Forget the old-fashioned arcade. Gaming and esports is now a big business, and a combination of established companies and upstarts are using some proven business tactics to gain a foothold.
You might unwind on evenings and weekends by playing a little League of Legends, or your teenager might be obsessed with Fortnite or Call of Duty. According to 2020 statistics from the Entertainment Software Association, more than 214 million Americans play video games for at least one hour a week, and 75% of U.S. households have at least one gamer in residence.
But if you don’t know the difference between an Xbox and a PS5, you might not be familiar with esports. The competitive world of multiplayer gaming, esports has professional players and high-stakes tournaments just like traditional sports, along with devoted fans who watch all the action both in person and online.
It’s a big business: Esports global revenues are forecast to hit almost $1.6 billion in 2023, up from about $950 million in 2020, according to games market insight and analytics firm Newzoo. The global esports audience is expected to grow from 495 million in 2020 to 646 million in 2023, and that sizable audience presents opportunities for businesses and organizations of all kinds. Many companies and organizations in the region are either seizing on these opportunities or helping introduce others to the potential that exists. A look at some of the key players includes:
Beasley Media Group
Naples-based Beasley Media Group has long been a player on the airwaves. The multiplatform media company owns and operates 62 FM and AM radio stations in 15 different U.S. markets, reaching millions of consumers weekly who listen to the stations in their cars or on their phones and engage with those brands through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
It began moving into the esports space in 2018, acquiring the CheckpointXP syndicated esports lifestyle show. It followed that up with an investment in Detroit-based esports organization Team Renegades in 2019 and then acquired the Overwatch League esports team the Houston Outlaws later that same year.
“We did a great deal of research on the industry, and we saw that the audience was continuing to grow,” Beasley Media CEO Caroline Beasley says. “We really thought that this space would be very complementary to our traditional space that we’re in.”
Beasley, with $206.1 million in revenue in 2020, won’t say how much it invested into esports, but it’s a move intended to help the company diversify its revenue streams and reach the attractive 18-34 demographic. “We really do view esports as very similar to our traditional space,” Beasley says. “It’s our job to grow our audience, and then we go out and seek sponsors and connect the sponsors with our audience. That’s what we do in our traditional business, and that is what we do with esports.”
The pandemic forced the company to get creative when in-person Houston Outlaws events weren’t possible. When everything shifted online, Beasley Media Group partnered with Tegna, which owns TV stations in Texas, to create the Lone Star Challenge, pitting the Outlaws against Dallas’s Overwatch League team in a successful docuseries event last May. “Everyone was home, and they were dying for something sports-related,” Beasley says.
COO Lori Burgess, a digital content veteran at the company, leads the Beasley Esports division. “She knows everyone within the traditional side of the company,” Beasley says. “She has great relationships and can pick up the phone.”
When she or her team does make a call, they’re adept at explaining what esports is and how a company can benefit from getting involved. “We highlight the demographic that esports delivers, and then people just really want to roll their sleeves up and start talking about impressions or events,” Beasley says.
Future esports investments might be a possibility, but for now the company is taking its time with the ones it’s already made, especially because the pandemic hasn’t given it a true picture of what might be possible.
“Our focus is on the existing assets that we have and to continue to grow them,” Beasley says. “We don’t know what will happen 12 months from now. … Before we go out and start making additional acquisitions, I want to see how we’re able to operate in a normal world, or whatever the new normal is.”
MetArena/High Point Gamer
Marcus Howard, the CEO of MetArena, and Derek Watford, a co-founder of High Point Gamer, have teamed up on many efforts to help educate the Tampa Bay area about esports and demonstrate the potential and opportunities within the industry. They’re two of the founders of the nonprofit Tampa Association of Gaming and co-produced the Beyond Meta esports event during the 2021 Super Bowl weekend in Tampa.
They think their home base could be the next big thing in the world of esports, thanks to attributes like a reasonable cost of living, an international airport, beautiful beaches and the many colleges and universities located in the region. “Derek and I always say Tampa Bay is this kind of hidden gem,” Howard says. “It’s going to be the next up-and-coming esports market.”
St. Petersburg-based MetArena was founded in 2020 with a goal “to make esports accessible to brands of all sizes and people from all walks of life.” Although Howard has yet to give up his day job, where he’s a web developer at the Tampa location of steel producer Gerdau, big things are in the works at MetArena. That includes a new accessible tournament platform coming soon and a soon-to-be-announced educational offering around gaming and esports he describes as a combination of a community center and a Dave and Buster’s. “We’ll be using esports to reimagine education and workforce development,” he says.
Tampa-based High Point Gamer, meanwhile, helps gamers navigate the world of esports and the business involved in being a professional gamer or streamer. It also connects brands with opportunities in the industry — such as through advertising or corporate sponsorship of teams or events — and ensures it’s done in a way to which the gaming community will respond positively.
“They need help in understanding, how can I enter this space and be authentic to my voice as a brand and be authentic to the gaming industry,” Watford says. “The gaming industry … will gripe and complain about something if they don’t think something is right. For brands that just jump into the space, it can be counterproductive if the gaming community recognizes it as a marketing play or strategic revenue play. We help them be authentic in the space so their interest in the space can be profitable."
