While making a routine grocery run at his local Walmart Supercenter in early November, Marcus Owens noticed construction at the front of the store.
Then when he saw technicians and workers hauling in keyboards, widescreen monitors and office chairs at the site formerly occupied by a hair salon, the Briargate resident knew exactly what was happening.
And his mind raced. With a place like this, the self-proclaimed military brat could just maybe work his way to the pros. As a video game player, of course.
“I’m just like any other athlete,” said Owens, 25, taking a break in between a session of Call of Duty at the new Esports Arena at the Walmart location on Razorback Road. “It takes a different mindset to get to a level where you are the best player. It’s a lot of reaction timing, knowing how to play the game, tactics and having the fundamentals just like any other sport.”
Over the last handful of years, electronic, or eSports — video game competitions between individuals or teams that are streamed online — have taken the world by storm. Business Insider estimated the current value of the eSports market in the neighborhood of $900 million, and the best players are courted by pro teams and signed to lucrative contracts.
Thanks to investors and sponsors — such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Intel, Coca-Cola and Comcast Xfinity — this sport seems to have a financial ceiling that’s nowhere in sight.
That’s what excites Owens. Now he has an inexpensive place to play and meet other players to share tips, learn from others and forge friendships, akin to a batting cage or golf simulator.
Esports Arena, a Roseville, Calif.-based venture, recently partnered with Walmart to launch arenas within Walmart stores. Each arena — the northern Colorado Springs location is one of only three in the country at this time — offers casual play as well as tournament action with cash prizes.
The facility’s mission is twofold; of course, it’s a business endeavor to market the Esports Arena partnership with the mass appeal and reach of Walmart. But on a grassroots level, it’s to get gamers out of their rooms and into a community of like-minded and ambitious players who share similar goals.
Sure, not every player wants to go pro. Some just like the adrenaline of competition. But now there’s a venue to showcase their skills.
“We’re trying to reach the local gamer, which is a big reason we’re here and not in Denver,” said Cody Burket, the general manager of the Colorado Springs Esports Arena and a 2012 graduate of Falcon High School. “We’re right off the interstate, and with cash winnings, I’m sure people will make the drive to be part of it. We want to help people reach that higher tier of play. I wish I could have been part of that when I was younger, but it’s nice to help build those opportunities for the younger people.”
The younger people aren’t only playing, they’re doing so with organized backing in a way never seen. The National Federation of State High School Associations and its network recently partnered with online gaming provider PlayVs to begin eSports competitions in high schools. It’s estimated that approximately 200 colleges in universities in North America are recruiting and offering scholarship money for eSports.
Those scholarships haven’t hit Colorado, yet, as club teams have emerged and flourished throughout the state, even here in Colorado Springs at Colorado College, UCCS and the Air Force Academy.
“This is not a passing phase,” said Chad Schonewill, the solutions center team lead at Colorado College who supervises the eSports club team there. “It’s been a really interesting ride and meteoric rise, just in the last four years or so. That rise has been nothing short of stunning, and that growth is only going to get stronger and stronger.”
That’s music to Owens’ ears, no matter what he hears from a different generation.
“Yeah, my parents think this is a waste of time, just like any parent would,” Owens said. “But they don’t understand how big this industry and sport is becoming. For now, I just have to keep playing. It’s going to take time. But now, I believe I can get there. There are great opportunities in eSports now.”