Virtual slam dunk
As demographics and entertainment demands shift, Las Vegas is primed to rule the booming e-sports future
The NHL is coming, and that’s all well and good. The NFL might be coming, too, and all of a sudden it’s starting to look like Las Vegas might join the rarefied air of Charlotte, Nashville and Buffalo as bona fide two-sport cities.
Civic leaders love to point to these things as proof that Las Vegas is on the rise, taking its rightful place on the national stage among major metropolitan areas that matter to people. People like ESPN talking heads and Fox’s collection of roughly 93 analysts on its football pregame show. But it’s possible that these are moves for the past and present, and that the future is shaping up elsewhere.
After all, youth-football participation has fallen by nearly a third since 2010; even industry insiders openly question whether the sport will be the same, as science more convincingly links trauma-induced brain disease and football, making insuring programs at the high school and college level a nightmare. And ask the Phoenix Coyotes if hockey in the desert is a slam dunk.
What if the future of sports is just sports-adjacent?
Recently, while other casino-resorts pumped celebrity-chef restaurants and bigger, throbbier nightclubs to employ the horde of international DJs waiting for Ibiza season to roll around again, Downtown Grand started exploring a calculated zig to that zag. In November 2015, the resort introduced a new e-sports initiative and put in a lounge to host regular competitions. It might have been on to something.
Las Vegas wasn’t exactly a stranger to e-sports — Evo, or Evolution Championship Series, a fighting-game competition — has been held here since 2005. But when the League of Legends North American League Championship Series came to Mandalay Bay in April, it signaled a major shift toward Las Vegas becoming a prime destination for e-sports tournaments.
League of Legends is one of e-sports’ prime-time games, along with the likes of Dota 2, Counter-strike: Global Offensive, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch. Having a major LoL tournament here was like getting the NBA All-Star Game — something that put the city in play for other events. The Staples Center in L.A. might have hosted major tournaments so far, but e-sports cognoscenti think Vegas could rise as the e-sports capital of the United States.
“Vegas is going to be the hotbed for e-sports, and it’s not going to slow down. It’s going to get bigger and bigger,” John Bukosky says. Bukosky heads up Ultimate Media Ventures, which kicked off its monthly Battle on the Strip in October at SLS. The series works with e-sports leagues to create events based around tournaments that include opportunities for amateurs to compete, plus retail and cosplay. “I think Vegas is very interesting for all the publishers because of the international airport, because of the hotel situation. I think you’ll start to see entities come into town and build dedicated arenas. A campus to train, to play.”
E-sports has flirted with television before, as early as 2005, but it was still a niche curiosity in America, despite the fact that in the rest of the world, e-sports was shaping up to be a major player. South Korea was mad for Starcraft competitions, with two dedicated e-sports cable channels by that same year.
It took 10 years, but e-sports finally started bleeding into mainstream sports coverage. Last year, ESPN2 aired Heroes of the Dorm, a collegiate Heroes of the Storm tournament. E-sports highlights crept into SportsCenter. This summer, TBS launched ELeague, a live-broadcast series every Friday night in conjunction with WME-IMG, the mega-agency that just plunked down $4 billion for a stake in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and which acquired an agency specializing in e-sports competitors in 2015.
Two years ago, Amazon bought gaming live-stream platform Twitch for nearly a billion dollars. Twitch partnered with TBS for ELeague. Major game publisher Activision paid $46 million for Major League Gaming in January. That was around the same time ESPN.com launched an e-sports vertical, and when research firm Newzoo anticipated the global audience for e-sports would top 145 million in 2017, and hit $1.1 billion in revenues by 2019. Oh, and the Philadelphia 76ers just bought into two e-sports teams, Apex and Team Dignitas. Which is almost like having an affiliation with an actual pro sports team. Meanwhile, Team Liquid was acquired by a group that includes Magic Johnson, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber.
So it’s a bit of a thing.
