Everyone’s memories of gaming are different, whether they involve playing Pac-Man and Galaga in an early-’80s arcade, going head-to-head with a friend in Madden in the ’90s or talking shit to a kid across the globe during a multiplayer online free-for-all game of Call of Duty in the 21st century.
While that nostalgia is all well and good, today’s generation of gamers is all business.
Competitive gaming, aka esports, is quickly growing into an industry worth close to $1 billion with an audience expected to reach 580 million people worldwide in 2021.
Charlotte used to have an esports team — a damn good one, too. Those in the local gaming community remember the hype and hope that came when Team EnVyUs grew from a single Call of Duty 4 roster to multiple teams that dominated in the virtual arenas of Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends and Gears of War.
When Team EnVyUs left Charlotte for Dallas, Texas, in 2017, Josh Richardson saw a void and decided to fill it. In November of this year, he launched CLT Esports, a league that he said is here to stay.
“The reason I did Charlotte Esports and not some name, some random noun, is because I wanted it to be Charlotte,” Richardson said. “I wanted it to grow in Charlotte.”
His vision is to grow the Queen City into an East Coast hub for esports and bring more jobs and investment opportunities into the city.
“It’s a win-win for everyone here,” Richardson exclaimed. “We’re bringing esports here which will generate more jobs, especially in the long run.”
The idea is that as the burgeoning esports industry plants itself in Charlotte, the arenas that host tournaments and leagues will require personnel to set up, tear down, work security, facilitate ticket sales and more.
Richardson and his growing team at CLT Esports also hope to create a new community within the city, with more networking options and participation by local businesses and companies.
“If esports in Charlotte grows, not only would the community benefit from it greatly because you’re going to have local companies who want to be involved, and that are going to benefit just from the marketing to new people,” Richardson explained. “But you’re also going to have a whole new group of teams you can cheer for.”
Beyond marketing and sponsorships from Charlotte-area businesses, the fan base that accompanies esports means a new way to forge connections and friendly rivalries found in sports industries like basketball, baseball and football.
It’s a comparison that’s hard for some to take seriously, and Richardson’s team is aware of the stigma that accompanies gaming and the esports industry.
“The same people that say, ‘Oh, you’re wasting money, you’re watching people play video games.’ Well those are the same people that are going to basketball games or watching them on TV and buying their jerseys and buying their merch,” Richardson said.
Some may look down their noses on gaming culture, believing that it consists of unemployed teens or man-children mashing buttons on a controller.
For so many, though, it’s much more than that.
“We’re breaking the stigma that video games are just for losers in their mom’s basements,” Richardson said.
Thai Nguyen, the business analyst for CLT Esports, compared it to binge-watching or any number of hobbies that don’t carry the same generalizations that gaming does.
“‘Oh, I can watch Netflix for eight hours but if you play your game for eight hours you’re wasting your time,’” he explained hypothetically. “You can invest all this time and money and throw stickers on your car, but if you buy a new gaming mouse, it’s like, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ Where does that make sense?”
With the rising popularity of esports, that line of thinking is getting harder to justify. Gaming has recently become a viable career with the help of platforms like Twitch.
Twitch is an online platform where gamers can stream live footage of their gameplay in single or multi-player games. Spectators can subscribe to streams or donate to streamers to support their favorite players.
Well-known gamers are able to fully support themselves financially through fans’ subscriptions to their channels and donations. Players can gain more income by signing contracts with prosperous teams that compete in championship tournaments for monetary prizes and bragging rights.
One of the most notoriously famous gamers in North America is Tyler Blevins, aka Ninja, who is on Team Luminosity. Through streaming Fortnite, a multiplayer battle royale arena game, Blevins pulls in about $560,000 a month, according to an interview earlier this year with Forbes. That’s not accounting for income from his YouTube channel or donations and one-off streams on Twitch.
It’s a rigorous job, Richardson explained. Teammates are required to practice and train just like physical athletes do. Players concoct and execute strategies while studying opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
Take for instance League of Legends, one of the most popular games in the world. Players take on the role of a summoner who controls a champion warrior in a battle arena. The object of the game is to work with your team of five to destroy the other team’s “nexus,” which is a structure in the opponent’s base. Using spells, weapons and strategy, teams battle it out in different arenas.
The effort and planning that goes into team-based esports games are like something out of an Orson Scott Card novel. Teams study the gameplay and formations of opponents prior to tournaments while creating their own war designs amongst themselves.
Daniel Cortes is a gamer in the Charlotte area who has traveled extensively for competitions since his early 20s. He recently started a Twitch streaming channel under his gamertag, Mexicutioner86.
Cortes specializes in one-on-one fighting games like Soulcaliber VI, Street Fighter V and Tekken 7, all side-scroller video games in the style of Mortal Kombat.
While his new Twitch channel hasn’t garnered enough attention to justify quitting his day job to stream on the platform full-time, he’s focused on building his following through social media.
Cortes recently partnered with CLT Esports, which highlighted him as the organization’s Twitch streamer of the week.
He sees the potential that Richardson’s organization can bring to the city.
“There is a lot of esports going on in Charlotte,” Cortes explained. “You’ve got Fortnite, you’ve got Call of Duty. Those two games happen to be very popular in general and if the CLT Esports — Josh and them — give themselves a platform to put themselves out there I think it will grow tremendously.”
Although a potential training facility in Charlotte fell through with the exit of Team EnVyUs, there is an elite gaming center in the area. Command Post, owned and operated by Tim Rochester, is outfitted with PlayStation 4 and XBox consoles with virtual reality headsets, and five high-tech gaming PCs with dedicated fiber optics to bring one of the best internet connections in the city. No lag here, folks.
Command Post is a community gathering epicenter for gamers and enthusiasts alike. Business groups, parents with children and groups of friends are welcome to kick back, relax and play some games.
There’s a social aspect to the atmosphere at Command Post that serves as the antithesis of the stereotypical anti-social, unhygienic outcasts who do nothing but stare at a screen all day.
“I’m amazed by who comes in here,” Rochester said. “We had a bachelor party come in one night while they were in town for a wedding … It’s not just kids. It’s the whole community.”
Rochester recounted a tale of a father and son playing at Command Post and the father commented that it’s the first time he’s felt a connected with his son — and more importantly, it was fun for both.
That’s a familiar feeling for Richardson, who remembers bonding with his father over the Super Nintendo console — watching his dad play Super Mario Bros. after work, content to just spectate.
Building an esports league in Charlotte will mean new friendships forged at tournaments and networking among esports teams here in Charlotte.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of gamers gathered at Command Post for the first tournament hosted by CLT Esports. Participants were given 45 minutes to make as many kills in a single-player arena battle on the popular online game, Fortnite. Players were glued to their screens, twitching their thumbs over the control sticks and trying to accrue as many kills as possible in the given timeframe.
Richardson was hopeful that throughout the day, more participants would filter in and out of tournament, trying their hand in the battle royale-style game. But it’s clear that CLT Esports is gaining traction among the esports enthusiasts of the city.
It’s a tremendous vision that Richardson has in front of him and the launch of CLT Esports is just the beginning. Although there’s a lot of work ahead until he and his team can reach the caliber of esports that lives in cities like Dallas and Las Vegas, Richardson is not discouraged.
“If you’re going hiking and you look at a mountain and you look at the top, you’re going to want to quit before you even start,” Richardson said. “So I’m just taking it one step at a time.”