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December 10, 2018 Focus: The Business of Sports

Becker is becoming a leader in the $1B esports industry

Photo/Courtesy Becker College is among a growing number of colleges with varsity programs in esports, where students compete not on the field but in online video games.

First, Becker College made a name for itself with a nationally renown video game design program, putting the small Worcester school near the top of a Princeton Review list along with the University of Southern California and New York University.

Now, Becker is parlaying the success of that program with another propelling the college to the forefront of a burgeoning video game realm: Esports – multiplayer video games played in front of an audience just like their on-field counterparts or streamed online.

Next fall, Becker will officially begin its esports management program, which the school says is the first of its kind in the country.

“How many people in their lifetime get to do something that's the first of its kind in the United States?” said Alan Ritacco, the dean of Becker's School of Design and Technology, of which the esports management program is a part. “We're experts at this. This is what we do.”

Money to be made, and eyes watching

It's not hard to see why Becker is looking to jump on a new but fast-growing industry.

Global esports revenues were projected by Dutch industry researcher Newzoo to reach $906 million in 2018, for 38-percent growth in just one year. Esports' audience was projected to reach 380 million this year, for 13-percent annual growth.

Newzoo has projected revenue to surpass $1.6 billion by 2021.

Serious money is behind esports, too. Newzoo estimated $59 million in ticket revenue for esports events last year, nearly doubling the previous year's total, and that prize money last year hit $112 million.

“As a business, esports is now entering a new and critical phase toward maturity,” Newzoo CEO Peter Warman said. “Big investments have been made, new league structures have been launched, sponsorship budgets have moved from experimental to continuous, and international media rights trade is starting to heat up.”

Some well-known names are getting behind esports, as well.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft brought a multiplayer sports team to Boston last year in a league with 12 teams in cities in the United States and Asia competing in a game called Overwatch, where armed teams compete on a battleground. Owners of the New York Mets, Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers have made their own investments in teams.

In October, Forbes valued one esports company, Cloud9, which has teams in a range of different games, at $310 million. Eight others were valued at more than $100 million. Teams for League of Legends, a multiplayer battle game, were selling last year for $10 million, according to Sports Business Journal.

Technology-driven industry

If the fast growth of esports is surprising to the outside world, it hasn't caught off guard those in the industry, said Jurre Pannekeet, a senior market analyst at Newzoo.

“We thought this is really going to catch on because it's such a cool phenomenon among gamers, which is such a broad group,” he said.

Technology has been a main driver, Pannekeet said, allowing players to compete online in a way they wouldn't have been able to in the days of Nintendo and stream their matches for anyone to watch anywhere.

There's a fortune to be made for those who are some of the best in the world at playing video games.

A young man known as Ninja, who is famous for playing the shooting game Fortnite, told ESPN in a September interview he makes close to $1 million each month playing the game, with revenue from ads playing while people watch him on the video streaming platform Twitch and from sponsors including Samsung, Red Bull and Uber Eats. In October, Nike announced an endorsement deal with a Chinese player of League of Legends.

Parallels between esports players and basketball or football players may seem like a stretch at first, but even training facilities are already a part of the industry. One facility in California, the technology news site VentureBeat reported, being built this year includes not only plenty of computer servers and comfortable seats but also a gym and an on-staff nutritionist and sports psychologist.

It's all trickling down to colleges. More than 80 colleges – though Becker is not among them – are now part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which includes varsity esports programs with more than 1,500 students.

Becker's lead

Becker saw itself as a natural fit for esports. After all, the college's undergraduate video game design program was ranked by Princeton Review as the fourth best in the nation.

“It's part of our DNA,” Ritacco said. “Our gaming culture is built around not just creating games but also managing them.”

Becker's esports leaders said they've had support from the school's administration all along but have had to win over some other skeptics.

“Parents think, my son or daughter is going to come and play video games?” Ritacco said. “They're going to come here and be writing games with faculty who've worked in a tier-one industry.”

In September, Becker became what it says is the first college in Massachusetts to offer scholarships of up to $5,000 per year to varsity esports student-athletes. Still, the esports management program isn't all video game fun. Courses include economics, psychology, marketing, accounting and finance.

Becker has been working to attach itself to some big names in the business.

The college says it is the first school to partner with Boston-based Gamer Sensei, which calls itself the world's most popular competitive coaching platform. Its esports management advisory board includes, among others, the CEO of the American Video Game League, an esports executive at National Amusements and the owner of the esports team Genji Esports.

“We built on many of the relationships that we've fostered over the years, and that got us going with esports,” said Tim Loew, the general manager of Becker's varsity esports program.

William Collis, the Genji Esports owner and a co-founder of Gamer Sensei, serves on the advisory board and teaches at Becker. He called esports a natural fit at Becker and said the school is fully invested in making the new management program work.

“Becker's very much in the lead,” Collis said of the school's place in the industry.

Loew said Becker has been able to get ahead because it didn't start from scratch. Its video game design program has 600 students, and roughly 100 students participate in esports clubs.

Student interest was never a question. Nor, to the program's leaders, was whether students would find jobs in esports.

“Not only will they find jobs, but they'll help define what the industry is,” said Loew, who is the executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, known as MassDiGI and located at the Becker campus.

“If I were a student,” he said, “I'd find that really exciting.”

The confidence those at Becker have for its own program might be exceeded only by their faith in esports more broadly. Ritacco has evident excitement about esports' potential and doesn't shy away from big expectations.

“This is not going away,” he said. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but this is going to be bigger than the NFL.”

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