Here comes the esports revolution – are video gamers the Tom Bradys of tomorrow?

Investors, the news media, and academia are all beginning to recognize that interactive gaming lies at a confluence of evolving technology and shifting demographics that is transforming entertainment.

Courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment
Fans cheer Valiant players after their win over the Los Angeles Gladiators at the tournament in the Blizzard Arena.

Brady Girardi smiles as the next fan in line hands him a poster to sign. “You were so good tonight!” the woman gushes as Mr. Girardi scrawls his name across the page. He murmurs a thank-you and poses with her for a selfie. 

The fan, whose shock of yellow-green hair matches Girardi’s jersey, walks away with a wide grin. Girardi resumes his place with his eight teammates around a marker-strewn table set up in the middle of the same arena where earlier that night they pulled a spectacular upset against a league front-runner. The line of fans waiting for photos and autographs winds all the way up into the stands.

The trappings of the postgame meet-and-greet might sound familiar to the average sports fan. But Girardi and his team, the Los Angeles Valiant, probably won’t. That’s because the Valiant isn’t a basketball or baseball team. It’s an esports team whose players compete at the world’s highest levels in a video game called Overwatch.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Valiant players (from left) Young-seo Park, Brady Girardi, and Ted Wang greet fans and sign autographs after the team’s win over the Dynasty.

The match they just won against top contender Seoul Dynasty kicks off the closing week of the first stage of contests in the inaugural Overwatch League – a pioneering global tournament that brings together 12 teams from Asia, Europe, and the United States to compete for $3.5 million in prize money. The league’s goal: to raise competitive gaming to a level of professionalism and recognition that may one day rival that of baseball or football.

“The vision here is that someday it’ll be no different to come home and grab the family to watch an Overwatch game than it is today to grab the family and watch a Major League Baseball game,” says league commissioner Nate Nanzer, an executive for Overwatch publisher Blizzard Entertainment. 

Skeptics might scoff, but it’s not a far-fetched idea. Already the Overwatch League looks more like a traditional sports conference than any esports tournament in history. Matches are broadcast live from the Blizzard Arena, a 530-seat amphitheater with an elevated stage that features two banks of gaming computers and six massive high-resolution screens.

The league’s sponsors include not just Intel Corp. and ­Hewlett-Packard Co., but also nontech powerhouses such as Toyota and T-Mobile. Team owners, who include the likes of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, had to commit to providing players such as Girardi with housing benefits, health insurance and retirement plans, and a salary of no less than $50,000 a year.

And the Overwatch League represents just the first click of the mouse. Investors, the news media, and academia are all beginning to recognize that interactive gaming lies at a confluence of evolving technology and shifting demographics that is transforming entertainment. Consider: In 1995, about 100 million people worldwide played interactive video games. By 2016, it was 2.6 billion.

As gaming’s competitive arm, esports seems poised to extend that transformation into the realms of sport and spectacle. The night the Valiant won, hundreds of fans came to cheer their favorite teams at the arena. Never mind that it was a Wednesday and that the games weren’t even part of the season-ending playoffs.

Eventually, esports could even change what it means to be an athlete. The sports stars of tomorrow may no longer be chiseled home run hitters or deft three-point shooters. They may be gaming gurus with quick thumbs and a cunning virtual sense.

“The digital revolution has changed everything out there, and now it’s changing competition,” says Mark Deppe, acting director of the esports program at the University of California, Irvine. “Esports is the future.”

In his 2011 novel “Ready Player One” (the film adaptation hits theaters late this month), Ernest Cline depicts a dystopian future in which unemployment and energy shortages push just about everyone with a computer to seek escape in a virtual-reality video game called OASIS. Experiencing the Overwatch universe beamed in 4K resolution on the screens around the Blizzard Arena here makes it easy to imagine how large swaths of humanity might someday immerse themselves in a game.

Players such as Girardi – known to fans and insiders by his online tag, “Agilities” – approach their profession with seriousness. The 18-year-old would be the first to say he’s fortunate to get to play video games for a living. He also talks about his professional gaming career the way a talented teenage basketball player might have viewed getting a shot at playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) a generation ago: as improbable but not inconceivable.

