Esports is big business

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Nevada gaming companies over the past few years have made a concerted push to target a previously untapped tourism market: millennials. 

Casinos aren’t luring internet natives with cards and chips. Rather, the effort has revolved around digital entertainment. 

Earlier this year, the MGM Grand added Virtual Reality Powered by Zero Latency, a 2,000-square-foot arena where players can team up to battle zombies, solve physics-based problems on other worlds and fight robots and killer drones in zero-gravity space.  

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The arena is integrated into MGM’s Level Up, a high-tech gaming lounge. For $50, players equipped with VR headsets can form teams of eight to wage a 30-minute war against the computer. 

Inside the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes, players at the Void experience “Ghostbusters,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” or “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” where players get goggles and a computer backpack and are disguised as storm troopers and transported to the planet Mustafar to recover intelligence vital to the Rebellion. 

At the Linq, gamers can visit a series of VR lounges with leather couches, big-screen TVs and Xbox game systems. Games like “Creed,” “Raw Data” and “The Walking Dead” are on offer. 

PlatformaVR, a Russia-based company, opened a free-roam VR experience at Bally’s in January.  

The Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino, the first Las Vegas property to court gamers, boasts an esports Boot Camp and has converted some guestrooms to be esports team-friendly, featuring bunk beds that allow eight people to share a room. 

The Luxor’s 33,000-square-foot HyperX esports Arena has a 50-foot LED screen and a digital production and broadcast facility for hosting professional tournaments for games like “League of Legends,” “Overwatch” and “Fortnite.” 

Revenues on rise

Newzoo, an esports market research firm, said that esports’ global audience will soon reach 380 million and generate $1.4 billion in revenue by 2020, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

The professional Overwatch League has 20 teams, including three in China and one each in London, Paris and Seoul. The league’s second season, which saw an expansion from 12 teams to 20, began in February and culminates with playoffs which begin after the final regular season games on Aug. 25. The finals will be held at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Sept. 29. 

New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, home to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, played host this past weekend to a massive Fortnite World Cup tournament. The winner, 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf of Pennsylvania, blasted his way to a $3 million payday. The second- and third-place finishers won $1.8 million and $1.2 million, respectively. Even the last-place contestant went home with $50,000. 

Lovell Walker, MGM Resorts International’s head of esports, envisions Las Vegas as the mecca of esports. 

“As a company, we’re focused on figuring out where we play in this space,” Walker said. “I see us supporting the industry in ways others can’t. We have the venues.” 

Walker believes Las Vegas can host an entire league on its own. 

The Nevada Esports Alliance (NVEA) and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority are working with industry experts, casinos and gaming regulators in the hopes of making Las Vegas the premiere destination for esports. Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International, the LVCVA, William Hill Race & Sports Book, and UNLV’s International Gaming Institute are all members of the NVEA. 

The institute offers the first-ever academic course and lab on the integration of esports and Las Vegas-style resorts. 

“Esports is the hottest topic in every board room on the strip, particularly with respect to millennials,” said Robert Rippee, director of the Hospitality Lab and ESports Lab. “What better place to begin the journey to understand its relevance and application to the casino and hospitality industry than right here at UNLV?” 

Brett Abarbanel, director of research at the International Gaming Institute, is scheduled to speak at the Casino ESports Conference, which will take place Sept. 4-5 in the HyperX ESports Arena at the Luxor. 

Abarbanel and Mark R. Johnson of the University of Alberta found in a study a potential problem for casinos who want to open esports gambling markets. 

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The researchers looked at attitudes among gamers on match-fixing — a big problem for those who want to offer wagering. 

“Results indicate that esports viewers are not deeply concerned by match-fixing,” Abarbanel and Johnson wrote in the study. “In addition, spectators typically view gambling as a cause of corruption among competitors, but also understand and accept some elements of the practice. 

“Further, spectators tend to rely on rules to determine their assessment of what is ‘wrong,’ rather than assessments based on ethics, and are often willing to forgive infractions through a range of reasons and justifications. We propose a need for education among esports spectators, extending existing anti-cheating programs beyond just athletes to include the broader esports community.” 

Abarbanel has urged education on cheating and match-fixing, not only for players who might be tempted to take an under-the-table payment to throw a contest, but also for players, coaches, spectators and game developers. 

Gaming regulators have received just four requests, Nevada Gaming Control Board chair Sandra Douglass Morgan said at a gaming education conference earlier this year. 

“Similar to skill-based gaming, there seems to be public interest in esports, but not a significant demand from licensees to offer wagers on esports events,” Morgan said. “As esports evolve and oversight and sanctioning organizations emerge, the board expects an increase in the amount of esports style wagering.” 

MGM’s Walker said he believes there is interest and that it will grow. 

“I can open an esports market and have people bet into it,” he said. “Esports are becoming more mainstream. I see that side (gambling) maturing as well.” 

Before that happens, esports leagues and players will need to adopt the ethics of traditional sports leagues. 

Abarbanel, who is also a director of NVEA, says the demand for betting on esports is only going to grow. 

“Betting on people playing video games may be more popular than you think,” she told KTNV. “Pinnacle, which is a large sports book in Curacao, announced esports had overtaken golf and rugby in terms of popularity on their site. They are looking at 100 percent growth numbers year over year.” 

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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