I saw it and recoiled. There it was, the lead story on my second-favorite website, HuskerMax: The University of Nebraska, home of my beloved Cornhuskers, was pumping big money into an esports program. They were building an esports arena, offering esports scholarships, and, I would assume, adding miniature ice bath tubs for exhausted hands and wrists and featuring Hot Pockets and Red Bull (possibly on tap) at the famed athletes’ training table.
I would have shed a tear, but my tear ducts are desiccated from constant use during the past 20-plus years of Nebraska football futility — the dry season since legendary coach Tom Osborne hung up his whistle in 1997. Why couldn’t they have used that esports money to buy an offensive line?
It’s bad enough that Nebraska has surrendered its status as a primo football school and become a women’s bowling school and a women’s volleyball school — which I say casting no shade on those championship-caliber programs.
Is it destined to become a video game powerhouse as well?
If so, it has some catching up to do. As of the end of December 2022, according to ONE37pm, the Georgia of college esports schools is Miami of Ohio, which offers a master’s degree in esports management; other top schools — the Alabamas and Ohio States of video gaming, if you will — include Maryville University of St. Louis (No. 2) and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (No. 3).
Schools in the website’s top 10 field serious teams with coaching staffs; some offer accredited programs; some offer full-tuition scholarships, plus a housing stipend; one team conducts a weeklong online summer camp for would-be enrollees; all specialize in training on a panoply of video games — League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, et al. Alas, none feature specialized instruction in Pong, which consumed my many hours — and quarters — back in the day.
We pause here for a reality check. What exactly are we talking about when we say “esports”?
The “sport” in its current iteration involves people sitting in chairs playing video games, people sitting in arenas watching on jumbotrons as the people sitting in chairs play video games, and announcers — that is, “shoutcasters,” in the regnant patois — broadcasting the action from those video games for streaming services to people sitting in chairs viewing the games on their personal devices. (READ MORE by Tom Raabe: Glimmers of Anti-Woke Sanity in the World of Hockey)
It’s not exactly a new phenomenon. Esports traces its origins to a national Space Invaders tournament in 1980, in which 10,000 participants, sitting at 10,000 Atari consoles, lasered waves of descending aliens for prizes. The next year, a “surprisingly cutthroat, inaugural Donkey Kong tournament” was held, according to one history.
These days, it’s a big business, generating big money and big crowds. The industry exceeded $1.38 billion last year while importuning 532 million to watch the action.
A lot of those viewers show up in person. The League of Legends Championship Series, a.k.a. Worlds, the biggest tournament, draws tens of thousands into arenas for spectacle-like events — an array of huge screens magnifies the electronic warfare taking place on smaller screens on the main floor. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn drew 65,000 over a number of days to watch a tournament in 2020; Madison Square Garden filled its 18,000-plus seats two nights in a row for a Worlds semifinals in 2016 (at $46 or $61 per seat); a World-Cup-quality stadium in South Korea filled with 45,000 in 2014.
The streaming numbers, however, dwarf the in-house crowds. It makes sense: Why break out a clean pair of sweatpants and trek down to an arena when you can stream the games while never leaving your mom’s basement?
For the 2021 Worlds, for example, in Reykjavik, Iceland, 73.86 million peak concurrent viewers caught the action, according to Statista. For comparison’s sake, the Super Bowl that year summoned 96.4 million to their big-screen TVs. Another source said that 443 million people watch esports tourneys on a regular basis.
The teams that compete in these events are sponsored by the game manufacturers themselves, which organize leagues of teams to play their games. There is the League of Legends league, as mentioned, but also the Overwatch league and Call of Duty league. The leagues sell franchises to cities — the Call of Duty league features the Seattle Surge and Minnesota ROKKR, for example; the Overwatch league has franchises in Seoul, Los Angeles, and Paris, among others.
The minimum salary for a player in the Overwatch league, as set by the league, is $50,000; top players rack up about $300,000, which is less than League of Legends player salaries, which can reach seven figures.
But there is another even more lucrative revenue stream for the entrepreneurial gamer — lifestyle gaming. Lifestyle gamers are like influencers: They gain social media followers because of not only their gaming skills but also their personality, their charm, and their on-screen charisma.
One lifestyle gamer, known as Yassuo – gamers boast noms de guerre, as it were – in 2020 claimed “1.2 million subscribers on YouTube, more than a million followers on Twitch, nearly 300,000 on Instagram and 215,000 on Twitter. Appealing and charming and handsome, he was the kind of person advertisers and sponsors are happy to be affiliated with.”
Who says that prolonging adolescence doesn’t pay?
But enough whining. As for the important stuff, there’s a new football coach in Lincoln now. Spirits are soaring, and the Kool-Aid is sluicing down the throats of salt-of-the-earth Nebraskans as readily as the “red beers” in neighborhood taverns from Omaha to Ogallala, from Scottsbluff to Schuyler.
And, as of now, he is undefeated.
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