The University of Tennessee may have lost its video-game matchup Saturday, but downtown Chattanooga benefited by attracting hundreds of gamers from a burgeoning industry expected to finish the year with $700 million in revenue.
Welcome to the world of eSports, the industry of professional and collegiate gamers who convened this weekend for competitive play at Memorial Auditorium, discussion panels and other social events at the city's inaugural TenGig Festival.
The fans gossiped and cringed, cheered and fretted, just like they would at any major sporting event. Here, the competitors, who refer to themselves as athletes, were more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome than tear a ligament. But for those who balk at the "athlete" designation, gaming involves just as much teamwork, focus and skilled decision making as other sports, onlookers said.
"It's just a sport within a video game," said Major Passons, 17, who came to watch the matchups with his friend's family. "There's a lot of strategizing and teamwork."
Around 4 p.m., deep inside the air conditioned halls of Memorial Auditorium, five players from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville sat down to their matchup: The Aggies, from Texas A&M. Near the stage, a crane hoisted a camera to project their battle. The game: League of Legends. Meanwhile, on screen, minions and other characters fought across a fantasy scape as the players stared solemnly into their computers and a pair of commentators kept the audience up to speed.
"Doom is doomed!" one announcer jested as a gamer met an unfortunate fate.
It's no mainstream college football game, but eSports are more common than you'd think. Colleges have been developing varsity eSport programs in the last few years. And more than 100 million log in each month to watch an estimated 23 billion minutes of professional eSports players and amateurs, according to the streaming service Twitch.
It's lucrative, too. Between advertising and commercial partnerships with platform giants such as Amazon, the global eSports audience is projected to reach 385 million people with revenues of nearly $700 million, according to forecasts from market analyst Newzoo.
Jennifer Pomayo Erdman, who oversees sponsorships and media sales at Player 2 Studios, a firm that develops branding and sponsorship strategies for eSports teams, said gaming dominates among people under age 25 who don't watch traditional sports.
It's not just men.
Women make up 46 percent of gamers across the globe, according to TenGig Festival officials, but are under- represented at the highest levels of competitive gaming and often face threats and harassment online.
"You just have to be stronger than it," said Meghan Tobin, who encounters such comments when she streams on Twitch as Sinfully Riddling.
One of Saturday's forums addressed ways in which the gaming community can provide more safety and opportunity so that talented women can rise to the top.
"We deserve a seat, we have every right to be here," said Erdman, one of four women on the panel. "I want you to hire me because I'm the best, not just [because] I'm a woman."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.