“The thing is, we’ve been building our audience and fan base and player base for the last 16 years,” says e-sports competitor Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, a Las Vegan. He moved here in 2008 to help DirecTV’s massive, ill-fated move into the e-sports space, Championship Gaming Series. Wendel was recently summoned to meet Gov. Brian Sandoval to talk about the life of an e-sports competitor. “At the beginning of baseball, people thought it was crazy to make a living playing baseball. I don’t see much difference in what we’ve been doing in e-sports, kind of barnstorming around the world spreading the gospel of this. This is the sport of the 21st century. The player base is growing drastically every day.”
If the multiple arenas, huge inventory of hotel rooms and international airport don’t make Las Vegas attractive enough to tournament organizers — and those are huge assets to tout — then there are three other forces that keep Vegas in play.
The first is that the Nevada Gaming Control Board is exploring allowing sports books to take wagers on e-sports. Younger fans may have no interest in gambling on a big fight or a horse race, but let them bet on games they actually play, being contested at the highest levels? That could be a different story.
Which is the next part of the equation: Casinos are desperate to get millennials gambling. There’s a strong incentive to modernize the gaming business in a way that appeals to future generations of gamblers. “I don’t believe it’s any exaggeration that the millennial doesn’t play slot machines,” says Seth Schorr, Downtown Grand chairman. “There’s been some argument that the psychographic of any age group will be mixed between those who find comfort in chance-based gaming versus skill-based gaming. My observation is that millennials are generally not attracted to chance-based wagering, where their skill has no relevance to the outcome. Quite frankly, they seem to think it’s not very wise to put money in a machine, cross your fingers and hope for a good result.”
Millennials are, of course, an attractive demographic for any business, seeing as how there are a lot of them, and many haven’t formed their lifelong brand loyalties yet. More than half of the e-sports community is north of 25 years old, just in time for casinos to be facing declining slot play from the 21- to 35-year-old demographic. “It’s not going to be a unicorn that solves it on its own, but it’s going to be an important piece of the solution,” Schorr says.
But it’s more than just the millennial segment. Gamers represent about 23 million players across three generations —
nine million millennials, eight million Gen-Xers and six million baby boomers. It’s a reasonable assumption that the millennial preference for skill-based gaming over chance gaming carries into those older generations, as well.
That’s what Blaine Graboyes, CEO of the New York-based GameCo, is counting on. Schorr also sits on the board of the skill-based gaming company, which plans to open a Vegas office soon. Skilled gaming represents a new frontier on the casino floor. At their simplest, they’re video games that you play for a payout. The better you do, the more money you get back. The machines are expected to roll out when the state gives its final approval, potentially as soon as the next few months. Skill-based games just debuted at Caesars properties in Atlantic City, where Garden State regulators somehow beat Nevada to the punch. Graboyes not only sees a crucial link between skill-based gaming and e-sports, but he’s so bold as to suggest e-sports will eventually eclipse traditional sports.
“It will begin to eclipse traditional sports year over year,” Graboyes says. “In many ways it already has, depending on what the metric is. Viewership for the League of Legends finals beat everything except for Super Bowl and Women’s World Cup. Prize pool for the Dota 2 international beat Wimbledon and PGA. Fandom is the same size as most traditional sports.” And as the audience continues to age, those trends will carry e-sports deeper into the mainstream. “I absolutely think it will eclipse the majority, if not all, traditional sports over the next decade.”
He’s not worried that far more e-sports viewers are watching on Twitch and other online streaming sites as opposed to traditional television. (Twitch is widely seen as being instrumental in fueling e-sports’ rocketing viewership numbers.) Graboyes is a member of the Producers Guild of America, and he openly questions the value of televised content.
“All of our contracts on the gambling side also include us working with the casinos around e-sports activations. That’s going to continue to be a big component. In the next few years you’re going to see new kinds of events. Right now we’re talking about two, four or eight teams competing in professional competitions, but I think more and more we’re going to see consumer-style events where it’s walk-on, open tournaments. Once we see more and more of that, there’s going to be a big home for that at casinos. Skill gaming and e-sports have an opportunity to grow to the size of the ($45 billion) slot industry over time. They support each other so organically. E-sports need venues, casinos need entertainment. There is a pretty natural and organic link between the activities.” And if Vegas can take the lead in hosting, promoting and developing virtual sports, the payoff will be very real indeed.