In October, Houston’s Clutch and Shanghai’s Bilibili faced off in an exhibition game at Six Foot Studios, an entertainment production company on West Alabama. The two teams of five sat in leather recliners in front of computer monitors, each player represented by a creature firing a weapon in a field, as the game played out on the large screen that dominated the room.
While analysts discussed strategy and offered commentary, 891,000 spectators from around the world tuned in online, watching as the camera cut from the creatures to their human counterparts and back again. The teams were battling it out at League of Legends, the world’s most popular video game.
The audience was actually nothing unusual. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people every week,” says Sebastian Park, VP of eSports for the Rockets, who own Clutch, “even in the millions for regular-season games, and for playoffs and the world championships, tens of millions. It’s a large audience that watches.”
It was only last year that the Rockets announced their new division for eSports, calling it Clutch Gaming and becoming the first pro franchise in the country to hire an executive, Park, to run it (other NBA teams, the NFL, and the NHL are all entering this universe, too). The October game in Houston was part of a press conference, during which the Rockets announced a new partnership with Bilibili Gaming, which will broadcast Clutch matches in China.
If video gaming doesn’t sound like a sport to you, you’re increasingly in the minority—even the International Olympic Committee now recognizes it. As do, you know, actual parents: According to an onslaught of recent headlines, they’re now hiring tutors to help their kids improve at gaming. And why shouldn’t they? The best players stand to make mighty fine salaries, and pro tournaments can have purses of up to $25 million. In all, the global eSports economy is worth nearly $1 billion, with an audience of around 380 million—staggering.
There are now dedicated eSports centers around the country, too. Clutch plays at the LCS Battle Arena in Los Angeles, a hub for gamers. Meanwhile, another pro team with local ties—the Houston Outlaws, who compete in the shooting game Overwatch—perform at Blizzard Arena, also in L.A. (they’re actually owned by an organization out of Fort Worth, but maintain a large Bayou City following). At these arenas, audiences of hundreds cheer on the teams in person. Players are introduced like pro wrestlers before turning their attention to their monitors.
Houston could become a real hub soon, too, as multiple local investors are planning to open venues here. The Cannon—a 120,000-square-foot development going up near Memorial City and scheduled to open early next year—will include startup incubator space, retail, restaurants, and an eSports arena. While it’s unclear whether the venue will play host to its own pro team or not, it’s said the Outlaws will move their base to Houston by 2020, and new leagues and teams are starting up all the time. It’s certainly likely to host major tournaments.
Then there’s Next Level, which could open as soon as this month. The 7,000-square-foot space in Midtown—which will feature dozens of computers equipped for high-level gaming and its own large screen for spectators, plus a bar and lounge area—will primarily serve Houston’s hobby gamers, at least at the beginning.
“There’s a huge hunger in Houston,” says Njsane Courtney, who, along with two partners, cashed out his 401(k) to fund Next Level. “We just jump from place to place, looking for a home. That’s what we hope to provide to the Houston gaming community.”
That community, Courtney adds, will grow as more people come to see eSports as legit. “I know a lot of adults my age that scratch their heads and say, Really? You’re gonna spend time and money watching people play video games?” he laughs. “I say, What do we do on Sunday? We literally get together at big-screen TVs and watch other people play football.”
It’s true: How different is that, really?