“I did want to go to college and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life after I was done with high school. But I never got to that point,” says Girardi, who was 16 when he moved to Los Angeles from his hometown in Lethbridge, Alberta, after signing on with Immortals, the Valiant’s parent company. “Video games happened, so this is my job now.”

Girardi’s teammate and fellow Canadian Stefano “Verbo” Disalvo went a step further. As soon as he realized that top players could make millions in tournaments such as the championship series for League of Legends – the most played PC game in the world – he decided that gaming was his calling. When Overwatch was released in early 2016, Mr. Disalvo devoted countless hours to the game, improving his skill. Playing became a source of friction with his mother. But it paid off: In the fall of that year, Immortals offered him a yearlong contract on its Overwatch roster. “My dream came true right there,” Disalvo says.

 Just a decade ago, the idea of making a reliable living in esports would have been laughable. Big-name investors were scarce. Tournament organizers struggled to muster prize pools. Almost everyone who ventured into the scene – whether players, tournament coordinators, or commentators (known in esports as “shoutcasters”) – did it out of love for gaming with little guarantee of a payout. 

“Back in the day, you’d pay your own way [to tournaments]. You’d bring your own computer,” says Susie “lilkim” Kim, an esports veteran who got her start in the industry by interpreting English and Korean matches for broadcast in the mid-2000s. “It was a hobby thing. It wasn’t a job.”

The launch in 2011 of Twitch – a streaming service and live chat forum dedicated to gaming – brought players and esports fans together online in a way that allowed for real community building. Esports tournaments have since sold out venues such as the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Madison Square Garden in New York, and KeyArena in Seattle. Dedicated esports arenas are being built in Las Vegas and Oakland, Calif. By 2016, worldwide revenues for esports stood at $660 million – still a fraction of what the National Football League makes, but the figure is expected to swell as advertisers and investors catch on. 

Monthly esports viewership also more than doubled between 2013 and 2016, from less than 80 million to more than 160 million. The majority of that audience was 35 or younger.

The average NFL viewer is about 50.

Sitting in the stands at an Overwatch match with Noah Whinston is like sitting in the stands with any other dedicated 23-year-old esports fan: He groans when one of his team’s characters gets killed, frets nervously when the players maneuver a difficult play, and cheers madly when they win a round. The difference is that this particular fan also happens to be chief executive officer of one of the teams battling it out onstage. 

“I know I said I’m not emotionally invested in my team’s success and failure,” he says after the Valiant narrowly escapes attack, “but I am very emotionally invested in my team’s success and failure.”

Mr. Whinston’s career began in college, where he was a casual gamer and fan who made a name for himself winning prize pools in fantasy esports leagues. The way that tournaments were structured, however, bothered him. “No team was earning my loyalty or earning my lifetime fandom,” Whinston says.

He decided to try to fix that. In 2015, he bailed on his senior year as a political science major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to start Immortals in San Francisco. It was perfect timing: Just months after Whinston launched the company, Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller and retired NBA player Rick Fox, among others, started investing in the sport.

Yet Whinston’s vibe – with his college dropout cred, metal-frame glasses, and unassuming grin – is more start-up geek than sports executive. And in many ways the same is true for esports in general: Its essence has always been more Comic Con than Super Bowl. 

“We’re all still kind of nerds at heart,” Whinston says. 

In managing his teams, he blends that techie spirit with Blizzard’s vision of professionalism and stability. The Valiant, along with two other esports teams under the Immortals brand, practices at a converted apartment complex in Culver City, Calif., where Whinston moved the team in late 2015. Each team has its own training room outfitted with state-of-the-art PCs and gaming chairs. Coaching staff includes a sports psychologist in charge of player performance. Meals, designed with both taste and nutrition in mind, are catered for staff and players.

Immortals is also the first to move away from the conventional esports housing model, in which players live and work together in one space. In the early days of esports that meant cramped apartments with mattresses in one room and computers in another. Today professional gamers either live and work in lavish complexes, with amenities such as basketball courts and swimming pools, or commute to separate work sites altogether. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Los Angeles Valiant player Brady Girardi (c.) works on his gaming skills at an esports training facility in Burbank, Calif.

