Esports is rapidly growing, and Atlanta has a lot to do with it

Overwatch League 2019 Season2019-07-06 / Photo: Tonya McCahon for Blizzard Entertainment

Credit: Ben Pursell

Credit: Ben Pursell

Overwatch League 2019 Season2019-07-06 / Photo: Tonya McCahon for Blizzard Entertainment

More than 2,700 people lined up outside of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre donning various team jerseys and holding signs. Later on inside, loud cheers and chants of “ATL! ATL!” came from the crowd when the local team was doing well along with boos when the opposing team had success.

The line at customer service filled with fans hoping to secure their all-access passes made it nearly impossible to navigate through the entrance of the venue. People came dressed in character outfits and were left in awe when they spotted one of their favorite athletes. This is esports, and the Atlanta Reign, a product of the Overwatch League, hosted an event for the first time earlier this month. It was the second time in Overwatch League history that a team hosted an event and it sold out to roughly 4,500 passionate fans. People could purchase single day tickets for $40, or obtain a VIP weekend pass for $280.

“Seeing this is like coming to a real sports event,” said Cas “Casores” Van Endel, a player-development coach for the Reign. “That’s really promising. If you can sell out arenas like this all over the world, there’s a very good future.”

But what is esports? Esports is generally defined as competitive video gaming with a live or broadcast audience. The games competitors play vary, from sports video games like NBA 2K or Madden to multiplayer team shooter games, like Halo, or specifically to the Reign, Overwatch.

In Overwatch, teams of six square off to take control and defend points on a variety of different maps. One team wins when all points are controlled in the allotted time. The Overwatch League consists of 20 international teams that play 70 matches divided in four stages. Each match features four games played on different maps. The team that wins the best out of four games, wins the match. The teams then participate in a stage playoff and an all-star summer event, followed by postseason playoffs. It then culminates in the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals.

Andrew Greenberg, the commissioner of the Georgia Esports League and the executive director of the Georgia Game Developers Association, is starting to see how other communities, like business and sports, are understanding esports and its growth.

Greenberg views it in three ways. First, in his mind, esports is influencing traditional sports. Football players play games such as Madden, and NASCAR drivers play NASCAR video games. Sports leaders are invested. In 2017, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, bought a majority stake in the esports franchise compLexity gaming. Lastly, a major drive for the esports community is its audience, which is dominated by a younger crowd, typically ranging from ages 18-30.

“(It’s) pretty much a key part of the fan base that is very dedicated and very involved in watching,” Greenberg said. “They don’t just go and watch the competition once. They get on YouTube and watch it later on as well.”

That much was evident at Atlanta Reign’s homestand. In the first match against the Toronto Defiant, the Reign, whose players go by their in-game nickname, won a best-of-four series, 3-1 and followed it the next day with a 4-0 over the Florida Mayhem to improve to 9-12 on the season. The match was shown on a projector screen in the main amphitheater, surrounded by multiple TVs that showed different vantage points. The matches were also broadcast live on Twitch, a popular online streaming platform.

Esports and Atlanta 

Esports isn’t just a one-time thing in Atlanta. The groundwork and development have been in place for several years. Now, most community gamers consider the city as one of the sport’s main hubs. Los Angeles dominates the West Coast, while Atlanta is the leader on the East Coast.

Grant Wainscott works as the senior director for ecosystem expansion at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. He heads up the economic development and works with digital media practices. Esports got on his radar almost five years ago, when companies such as Hi-Rez S studios and Turner Sports (which organized the ELeague, a premium esports content and live tournament brand that has events broadcasted on TBS) started to develop jobs and opportunities for the growth of the sport.

In 2015, Hi-Rez hosted the first Smite World Championships in Atlanta, giving people in the business community, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and elected officials, a firsthand look. The sport, along with technology as a whole, has grown exponentially in the city since, with Atlanta now ranking sixth nationally for new tech startups and new tech businesses.

“It gave us something local and impactful that we could actually say, ‘see this is what we’re talking about,’” Wainscott said.

Georgia’s state film tax credit applies to esports. It gives incentives to game publishers and broadcast companies, which spurs interest. Local colleges, such as Georgia State, have developed varsity esports programs. The Georgia High School Association now recognizes esports as one of its winter sports and held the first state championships May 19.

With the backing of state associations and interest nationally, esports isn’t your traditional sport, but it certainly classifies as a sport.

“With particularly how many people are invested in it and playing it, this isn’t a maybe anymore, this is the future of gaming,” Wainscott said.

Atlanta Reign and the ‘perfect environment’

The Reign formed in 2018 and competed for the first time in February. The franchise is owned by Atlanta Esports Ventures, a joint venture between Cox Enterprises — the owners of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — and Province, Inc., led by Paul Hamilton. Brad “Sephy” Rajani is the head coach for the Reign. In 2016, he owned Selfless Gaming, a team that was stationed in Dunwoody.

Then, there are the players themselves. The Reign’s roster features players from all over the world, including the United States, South Korea and Sweden. The team is based in Los Angeles but plans to move to Atlanta next year.

On July 6, when the Reign was successful — meaning it eliminated an opposing player in-game or captured a key objective — it was met with praise from the crowd. The Reign’s players had previously visited Atlanta only a few times for special community events. Players attended MomoCon in late May, an anime convention started in 2005 by students at Georgia Tech that now features esports. But in many ways, this visit was the first time for the players to perform in front of their home fans.

“It was just like extra motivation,” said Andrej “Babybay” Francisty, an American player for the Reign who is originally from Chicago. “There’s no doubt that like when we’re up there, we cannot lose.”

Rajani knew about Atlanta and its place in the esports community before joining on to coach this season. He also recognizes that what will keep the sport going forward is the younger generation of players. To him, Atlanta just seemed like a perfect fit.

“The hot spot to be is in Atlanta. … There's just a young, diverse population here, very tech-savvy. It's just the perfect environment,” Rajani said.

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