Zero Suit Samus and R.O.B. briefly replaced Cauley-Stein, Hield and Evans on the floor of Golden 1 Center Wednesday night.
Just over 17,000 people watched as Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada, 20, a professional video game player from the NRG ESports organization, beat Caleb Patton, 20, from Hayward, during an intense 5-minute game of Super Smash Bros. The players sat on high leather stools as their animated characters’ antics were broadcast on the mega-scoreboard.
The brief exhibition game was just a taste of what some of the Kings owners expect will be a much more significant presence for professional video game play in Sacramento’s new downtown arena. NRG ESports, based in Los Angeles, was founded in 2015 by Kings co-owners Andrew Miller and Mark Mastrov. Former Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and major-league baseball players Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins have also invested.
Miller, a former executive at Leap Motion and Apple, said he got into eSports – an umbrella term for professional video gaming – after he started going to live tournaments and witnessed the energy and passion in the stadiums.
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Some of that was felt in Sacramento earlier this month when members of the local podcast Videogame BANG! and Capitol Fight District, a Sacramento-based gaming community, hosted a tournament to determine who got to play against Nairo Wednesday.
Over 50 people attended the “Road to the Golden 1 Center” contest at Pregame Burgers and Beer on J Street, in celebration of NRG coming to Sacramento. The Sacramento Kings Dancers even made a special appearance.
“Once team NRG was formed (in 2015), my first thought was the Golden 1 Center,” said Chance Carson, 18, from Sacramento, who stood with the crowd that gathered on the concourse of the Golden 1 Center Wednesday, as the final four competitors from Saturday’s tournament battled for the spot next to Nairo during halftime.
Nairo, originally from Passaic, New Jersey, is the third ranked Super Smash Bros. player in the world. He hung out with the crowd on the concourse Wednesday afternoon before the Kings faced the Milwaukee Bucks, watching the screen as competitors played Nintendo avatars, like Luigi or Princess Peach. Young fans hugged him tightly as they greeted him and asked for autographs. Others were near tears when he accepted their offer to be in a photo.
“I’ve never been at a basketball game, ever,” Nairo said, smiling from ear to ear. “I always like traveling and going to new places. It is definitely something I didn’t think I would be doing when I first started playing the game,” he added.
“It’s pretty cool that playing something I enjoy ended up being way bigger than I imagined it would be,” he said.
Most eSports professional leagues operate much like an NBA team, Miller says. Pro teams, like those who play League of Legends, generally have five players who play different roles, each making salaries ranging from $100,000 to $1 million per year, Miller said.
Super Smash Bros. teams have at least one player representing them, and some competitions have players face off one-on-one and play for the best of five matches. According to Red Bull, the energy drink company that hosts eSports tournaments and sponsors some players, top Smash competitors can make over $95,000 a year.
By staging the half-time show, Miller said he was trying to whet the appetite of Kings fans for eSports. Miller has said he eventually expects to host full-scale video gaming tournaments in Golden 1 Center.
“We are looking at opportunities to bring some tournaments into Sacramento across different eSports. It will happen eventually,” Miller said.
According to market researcher Newzoo, the eSports economy will grow to $696 million in 2017 from $463 million in 2016. The total market is expected to triple to $1.5 billion by 2020.
NRG sits at the helm of the industry, which attracted 42 million unique viewers from around the world during the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, a larger viewership than the NBA Finals. The organization recently took steps to raise its profile further by signing a sponsorship deal with Events D.C., the official convention and sports authority of the District of Columbia. Events D.C. will provide logos for NRG jerseys, and NRG in turn will promote Events D.C. across social media and through its online streaming channels on Twitch, a website where players can invite fans to watch them live.
Eventually, eSports could take its place alongside basketball in NBA arenas across the country. Last month, the NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, a New York-based video game company, announced the 2018 launch of the NBA 2K eLeague, a professional competitive gaming league that will follow a professional sports league format. According to a press release, each team will be operated by an NBA franchise, with affiliates announced in the coming months.
“We are creating the world’s next true “elite” sport – virtual basketball,” Take-Two said in a February Facebook post.
Ryan Peters, spokesman for Take-Two, said he has no comment on what NBA organizations have shown interest, but said all will be presented with the offer. “The NBA commissioner (Adam Silver) said he hopes all 30 teams will join,” Peters said.
Jessica Hice: 916-321-1550, @Jess_Hice