“You need to make sure that the environment they exist in is conducive to being a healthier person,” says Whinston. “When you are working, you’re here, and you are not working anywhere else.”

What Whinston takes most to heart, however, is Blizzard’s ambition to turn the Overwatch League into the first successful esports conference. He wants it to operate similarly to a traditional sports league with local franchises, each with its own arena, that draw loyal fans to watch competitions. Teams would eventually play matches in true “home-and-away” fashion, traveling to Boston, Dallas, or London to take on other competitors. 

Only one other league has ever tried to establish a local following: The Championship Gaming Series in 2007, which, despite its $50 million budget, ended in disaster in the face of a global economic crisis. 

So far, Blizzard’s Mr. Nanzer says, the Overwatch League has exceeded expectations, with 10 million viewers tuning in via online streaming services within four days of opening. Blizzard Arena also sold out seats through that first week, and dozens of viewing parties took place around the world, including 62 in Europe alone. 

Until a league with many different city franchises can be established, Whinston sees a chance for the Valiant – as one of two L.A. teams – to boost local support by holding fan events, showcasing players’ personalities, and emphasizing the team’s ties to its home city. “We root for the people that we can find kinship with,” Whinston says. “The idea is if you find your people, your community, through L.A. Valiant, you’re going to be L.A. Valiant fans for the rest of your lives.”

Esports innovation isn’t limited to multimillion-dollar stadiums or platinum training facilities. At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Loc Tran staffs the counter at the campus’s esports arena, a renovated rec room where, for $4 an hour, gamers can come in to play online and console games.

In one corner, two banks of computers are reserved for the scholarship players at the university, who – like traditional college athletes – receive a subsidy to compete against other collegiate teams in League of Legends and Overwatch. (UCI’s esports are funded through arena profits and corporate sponsors, not through student tuition.) 

Mr. Tran, a senior who transferred from San Jose State University in 2016 to join UCI’s League of Legends team, sees the scholarship as invaluable to gamers who want to both compete in esports and get a degree. “It gives people a chance to pursue their education,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to go pro and still do 20 hours of school a week.” 

The first US varsity esports team was launched in 2014 at Robert Morris University Illinois, a liberal arts school in Chicago. Today dozens of universities have similar programs, and hundreds more participate in League of Legends and other collegiate gaming circuits.

UCI, however, wants to go beyond just supporting competitive gaming. Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of informatics there, believes gaming and esports research can do everything from improving student educational performance to fostering a culture of teamwork. She says that competing in high-level esports takes sophisticated communication and mastery of complex schemes. 

“The levels at which these people are performing – and not only performing but calling it play – are shocking,” Professor Steinkuehler says. “This is a serious field that has a lot of interesting questions in it, and to not ask those questions is to miss what we can learn about all sorts of forms of design, of interactivity, of human cognition.”

That view of gaming led UCI to collaborate with the Orange County Department of Education, the Samueli Foundation, and other partners to launch a local high school league in January. Like its collegiate counterparts, the Orange County High School Esports League hopes to leverage gaming’s popularity among students to engage them in campus activities. The league’s organizers also aim to use esports as a framework to teach students marketable skills in engineering, computer science, game design, and even English language arts.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Players on the La Habra (Calif.) High School esports team set up computers for practice.

Some students, not to mention faculty and parents, are skeptical. But others are eager to see authority figures finally support their passion. “I always thought gaming was a nerdy thing,” says Maddy Schremp, a junior at Laguna Hills High School in southern California who has been organizing local tournaments since she was 12. She’s hopeful that the high school league will prompt more people to see the value of esports as a business and a career.

“It’s not only creating gamers, but a community: an audience for streaming [online], stream moderators, tournament organizers, game designers,” Maddy says. “I get choked up thinking about it.”

It quickly becomes clear, after watching a few Overwatch League matches, that men dominate the conference. It’s not surprising: A lack of diversity along gender as well as racial and ethnic lines has been an enduring criticism against esports and gaming in general. Nor is the problem confined to players.

