Video gamers like playing games, and they also like watching other people play video games. But so far, the business world has yet to decipher a way to strike it rich through televised professional video game tournaments.
That may be about to change, thanks to Chattanooga's ultra-fast broadband infrastructure, and a new deal between the city-owned EPB and a young entrepreneur dedicated to the pursuit of play.
Unlike traditional sports, which generate billions of dollars and are broadcast on all major TV networks, professional video games - now called eSports - have long been relegated to a niche market, despite the fact that more than half of the U.S. plays games in some form or fashion, said Aaron Welch, head of Iron Gaming.
"We joke about revolutionizing the video game world," he said Thursday. "But to revolutionize something, it would have to be organized in the first place."
Welch, whose company orchestrates amateur gaming tournaments across the U.S., says that though the demand is there, nobody's figured out how to duplicate the big-time success of professional sporting leagues. Nobody but him.
Whether it's the NFL, NBA or MLB, no professional league actually stands on its own two feet, or so his theory goes.
Each is fed talent by amateur and lower-tier sporting organizations across the country, like the UTC Mocs or the Chattanooga Lookouts. But Major League Gaming - the 800 pound gorilla in the video game world - doesn't have a corresponding amateur organization or feeder league to train, test and then graduate skilled gamers into the professional ranks, Welch said. People just show up, and sometimes they're good. Other times, not so much.
That's where Iron Gaming comes in. On the weekend of Dec. 6, Welch plans to host the first of many large-scale amateur gaming competitions based in the gig city, where he says competitors can use the city's gigabit Internet network to blow each other to smithereens like never before. He wants to be the SEC of eSports.
Starting with 20,000 square feet, 10 games and 1,500 attendees at the Chattanooga Convention Center, the five-employee operation aims to grow its tournaments to host 15,000 competitors in the next several years, all of whom will be ranked and pitted against people of a similar skill level.
It all comes down to concept and cost - specifically the concept of amateur competition and the cost of the Internet connection used to connect gamers to each other and the outside world.
"If you went to PAX [a gaming tournament] in Seattle or Boston, you've got to pay $5,000 if you want to set up an ATM or anything that needs an Internet connection," Welch said. "Whereas here in Chattanooga, with the Gig [1,000 Mbps], we're capable of letting anybody who's participating in the tournament broadcast their own video feed to their followers. This is the only venue where that can actually happen, and it's the only event where it can actually happen, because we have the bandwidth to make it happen."
Plus, he'll be the only game in town.
"We're an under served market, so is Atlanta," he said. "The vast majority of gaming events happen where it's easy to do it: Seattle, Boston, everything happens somewhere other than the Southeast."
Part organizer, part marketing guru and part video producer, Welch is cutting deals with schools and sponsors to make sure that it's more than just a 1,000 gamers fighting virtual enemies for a weekend - not that there won't be plenty of that.
EPB, which provides the city's gigabit Internet, has agreed to sponsor the Friday portion of the tournament as a sort of kids' night, making the first day of the three-day tournament completely free for everyone.
Like at the NCAA, Welch believes that if students are required to make good grades and excel on standardized tests as a condition of being able to play in amateur game tournaments, then amateur eSports could begin to exhibit some healthy side effects. So from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Welch is setting up panels, seminars and cooperative play sessions.
Educators will talk about how to use games as an incentive to finish homework. Parents and teachers will learn about what games their kids are playing, and what it actually means when they say, "Give me just five more minutes."
"It's educating your parents on the dynamics of how games work," Welch said. "If your child wants to play Call of Duty, you have to play with them. This could lead to some interesting situations."
The rest of the weekend will be tournaments, tournaments, tournaments, capped by cash prizes. To avoid the situation where a player who's really good kicks the tar out of a player who's just average, Iron Gaming will use a 5,000-point ranking system to assign gamers to one of five tiers, where they will be playing against people of their own skill level. Beginners will play against beginners, semi-pros against semi-pro, and so forth. There are cash prizes for each tier.
"The Elite level is special because we kick them out," Welch said. "Once they have a consistent record we remove them from the system by graduating them to professional leagues."
Those who are allowed to stay in the amateur leagues will have a chance at getting broadcast on Fox61, and every single gamer will receive enough bandwidth from EPB to set up their own live stream on Twitch.TV.
The newfound love between Iron Gaming and EPB, the city-owned utility, is a reversal from an early kerfuffle following Welch's early days as a winner of Chattanooga's Gig City event. Though EPB was a sponsor of that competition, a situation that Welch now calls a "misunderstanding" led EPB to decline to offer Welch its advertised gigabit service, forcing him to seek out competitor Comcast as an Internet service provider.
But that's all in the past now, EPB confirmed. And Welch said that he hopes that both Comcast and EPB will use their connections with schools to help pursue his vision of using video games as an educational tool and motivator.
"If you're in high school and college, if you have a friend who's on the basketball team, you can go support them," Welch said. "You don't have that in video games. We're trying to get this to middle and high school level where it's an accepted way to participate in extracurricular activity."
- Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com, or 423-757-6315