Although on the surface gaming can seem like a world filled primarily with white and Asian men, Watford and Howard, who are both Black, say it’s actually a more diverse landscape where businesses of all kinds could reap benefits. Different game genres and titles attract different audiences who use a variety of products and services in their daily lives. And pretty much everyone is capable of playing a video game.
“Traditional sports have that barrier of entry of how big you are or how fast you are or how strong you are,” Watford says. “Gaming knocks down all those walls to where females can compete with males, and someone in a wheelchair can compete and be excellent.”
“What we’re doing with TAG and my company and Derek’s company is helping local businesses understand they can and should use esports the same way they use social media to virtually engage with their community,” Howard says. “There’s a ton of diversity and wealth of opportunity to connect with people of all backgrounds.”
Naples-based Aquatik Esports was founded in March 2020. Despite navigating its first year of business during a pandemic, the company has managed to launch initiatives like its Big Time College Tournament for gamers from the Big 10 conference.
Its weekly Community Mashup tournament series aims to remove some of the common barriers to gaming tournaments, allowing participants of various skill levels the chance to compete for their share of a $250 prize. “That’s where our esports for all motto that we really live by here at Aquatik comes into play,” says Sarah DeToma, the company’s growth manager.
Andrew Bouley, the vice president of growth and innovation at Naples software firm Horizon Cloud, founded Aquatik. He’s also a gamer who goes by the gamertag Neptjun, so he knows the esports world. Through its Aquatik Esports University, the company offers instruction on gaming, streaming and content creation (which can include creating videos or streaming content for sites like YouTube and Twitch). “We take some of these smaller creators and help them fix their branding, help them stream and help grow their brand for them,” DeToma says.
She sees that facet of the business as something with big growth opportunities in 2021 and beyond. “There are so many creators out there who have so much potential,” she says. “And as we grow, we can really make an impact on these creators.”
Aquatik has 20 employees, some of whom work in Naples and others who work remotely. One of its most strategic hires has been name Rob Borm as vice president of sales and sponsorships. The former associate publisher at Game Informer magazine has helped connect the new company with movers and shakers in the esports industry. “He knew everyone and helped us reach out to so many people and make so many great connections,” DeToma says.
She works on third-party integration specifically with non-endemic businesses — companies with products or services that aren’t directly linked to esports but could still benefit from connecting with its audience. She says Aquatik’s community mashups can be a good place for these kinds of companies to check out the scene.
“Sometimes the best thing to do is look at the impact and reach we have,” she says. “Some of the toughest people to sell to are the esports viewers, that age range of 14 to 27. By getting exposure into that’s space, there is no limits on that.”
Because 38% of U.S. gamers fall into the 18-34 age range, according to stats from the Entertainment Software Association, it’s not surprising that college campuses have also begun embracing esports.
Keiser University has competitive esports teams competing as part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports at its flagship West Palm Beach residential campus as well as its Lakewood Ranch and Pembroke Pines campuses. An additional team coming soon at Keiser’s Lakeland campus.
The Sarasota team currently has 26 players, with students pursuing degrees in everything from information technology to nursing and business. Players can be recruited for the team and even awarded scholarship money, similar to traditional sports. Although some players might dream of turning pro, others simply enjoy the camaraderie of being part of a team and the chance to flex their competitive muscles while studying toward their degree.
“I’m a huge believer in esports,” says Ronald Entner, the head coach of esports at Keiser University Sarasota. “This is nothing that is going to go away any time soon. I think public institutions are maybe starting to catch up and realize we have a ton of players interested in playing. … Other institutions are getting around to convincing people at the top that esports is something legitimate, but Keiser is already making the investment. … It’s really staying ahead of the curve.”
The University of South Florida has an esports program as well. The Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program in USF’s Muma College of Business has also hosted an Esports Summit in 2019 and (virtually) in 2020.
The seeds for that event were planted when Program Director Michelle Gacio Harrolle started researching esports after her son declared his interest in becoming a professional gamer. After researching the industry herself, it became clear the value an “esports 101” type of event could bring to the region.
The 2019 summit was presented to a packed crowd. “What was nice was the diversity [in the audience],” Gacio Harrolle says. “It was like the United Nations. And it was recognition that obviously people need to know about the business.”
USF has now added a business of esports course to its undergraduate business curriculum, where students can learn about industry terminology, esports revenue streams and engagement, and marketing opportunities. And this summer the university will be hosting a virtual esports camp for kids to help them improve their gaming skills and learn about career opportunities in the industry. Special content will also be offered for parents who want to further understand their child’s gaming passions.
Gacio Harrolle sees all kinds of career possibilities for students interested in esports, from developing games to running leagues and events to working with brands interested in sponsorships or marketing opportunities. “What’s really interesting is for the most part esports mirrors traditional sports,” she says. “It’s all about education. People aren’t very educated on the space. … As a faculty member, I know about strategy, I know about business, and I know about finance and marketing. Now we are learning about this specific segment and trying to understand it better. We are all learning it as we go along.”