“I’ll have people come up to me and say, ‘Can I talk to the tournament organizer?’ And when I say, ‘that’s me,’ they’ll go, ‘Oh, but you’re a girl. You can’t do that,’ ” Maddy says. 

An abiding stereotype of video games as a male activity, compounded by hostile online communities, continues to stifle serious participation in gaming among women and minorities. White and Asian men make up the majority of those who work in the industry, including esports.

Ann Hermes/Staff
L.A. Valiant player Young-seo Park glares at a screen during a training scrimmage at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif.

No one is quite sure how best to address the issue. Should developers and tournament organizers start women’s leagues? Should they create more games with characters that better represent all players? What about confronting cultures, both online and off-line, that alienate and abuse minority groups? 

No gaming company has the answer. But Blizzard, for its part, developed Overwatch with gender, ethnic, and even species diversity (and marketability) in mind: The game’s 26 heroes include characters who hail from the US, Egypt, and the Himalayas; a queer pilot who can control her movements through time and space; and a genetically engineered gorilla. That Overwatch, a game in which the heroes unite to restore peace to a war-torn world, is popular with women and girls suggests the strategy is working. The Overwatch League also signed its first female player, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, who joined the Shanghai Dragons in February. 

Esports, however, faces other challenges. Blizzard is out to prove that it can create a game that fans will invest time and money in over the long term. If the venture falls apart, “Will the developers be willing to try again?” asks Kathy Chiang, who as a student served as president of The Association of Gamers at UCI and is now coordinator of its esports arena. “I’m still cautious.”

Questions persist about the legitimacy of esports in the eyes of the general public as well. While traditional sports have long been viewed as beneficial for young people’s bodies and minds, video games have, almost since their inception, struggled to overcome associations with laziness, antisocial tendencies, and violence. Earlier this month, President Trump met with industry representatives at the White House after voicing concern about violent video games in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Could society really support a potential national obsession that encourages future generations to sit in front of computer screens all day?

Esports proponents say that it’s the kind of question every generation faces when­ever new technology comes to the fore. Older generations are often “aghast when they see how popular a [new] medium is with anyone younger than them,” says Steinkuehler at UCI. Gamers point out, too, that the industry has held its own for more than a decade and can continue to do so without mainstream approval. “I don’t need for The New York Times to tell me that esports is a real thing,” says Ms. Kim, the veteran interpreter. “It is.” 

But some say that continued buy-in from major corporations and other legacy groups will be crucial to esports’ sustained growth. “It’s still kind of unstable,” says Roland Li, author of “Good Luck Have Fun: The Rise of eSports.” “It’s a strong economy now, but if everything collapses, a sponsor like Coke will have to choose: Do we invest in TV ads or esports ads? That’s a risk factor.”

Still, the industry is overwhelmingly optimistic. It’s the inevitability of changing demographics, observers say. Young people who grew up on a steady diet of video games are coming of age and starting their own families. As they do, outdated attitudes around gaming – that it’s the domain of the Cheetos-eating basement-dweller, for instance – will naturally fall away. 

It’s hard to argue with that in the face of dedicated fandom. Among the attendees at a Valiant event in the Blizzard Arena parking lot on a sunny Saturday was a family of fans, including a 4-year-old sporting a yellow Valiant helmet. “She would sit on my lap and kind of watch me play,” says Justin Woychowski, father and gamer. “Eventually she asked if she could start playing, too.” 

Inside the arena, the energy is even more electric. The night the Valiant took on the Dynasty, the stands buzzed with excited fans, including a pair of graphic designers who took the afternoon off work to watch the match live. “I wanted to root for the hometown hero,” says Emil Fernandez, who wore a green-and-gold jersey. “I’ll support L.A. Valiant, win or lose.” 

When the Valiant clinched the match, they – and the rest of the crowd – roared their approval. 

“This isn’t a little niche audience of marginal characters that you can treat as anomalies,” Steinkuehler says. “This is a main form of entertainment, and it is only at the beginning.” 

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