Not all the games played at the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento will feature athletes running around and hoisting a ball into a basket. Some will have star players who move nothing but their hands.
The new arena’s high-tech features make it an ideal venue for eSports, an umbrella term for professional video games, Kings officials say. They say they’re trying to appeal to millennials, and millennials play – and watch – video games.
“They know how hard it is and how unbelievably talented these players are,” said Andy Miller, a member of the Kings’ ownership group. He and fellow Kings co-owner Mark Mastrov last year launched a team called NRG eSports, which plays the games “League of Legends” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and major-league baseball players Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins recently invested in the team.
Miller, a former executive at Leap Motion and Apple, said he got into eSports after he started going to live tournaments and witnessed the energy and passion in the stadiums.
“We have been seeing these tournaments sell out,” Miller said, noting that the “League of Legends” North American championship last year was held at Madison Square Garden. According to a Wall Street Journal account, about 11,000 fans packed the stadium. The lights were turned down and players sat on 10 chairs arranged on a stage. Jumbo screens gave fans seated far away a close-up view of the action.
Miller said eSports tournaments are “like a well choreographed TV show” with lights, theatrics and fans dressed up in the colors of their favorite teams. “It’s like a giant party,” he said.
With a price tag north of $518 million, Golden 1 Center includes a variety of whiz-bang features, including Wi-Fi billed as 17,000 times faster than that in people’s homes, and an 84-foot-long, high-definition scoreboard.
“I’m not sure there’s any arena in the country that’s more tailor-made for eSports than Golden 1 Center,” said Kings President Chris Granger. No particular events have been lined up yet, however.
ESports professional leagues operate much like an NBA team, Miller says. Pro teams generally have five players who play different roles, each making salaries ranging from $100,000 to $1 million per year, Miller said.
Players either live in the same town or in a home together. They practice and train together, even getting workouts and tips from nutritionists. There are cooks, coaches, analysts and a large social media presence for the teams.
At the moment, traditional sports still enjoy much larger fan bases. NRG, Miller’s team, has almost 24,000 followers on Twitter, “League of Legends” has 2.9 million followers, and the Kings have just over 457,000 followers. The Los Angeles Lakers have 4.8 million followers; the NBA, 21.6 million.
Deloitte, the global accounting and consulting firm, predicts that eSports will generate worldwide revenue of $500 million in 2016, up 25 percent from 2015. That compares to $30 billion for European soccer – the worldwide heavyweight – and $5 billion for the NBA.
Miller said the eSports are still in their infancy but have enormous growth potential. “Most teams are profitable,” he said. “Mine is not because it’s brand new ... Eventually we’ll move to formal leagues with revenue sharing and it won’t be much different than the NBA.”
He also predicted that cities may eventually host eSports teams, much as they do traditional sports. Team EnVyUs has been working with the city of Charlotte, N.C., to build a facility specifically for eSports with funding from a Charlotte venture capital fund.
Dylan Walker, eSports content creator for Yahoo eSports, said the sport has a huge following in part because people can watch from home and even interact with players.
“ESports has been a ‘thing’ for a long time, but it has seemed to spiral out of control in the last four to five years with online streaming,” Walker said, commenting on the huge influx of online and in-person fans. Websites like Twitch and YouTube Gaming are ways for fans and players to watch live streams of games.
“It makes people feel engaged. They can watch their favorite personalities and professionals on a level they couldn’t have even dreamed of.”