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Pro video gaming on the rise in WNY, but could it rival the Bills in local sports?

Vincent Nguyen
GameOn LAN's Counter-Strike team

Video games as sport have become a world-wide phenomenon, and their popularity is growing in Buffalo - so much so that local gamers believe eSports could eventually gain the kind of fandom that would rival the Buffalo Bills.

Imagine a strategy game, with teams of five battling for supremacy. It’s a bit like basketball, but no physical activity. DOTA 2 is that but with a computerized component. And similar to professional sports, there is big money to be made in competitive video gaming. Stephen Hill, a semi-pro player for the GameOn LAN Counter-Strike team, explains.

Credit Vincent Nguyen / WBFO News
Josh Lonczak (left) is co-owner of GameOn LAN; Stephen Hill (right) is a semi-pro player for GameOn LAN's Counter-Strike team.

“There’s games like DOTA 2 where everything is crowd funded. They had their international tournament, the last one was 23 million, crowd funded,” said Hill. “Counter-Strike, there’s big money in Counter-Strike. Probably at least 50 million dollars a year in prize pools stretched out through everything.”

According to Sports Illustrated, eSports generated $463 million dollars in revenue this year and will likely hit 1 billion dollars by 2019. Video games have also reached your living room.

“It’s on TV now. Counter-Strike is on TBS every Friday and Saturday for at least I think two month stretches. Time Warner is putting a lot of money into it,” Hill adds. “The exposure is getting huge too cause it’s at Buffalo Wild Wings, they play it, they’re sponsored, Arby’s, all that stuff. People see that these big companies are tied to eSports, it opens up their mindset into how they perceive eSports.”

This has been the case with ESPN recently diving head first into the market, even showcasing tournaments.

But what exactly is eSports? It’s competitive video gaming. Any game with a competitive component can become an eSport, but the difference between a pro player and a casual player is significant. Reaching the pro level is a different animal and usually requires 16 hours a day of practice. The most popular and currently buzzing games are League of Legends, DOTA 2 and titles from Blizzard Entertainment.

There has always been a negative stigma revolving around video games. Before, it was considered a waste of time to sit on your butt for hours and hours playing a game. But that thought is starting to change. Now people are making a career out of eSports, according to Tyler Schrodt, CEO of the Electronic Gaming Federation.

“Right now you can make a career out of it. Some people make over six figures, it’s definitely getting to a good place,” said Schrodt.

Credit Vincent Nguyen / WBFO News
Inside GameOn LAN in Kenmore.

One of the biggest factors leading to this rapid ascension of eSports is the streaming service, Twitch. The platform allows for players to stream their gameplay and allow for viewers to watch and interact through a chat.

“Twitch, in my opinion, has probably been the most pivotal technology advancement for eSports,” said Schrodt. “So what Twitch has done is made it more accessible to everybody and it clearly shows people love watching other people play video games. Whether it’s casually someone like PewDiePie doing casually streaming or Riot putting on a League of Legends world championship and getting 39 million viewers.”

Locally, eSports has started to pick up steam thanks to GameOn LAN, the cyber café and LAN center located on Delaware Ave in Kenmore. Before GameOn, there was a similar business that closed a few years ago. Co-owner Josh Lonczak realized there was a void in the local gaming community.

““Fast forward to a time where a place like this wasn’t around, me and my friends missed things like this. So we decided to open this up,” said Lonczak.

With the gaming center attracting local gamers, the local gaming community has become tight knit, and the scene is rapidly expanding.

“Here you come here to GameOn and new people walking through the door every day. They see it, they wanna play, they talk to you,” Hill exclaims. “Our eSports scene has grown so big we’re all friends with each other. The past two years I probably made like 80 friends just through Counter-Strike. I would definitely say GameOn has a huge impact in the eSports community.”

Buffalo’s scene has also began to gain recognition from online gaming websites and forums.

“Knowing places like Shoryuken, starting to recognize ‘Rumble in the Tundra’ as a regional tournament. I would say even outsiders are starting to see Buffalo as an eSports hub,” Lonczak claims.

Credit Vincent Nguyen / WBFO News
Inside GameOn LAN in Kenmore.

With the continued growth locally, a possible positive impact on the economy could be in the cards. 

“I think because of the resurgence of Buffalo that’s been happening in the over the last couple of years that eSports kind of represents the opportunity for kind of the same effects sports teams has on the economy,” Schrodt said.

So where does eSports go from here in Western New York? Will it fizzle out and become just a craze, or will it continue to grow and expand? Or is it a pipedream to think that maybe one day the industry could rival the Bills in popularity.

“Especially because we are getting to the point where cities are expected to get into eSports and some cities are invested into eSports infrastructure whether it’s to bring a team or bring companies that support eSports,” Schrodt explains. “So you are seeing more of that local ownership, so in theory you can have people cheer for an eSports team as much as they cheer for the Bills right now.”

Those are lofty goals, but it could be possible. According to research, viewership for eSports are expected to skyrocket to 427 million in 2019. There is already a huge international component to competitive video games. So the question holds, can eSports really reach the heights of pro sports?

“It can be as big as the NHL, NFL, major league baseball, inside I wanna say in five years. I think we’ll being seeing that type of future for eSports” said Lonczak.

Not bad for video games.

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