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Inaugural USF eSports Summit Explains it All at a Sold-Out Event

By Keith Morelli

eSports Summit

TAMPA (September 18, 2019) -- Move over Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rays, Lightning, Rowdies, there’s a new sport in town. It’s time to roll out the red carpet for esports, the emerging phenomenon that is gaining momentum around the world and drawing millions of viewers on streaming platforms. The attraction: video gamers pitted against each other in competitions in which millions of dollars hang in the balance.

And the Muma College of Business’ Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program is breaking new ground by sponsoring the inaugural USF eSports Summit, held Wednesday, which drew about 250 attendees. Gamers and executives from across the nation gathered in the atrium, offering insights about the rapid emergence of this thing called esports. The event was sponsored by Fox Sports Florida.

Michelle Harrolle, director of the program said interest among graduate students is increasing and one recent graduate, Jordan Bellar, currently handles global esports partnerships for Harris-Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. Harrolle and Assistant Professor Janelle Wells recently published a book titled The Business of Esports: The Wild Wild West on Fire.

How serious is this industry? Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment is also co-executive chairman of aXiomatic Gaming, a company that was created in 2015 and is on a “mission to build a portfolio of dynamic company holdings in the esports and video gaming industry,” according to its website.

It manages Team Liquid, a band of gamers who compete internationally.

“Esports only became formalized over the past five or 10 years,” he said. “When it got to be somewhat formalized, that’s when I got involved with it. The main reason I got involved was the people.”

He said his partners mostly are owners of other professional sports teams and initially, he didn’t know much about the business side of esports.

“So, I hired somebody less than half my age to teach me,” he said. When he attended The International 2017, a major gaming championship held in Seattle, he became hooked. Millions of dollars were awarded to the winners and the sell-out crowd cheered like one at a professional sports game.

“It was incredible,” he said. “The building was packed.”

Video gaming has grown from Pong into a sophisticated industry now that features main events of gaming competitions in venues full of raucous fans. The global esports industry is expected to exceed $50 billion in revenue in 2019 and viewership will likely hit 450 million this year. These staggering stats are the basis for predictions that the market’s innovation and popularity are attracting wider interest and more importantly, new investments.

Vinik said esports is different from the physical professional sports, but it is sports with an incredible fan involvement and interest nonetheless. To get a hint of where it’s going, just look at some of the sponsors, he said. Coca-Cola and General Motors for example.

“The same sponsors representing the NHL and the NFL,” he said, “are supporting these esports teams.”

Still, much of the population is in the dark about it. What exactly is video gaming? Basically, it involves competing, like any other sport, except the players are in front of consoles working joysticks and buttons and are playing games with other competitors at the same time. The games they play are on large screens in arenas that everyone can see, or streamed into homes where fans can watch on their own computer screens.  

“I like to compare it to chess or poker” said Heather Garozzo, when she explains esports to her grandmother. “Esports are games of mental skill.”

Garozzo, vice president of marketing with Dignitas, said only a fraction of gamers reach the professional level, but all the other gamers want to watch the pros play.

“They (recreational gamers) want to be better,” she said. “They want to excel in their games.”

They will pay for a chance to watch their gamer heroes play, she said, and that has created this industry.

Playing video games for fun – and now profit – has gotten as close to mainstream entertainment as it can without really being noticed by everyone, and it is poised to be the next prime-time thing.

 “We’re seeing a subculture coming into its own,” said Eryn McVerry, vice president of marketing and content with Vision Venture Partners, “soon to become a part of the mainstream culture.”