Eryk Taylor is a graduate student majoring in mental health clinical rehabilitation at Wilberforce University. In November, he competed in the national Historically Black Colleges and Universities NBA 2K Esports League championship, flying to Atlanta to play alongside other HBCU students and professional esports players.
Taylor is among a small portion of gamers who play competitively at a collegiate level. Wilberforce is the only HBCU in the northern part of the United States with an esports team. With his Twitch online streaming channel, Taylor plans to go pro, he said.
Esports, or competitive video games, is a growing industry both locally and internationally. In Ohio, grassroots organizations have adopted games like League of Legends, Overwatch 2, Rocket League, Fortnite, Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Super Smash Bros, and a host of other video games, creating competitive opportunities for high school, collegiate and casual gamers of any age to enjoy.
At the highest level, professional players compete for multi-million-dollar prize pools. Last year, the World Championship finals for multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) League of Legends boasted over $2.2 million in prize money. Another MOBA, Dota 2, offered a total prize pool equating to $32.85 million last year across 118 tournaments, according to esportsearnings.com.
“There are a lot of opportunities in esports just for professionals and people wanting to do that for their career, or even just being able to showcase your talent on a bigger stage,” Taylor said.
In November 2018, the World Championship finals of League of Legends, also a MOBA, drew in 100 million unique viewers online. By comparison, that year’s Super Bowl had about 98 million viewers. In 2022, Statista reported the global esports market was valued at just over $1.38 billion, projected to grow to as much as $1.87 billion in 2025.
Despite the enormous amounts of money and viewership being thrown around in competitive video games, the industry is still very young, said Robert Hanes, esports business professor at Miami University in Oxford, and founder of thegamehaus.com.
“Compared to traditional sports, it’s not the same, but its ability for growth is similar,” Hanes said. “It took traditional sports 50 to 60 years to figure itself out and really become the true enterprise that it is today. While games tournaments have been around since the 90s, realistically, the business of esports has only been around for a decade, maybe 15 years.”
Tournaments that started with Halo 2 and MLG gaming have given rise to the League of Legends Championship Series, Overwatch League, and others that draw in thousands of viewers and fans, both in-person and online. However, a lot of misconceptions about the sport remain.
“I definitely feel like there’s a disconnect. Just because it’s fairly new,” Taylor said. “I think with parents it’s more that they don’t see where the money is coming from, since it’s a new profession.”
Growing local businesses
Kim Jones, owner of Dragon Squad esports, has run weekly Super Smash Ultimate tournaments in Sharonville for going on two years, and was put up to the idea by her youngest son, who took her to a tournament event in Detroit.
“The entire weekend I was flabbergasted,” she said, “because there were hundreds of people playing, essentially, a child’s party game. Once I got home, I thought ‘I could do this.’”
A Middletown native, Jones plans to reopen Dragon Arena, formerly Connect Esports, in Dayton near the Oregon District later this February. The business has hosted the University of Dayton esports team, among others.
New Carlisle natives Chris Jurgens and Austin Martin own and operate Vyral Esports Compound in Kettering. Starting online as a PC-building business, the company has expanded to everything from NASCAR racing sims and teaching 3-D printing, to being a casual hangout spot for video and board games.
Vyral has hosted tournaments in their esports arena between the Wright State and Ohio State esports teams, and partners with several area high schools to either build them their own esports labs, or let them use their facilities for practices and games.
Other patrons are there just to try out different games, consoles, and to meet with other like-minded fans.
“There’s really no average age in here,” Jurgens said. “We have a regular, he’s 70 years old and he comes over and plays on the flight sim. Then there’s seven-year-olds coming in here and playing Roblox, and it’s really everywhere in between.”
Schools offer esports program
Fairmont and Alter High Schools are among those that have practiced at Vyral, but others have their own esports labs. Global Impact STEM Academy (GISA) in Springfield has operated its own esports program for five years. A total of 36 players participate in GISA esports, across premier and reserve teams for Fortnite, Overwatch, and other games like Brawlhalla, Minecraft, and Rocket League.
