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Could competitive video gaming be the next big thing in Tampa Bay?

A summit at USF brought together major players and explored the possibility of an esports arena.
Tampa investor and owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Vinik, right, speaks about his investments in the video game industry at the eSports Summit Wednesday in Tampa as Matt Samost, Vice President of New Ventures for Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment looks on. [LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 18
Updated Sep. 19

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik isn’t ready to build a dedicated arena in Tampa for video games. But he doesn’t rule out the city “getting there” in a few years.

The owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who made a sizable investment in esports company Axiomatic Gaming in 2017, spoke to a capacity crowd of several hundred at the first esports summit at the University of South Florida’s MUMA College of Business on Wednesday.

“There is money. There are a bunch of arenas being built for $10 million or $20 million" including in Korea and domestically in Dallas and Philadelphia, Vinik said. “It remains to be seen for weekly matches how many people will come out, whether it’s 500 or 5,000. ... It’s something we’re observing. I don’t feel the need to take the risk of building an exclusive esports arena right now, but we could get there."

Electronic sports, or esports, is the term for the fast-growing, multi-billion-dollar competitive gaming industry encompassing professional leagues, franchise teams and live spectator events. It comes with all the advertising, broadcast deals, agents, contracts and merchandise associated with traditional sports.

As one speaker pointed out, the ability of fans to talk directly to players on streaming platforms like Twitch gives it an interactive element that’s completely different.

“The audiences for traditional sports are graying and if you’re invested in that space you’re getting a little nervous,” Todd Harris, co-founder of Hi-Rez Studios, which makes games such as Realm Royale and Smite, said during a panel. He noted that the average age for an NFL viewer was over 50 and for the NBA it’s over 40.

Part of the challenge is convincing people with money to invest that video games should no longer conjure an image of a guy in a room with Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

“You don’t get it until you go to an (esports) event and see thousands of people with their thunder sticks, screaming,” he told the audience. “It’s more hype than any sporting event or concert you’ve ever been to. Then you’ll believe."

By some measures, the growth of the esports industry is nearing 25 percent annually. A chart displayed at the summit, which used data from Nielsen, ESPN and Goldman Sachs Global Investment research, showed the audience of esports viewers at 167 million. It’s behind the NFL and NBA, but ahead of Major League Baseball’s 114 million and the National Hockey League’s 65 million.

Fox Sports broadcaster Paul Kennedy, who hosted the event, noted Tiger Woods received $2.1 million for winning the Masters golf tournament. A top Fortnite player recently won a $3 million purse.

Vinik said he’d never made another early investment in a venture that immediately beat revenue goals year after year the way the Axiomatic has. Axiomatic’s Team Liquid, one of the premiere esports teams in the world competing in games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, has made Axiomatic’s investors “look smart," he said.

Vinik is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

RELATED: 13 arcade bars and other places to play video games around Tampa Bay

Fans can expect more integration between his hockey team and esports, Vinik said. The team is planning to launch a tournament series on Oct. 2 that will culminate in a “Bolts gamer of the year.”

The summit was hosted by USF’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program. It featured professional competitors, marketing execs, organizers, team managers, agents and consultants. The commissioner of EA Sports’ Madden NFL, one of the most popular sports franchises in video games spoke. The crowd wore a mix of suits and jerseys.

Tampa investor and owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Vinik (r) speaks alongside Matt Samost, VP of new ventures for Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment about his investments in the video game industry at the eSports Summit at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida campus on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]

Heather Garozzo, a former competitor in Counter Strike who now manages an all-female gaming team that is among the top three teams in the world, noted how esports is creating opportunities in health and sciences. Esports teams are hiring trainers and psychologists. And technology is playing a role in analytics and training.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor opened the summit. Tampa is one the best places in the world to grow a business, she said.

“If you need a partner in esports, I suggest my kids.”

RELATED: Twitch streamers bring video games’ biggest star to Tampa

Michelle Harrolle, a professor and director of the sports business program named for Vinik at USF, said the idea for the summit started when her own 11-year-old son told her he wanted to be a professional gamer. She realized there were few resources to encourage his interest. She eventually co-wrote The Business of Esports, The Wild, Wild West on Fire and organized the summit.

“This was for the community, the students and the professionals. It’s really esports 101," she said. “The business is in its infancy, but it’s a way to help people understand that it’s billions of dollars, and it’s growing quickly. It’s not going to decrease anytime soon.”

The college will debut an esports course in the spring, Harrolle said, and will host gaming tournaments in the atrium on Friday nights that will allow students to get experience putting together esports events, marketing them and finding sponsors.

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