win

Originally published online and in print Sept. 13, 2019 for Nashville Post

Esports is hitting its stride. Since video games entered the consumer market in earnest in the 1970s — long before we had today’s world for professional competitive gaming — players found ways to battle it out. They lugged their equipment to others’ houses for multiplayer experiences, went to Internet cafés to challenge competitors online or spent hours on fighting games in arcades.

As technology advanced, the competition grew — as did the money involved. Esports today is a full-fledged industry that, by 2022, Goldman Sachs predicts will be worth $3 billion annually and have an audience of 276 million. The landscape is vast, with everything from individual players streaming on Twitch and YouTube to competitive teams playing in global leagues. And surrounding them are the apparel companies, broadcasters, advertisers and other sponsors funding it all.

Brands that partner with esports properties, a 2019 Nielsen report found, have seen increases in their favorability ratings and the likelihood of fans purchasing their products. Rather than treating esports as a nerdy niche, major brands such as Coca-Cola, BMW and ESPN have embraced gaming culture.

“Gamers get as invested in the brands that support esports genuinely as they do in the games they play, the characters they cosplay, the friendships they build and the experiences they gain there,” says Matt Proctor, the founder of multiple Nashville esports ventures.

Patrick Mahoney, CEO of WeAreNations, a locally based esports apparel company, likens the esports fan environment to the alternative sports of past generations, where much of the early growth was grassroots and spurred by fans who were themselves avid players.

“You’ve got a sport that’s more like surfing and skating than any traditional sport because you have so many participants that are watching the pros and it’s way more authentic,” Mahoney says. “Basketball fans and football fans tend to be more passive, while these guys are totally in it.”

WeAreNations outfits both competitive teams and fans, with streetwear fashion and performance jerseys designed in collaboration with the teams. When Team Liquid won this spring’s League of Legends Championship Series, its players hoisted their WeAreNations-branded champion hats on the broadcast, much like a Super Bowl team would.

“We’re trying to tie in those [major sports] experiences, because it really is going to be the same,” Mahoney says.

Grassroots growth

In Nashville, the esports environment, while small, is growing in stride with the industry as a whole. Proctor, who founded the Nashville Rocket League Series, a local esports competition for the vehicular soccer game Rocket League, first got started in esports while in college. He realized that he could combine his passion for gaming with his Belmont degree in event production to organize esports tournaments and cast events. Still, he needed a network of local players to join him.

“What I found in trying to stream gaming events is that the gaming community here was very fractured,” Proctor says.

He became an early and avid customer of Platforms Café, a short-lived gaming restaurant that opened in June 2018 in Rutledge Hill as a place for gamers to come together in person. While the venture lasted only about six months, Proctor says it served as a catalyst for growth by bringing the right people together to spur the Nashville esports scene in earnest.

It was at Platforms that Proctor and Jared Miller first met in person. Together, they launched the Tennessee Esports Alliance to create a central touchpoint for the esports events and activities that were beginning to crop up.

Keen on building the infrastructure for esports in Nashville, Miller started Everyday Esports to try to bring the esports tournament experience to a daily audience. Everyday Esports now runs the Thursday Night Throwdown fighting game tournament at the Greater Nashville Technology Council’s space in Tech Hill Commons near the fairgrounds, which draws about 50 attendees per week.

“My competition is everyone’s couch and their TV,” Miller says. “How do I get a person playing Fortnite at home on their couch to get up, get in their car, drive to my place and pay me money to play Fortnite — which is what they were just doing? You have to offer them something they can’t get at home.”

Major esports tournaments are often big, flashy events with stages, bright lights, commentators, cheering fan sections and loud, pulsing music. In short, they look and sound like many other major sporting events. Miller wants to bring that energy to a smaller-scale, brick-and-mortar space for Nashville’s gamers. He envisions building a Topgolf-like venue where casual and competitive players alike can come out and play or train.

“We have a ton of YMCAs, rec centers, gyms, facilities for people to do these sporting things, and we have nothing for gaming. You can do a lot of gaming at home, but you can also work out at home,” Miller says. “These are thriving businesses, and there’s this huge market that would love to engage in esports and compete or be a fan, just hang out and have food and a drink and watch an esports game be played.”

While Platforms Café was an early attempt at this vision, Miller intends to approach his venture differently. Where Platforms focused on the more expensive and trendy virtual reality gameplay, Miller says, he plans to focus exclusively on esports. This summer, he was in talks to take space in the Franklin Sports Hall, the former A-Game Sportsplex near CoolSprings Galleria. He had been seeking $750,000 in funding for the space, but another company signed a lease before Everyday Esports could. Undeterred, he is still looking for space and angel investors to launch the venture.

Corporate connections

Miller is jumping in at what looks to be an ideal moment for in-person gaming. Analytics company Newzoo reports that, even as digital esports viewership is increasing on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, there are many local initiatives looking to create physical gamer spaces.

Those efforts will be helped by esports making inroads across Tennessee in other ways. Last year, the Memphis Grizzlies set up an affiliated team called Grizz Gaming to compete against 20 other NBA franchise-affiliated teams. Recent Tennessee Titans addition Rodger Saffold is the CEO of Rise Nation, a competitive Call of Duty franchise. And Clarksville is in its second year of hosting F2 Con, a three-day esports tournament meant to show off the city’s 10-gigabit CDE Lightband internet.

“There’s such a market for local esports,” Proctor says. “It’s getting more expensive, but it’s not the NFL, so it’s a low entrance point for a business to support even a local esports league and to get the eyes of that audience.”

Brentwood-based staffing and consulting firm Vaco is carving out a place as an early supporter of area esports, donating food to Thursday Night Throwdowns once a month and having team members hang out with the players. Chris Spintzyk, a senior associate on Vaco’s technology team, says the recruiting company shows up to the esports event to stay connected to the tech network and give back to the community.

“The folks that are here, if they’re old enough, have jobs in technology, so they’re all potential points of contact for us,” Spintzyk says.

Spintzyk says he can see esports taking off in Nashville and that, if a major team or tournament comes to town, Vaco wants to be ready to jump in. Other groups, including the Tech Council and the Tennessee Entertainment Commission, also make in-kind donations or otherwise remain plugged into the esports. Miller says the Tennessee Army National Guard is a regular sponsor as well; as with Vaco, its leaders have a vested interest in the tech talent that attends esports events.

While local businesses may not yet have product placement in livestreams or sponsorships on local team jerseys, those in the gaming community think a boom is not far off. Corey Johns, project manager for digital content at the state entertainment commission, says people have approached him about building an esports arena or bringing a major tournament to Music City. Johns says he sees plenty of potential for Nashville to be home to a robust esports scene in part because, much as in other industries, investment dollars can go further in Tennessee than in the established esports hubs on the West Coast.

“There are probably a handful of places domestically that could have the opportunity with a premier esports facility that feeds right into the tourism interest and the interest from visitors,” Johns says. “We’re blessed here in Middle Tennessee to be in that position, so this makes all the sense in the world.”