Sophomore Regan Herzog and freshman Elise Hess are members of the GISA Geese esports team, playing Fortnite and Overwatch, respectively.
Hess had never played the online first-person shooter Overwatch 2 before joining the esports team at the STEM Academy, she said. She now fills the single “tank” role on the five-person team, under the screen name “Schmuffy,” which she coined with her mom.
“I didn’t really consider it an option in middle school or anything, because I didn’t really know what was in store,” she said. “That’s been really interesting for me to see, just the fact that it’s out there and a future for esports and for those who want to do that.”
GISA esports coaches Alex Henz and Sam Klug manage students across a wide variety of video games, and say their job is less about knowing the mechanics of each, and more about teaching the kids effective communication, teamwork, as well as fitness and sportsmanship. In fact, oftentimes the kids teach the game mechanics to each other, Klug said.
GISA graduates have gone on to compete at the collegiate level, something that is becoming more and more common, said Michael Payne, the STEM Academy’s programming director.
“Colleges see that it brings in revenue. You see what can come from it, the accolades that students can get for doing something they really enjoy and are good at,” he said.
A high school sport
Global Impact STEM is a member of Esports Ohio, which organizes tournaments among 250 schools, including Fairborn and Middletown City Schools.
Esports Ohio was started five years ago with nine participating schools, out of a dissatisfaction with national leagues and a desire to create something specifically for Ohio students, said Jacob Gebers, president of the Esports Ohio Board of Directors.
“What we experienced was a high forfeiture rate, a lot of late night games, because you’d play somebody from Missouri, and obviously, that’s a different time zone. Really, it was mostly about creating something more localized where you know the school you’re playing,” he said. “We’ve basically built off of those existing regional rivalries.”
Just as in traditional sports, kids have GPA requirements they need to meet in order to participate in games. Esports Ohio also primarily facilitates video games that play on teams, to develop teamwork and sportsmanship. In a survey of 302 participating schools who had either competitive or club esports with the organization, more than 50% of the students had never participated in another sport before, Gebers said.
“We’re really seeing where this is a kid’s first sport that they’re actually participating in, and without esports those kids aren’t getting that opportunity to be with others, to work with others, to see what it’s like to be in a team environment,” he said.
In January, the Ohio High School Athletic Association announced a partnership with Esports Ohio to support and promote its annual state tournament in May.
Not all schools, however, have been fully on board with the concept. Jurgens and Martin said they knocked on the doors of high schools across the Dayton region, and reactions to their pitch varied from enthusiastic conversation to having their materials tossed in the trash.
Additionally, the rate of students who get scholarships to play esports in college is very small, currently estimated at less than 5%, Gebers said.
“Obviously not every kid is gonna go become an esports player at the collegiate level,” Gebers said. “But what we found is that it motivates them to continue their schoolwork, both at the high school and collegiate level, to get to that point where they can still play.”
Esports: Multiplayer video games, often played online as a spectator sport
Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA): A subgenre of strategy video games in which two teams of players, each controlling one character with a set of unique abilities, compete against each other on a pre-determined battlefield. Examples include League of Legends and DOTA 2
First Person Shooter: Type of shooter video games where the player wields guns and other weapons, and controls the action through the character’s eyes. Examples include Overwatch 2 and Apex Legends
Fighting games: Third-person combat games with two or more players, typically viewed from a side-scrolling camera. Gameplay is often focusing on blocking, grappling, counter-attacking and combos of the above. Examples include Super Smash Bros. and Mortal Kombat
Twitch: Twitch.tv, an online livestreaming platform most commonly known for creators’ gaming content
Sim: Short for simulator, typically a game or system designed to be as close as possible to the real thing.
Inside esports series
This story is part of a three-part series on how the national growth of esports is impacting our region. Read other parts of the series this week in your paper, your ePaper or on our website.
Today - How local kids and businesses are getting in on the multi-billion dollar esports industry
Monday - How one local business is outfitting the next generation of gamers
Tuesday - The growth of high school esports programs