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USF Esports Summit Offers Keynote Speakers, Observations in Virtual Event

By Keith Morelli

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TAMPA (October 15, 2020) -- Jordan Zietz personifies the trajectory of esports around the globe. He is young, adept at video games of all kinds; he has the ability to pivot to new opportunistic directions at a moment’s notice. He is the founder and CEO of All Star eSports League, a company that provides platforms for high school gamers to compete and win prize money. Zietz was the keynote speaker at the USF Esports Summit this week.

Oh, he is also a first-year college student.

His youth, he said, is a key to his success.

“Nobody knows better than I do what college students want, what high school students want,” Zietz said. “Surveys are not the same as being your own target demographic.”

Just 18, Zietz heads the official high school esports league that hosts competitions across the nation and offers millions of dollars in scholarships, professional opportunities and other prizes. High school gamer teams compete against other high school gamers in a regular season and the best teams compete in regional and national championships.

He spoke to hundreds of registrants tuned into the summit offered this year on a virtual platform. He talked about his inspirations, his career, short as it is, and the prospects for the future. He started out as a gamer and wanted one day to be a professional. He founded his first company at 13 and now realizes video gaming is much more than just talent in front of a console.

“It is a much larger industry,” he said. “There are people working in finance, marketing, sales … there is always a way to find a path that might not be traditionally expected, but pursing that dream may be equally rewarding.”

The summit, which was hosted by the Muma College of Business’ Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program and sponsored by the Vinik Sport Group, showcased leaders in the industry in lectures, panel discussions and break-out sessions. This is the second year the program staged the summit. About 250 registered to attend and the event was live-streamed into high school and university classes around the country.

“Besides the gaming talent that really are the heart and soul of the esports experience, there must also be front office people, just like in professional and collegiate sports, to handle the marketing, accounting and financials of the industry,” said Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem in his opening remarks. “In short, esports is opening up a new field for business majors across the nation and the world. While many people think esports is a game. It is not a game. It is a business. A very big business.

In 2019, esports reached an audience of 380 million and it will likely grow to 557 million in 2021. Global revenues also are rising exponentially and by 2023, revenue will more than double the revenue generated in 2018.

“We’re talking billions of dollars here,” Limayem said. “That is why it makes sense for a highly ranked business school in a preeminent university to take it upon itself to host this event.”

One common thread throughout the summit was how the industry is growing, even as the COVID-19 pandemic blankets the United States and the globe.

Ann Hand, chair and CEO of Super League Gaming, is not like Zietz. She is a veteran business leader having held executive positions at BP, Project Frog, MacDonald’s and Exxon-Mobil. She said her company had steered into virtual platforms before the pandemic struck and was well positioned when the nation shut down its live events.

“The silver lining of the pandemic for us was that we just saw a huge surge of engagement,” she said, “both in playing time and registered players. We also saw a big surge in our viewership; a significant surge in viewership.”

That surge meant people who had not been involved with esports were becoming familiar with the phenomenon, she said.

“The fun thing is seeing that esprots content is digestible and enjoyable even if you don’t play that game,” she said. “It was an opportunity for our content to fill this void. This has been a real opportunity to help people get it, something they weren’t getting just eight months ago.”

Going forward, she said, the esports industry is looking for qualified, business-minded people not only to work the consoles, but also to do the important front office tasks.

“We need great marketers, accountants, HR people,” she said. “If you’re passionate gamer working for an insurance company in HR, there is no reason you can’t apply those skills to a company involved in gaming.”

Todd Harris, CEO of Skillshot Media, chair of Atlanta Esports Alliance and cofounder of Hi-Rez Studios, said the pandemic caused a major disruption in his company, which plans and hosts large competitive live events.

“We pivoted entirely away from physical events,” he said. “We had been planning an event during NCAA Final Four in Atlanta (in the spring).” The March Madness tournament and the gaming event both were canceled because of COVID-19.

“However, we were able to pivot very hard to virtual events,” he said. “Esport can be remote so we accelerated everything to virtual production. We went hard on virtual events, and we are honestly busier than ever. New partners, new brands were forced to discover esports. They ignored it before.”

Still, he said, the industry is longing for the return to live events, where thousands of spectators fill arenas to watch gamers compete.

“The competitive integrity, the monetization and merchandizing; the food and beverage sales, the social engagement,” he said, “all those things you can’t replace.”

It is a young industry – less than a decade old – that is filled with people who are all in, the panelists and speakers agreed. Zietz, the prodigy gamer turned business executive, is proof of that point.

“What I do, I truly enjoy,” Zietz said. “Personally, I love the spontaneity and chaotic environments and that is what this is.

“I wear all the hats,” he said, “marketing, financing, customer service. I enjoy what I do. It’s fun. I have the freedom to do what I want. I am choosing a path and making things happen.

“I feel like this is another class I’m taking,” he said, “and this is my class project.”