Brady Springe’s eyes grow large as lemons as a fire breather blocks his path in a thrilling video game tournament at SoPro Gaming in Johnson County. The Leavenworth teen puts a death grip on his mouse, scoots forward in his purple-and-lime-green gaming chair, and calls for backup.
“I’m here,” says Josh Baker, 18, one of several friends from Leavenworth playing next to him.
Josh’s champion, an Amazonian-like warrior named Sivir (“The Battle Mistress”), helps kill the dragon with a whirling crossblade that she throws like a boomerang.
Springe and his friends are just a small part of the global phenomenon of multiplayer PC-based video game competitions — and particularly “League of Legends,” the game they’re playing. In 2014, “Legends” brought in an estimated $1 billion.
“‘League of Legends’ really is the biggest thing you’ve never heard of,” says Ronnie Blackburn, 24, a grad student from Lenexa who is president of the UMKC League of Legends Club. “It is the single most-played (video) game in the world. There’s about 67 to 70 million active players. ‘World of Warcraft’ has maybe 15 million players.”
Kevin Engel, 23, a software engineer from Olathe who’s also on the UMKC team, drives home the point.
“And you thought ‘Halo’ was big?” he asks. “Not even close. The total hours played in all of the ‘Halo’ series is taken care of in one month of ‘League of Legends’ play.”
Catering to those devotees is exactly what SoPro Gaming, a social and professional video game start-up in Overland Park, aims to do.
Lee Jarman, 27, and Toney Wallace, 42, of Kansas City; Mike Murphy, 47, of Overland Park; and Chris Dillard, 31, of Carthage, Mo., have swung for the digital fences with a highly stylized gaming center in the North Regency Shopping Center near 92nd Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park.
SoPro, with its lime-green and purple decor, offers 30 Alienware Area 51 gaming stations with NVidia 980 GTX video cards, cushy high-backed gaming chairs, and five console systems (including the latest XBox, PlayStation and Wii systems) hooked up to big-screen TVs.
But can’t people just play video games at home? Sure.
“But we want to give everybody the best experience they can have,” says Dillard. “The best equipment, the best computer monitors, the best couches and seating. In addition to that, we want to give them a social atmosphere where they can be around other people who enjoy the same environment.”
Judging by the numbers and trends, there’s no stopping the popularity of competitive gaming. Consider:
▪ Last year ESPN hosted the finals of the North America Collegiate Championship (for “League of Legends”) online. That stream brought in more viewers than the NBA finals or the deciding game of the World Series.
▪ In 2013, when the “League of Legends” world championships were held in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, it sold out in 15 minutes.
▪ The International, the championship for the game “Defense of the Ancients 2,” is offering $14 million in cash prizes this year, or $5 million more than The Masters golf tournament.
▪ Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago and the University of Pikeville in Kentucky now recruit top “League of Legends” players as cyber-athletes and offer them college scholarships.
▪ In April, ESPN2 showed the collegiate finals of “Heroes of the Storm” in a show it called “Heroes of the Dorm.”
“People are fascinated whenever I tell them about it,” Blackburn says. “I work with a lot of people older than me, and none of them have heard about it.”
The business of play
This is no “Pac-Man,” people. E-sports games are deep, nuanced and complex, with long learning curves, colorful characters, and deep histories and lore. Although they’re fun, players say, they also require a deft combination of intelligence, experience, strategy, stamina, reaction time, critical thinking, communication and focus.
But if you’re good, the rewards can be lucrative. The best in the business pull in six figures and play in tournaments that are streamed over the Internet to adoring fans who cheer on the action as if watching a football game. There’s even e-sports commentators known as “casters” who call all the action on Twitch.tv, an ad-supported video streaming website bought by Amazon.com last year for $970 million.
In fact, two of the most well-known casters — brothers Sean “Day” Plott and Nick “Tasteless” Plott — grew up in the Kansas City area and specialize in a chesslike video game called “Starcraft.” Last year The New Yorker called Sean Plott “arguably the most beloved figure in ‘Starcraft,’ if not all of e-sports.” And Nick Plott? He was so determined to become a caster that years ago he moved to Seoul, South Korea, the epicenter of competitive gaming.
The audience for e-sports tournaments is massive. Last year Twitch became the fourth-largest source of U.S. Internet traffic, trailing only Netflix, Google and Apple, according to network researcher DeepField. The Twitch website averaged 100 million viewers a month worldwide at the end of 2014, more than double what it attracted just a year earlier.
Some people are disturbed by the whole concept of the sports network covering video games as sports. Syndicated sports radio host Colin Cowherd is particularly salty.
“If I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire and move to a rural fishing village and sell bait,” he says.
Not funny, gamers say.
“ESPN televised the national spelling bee, OK?” says Blackburn. “So if we’re going to get mad about them televising ‘Heroes of the Dorm,’ we might want to look there first.”
SoPro gets this, so owners plan to hold watch parties for important national and international video game tournaments, including “League of Legends.”
“‘League’ is like the first real big spectator video game,” says Alex Samouce, 19, of Leavenworth. “What my parents don’t get is that millions of people watch these games online. I have watch parties with my friends every weekend.”
Lee Jarman agrees.
“It’s no different from watching baseball or football where you have professional casters (describing) everything that’s going on,” he says. “And when you have two guys up there (who) understand the game, and they’re getting everybody excited, it’s so entertaining. It’s just as gratifying as watching the Super Bowl. And we all have our favorite players, and we follow them.”
Some of those players have gotten so popular they no longer need to compete in tournaments to make big money.
“There are Twitch streamers who — that’s all they do,” says Alex Nauta, 25, a local streamer who gets a modest amount of donations from fans who watch him play “League of Legends” on the Twitch website. “They are just so entertaining to watch play that they have like 30,000 subscribers, and they make more than $100,000 a year just streaming.”
You can also game to help others.
Just ask Brett Bachman, social media coordinator for Extra Life Games, a charitable organization that recruits gamers to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals by playing video and other games.
“Last year we raised $6.5 million nationally (including $100,000 for the University of Kansas Hospital’s pediatric department), and it’s all through gamers,” says Bachman, 43, of Harrisonville. “That’s the fun thing. They get to do what they want. I’m not asking you to run a 5k or dump ice cold water over your head. I want you to grab a controller and play games. Then when someone says: ‘It’s a beautiful day outside. You need to get some sun,’ (you can say:) ‘Sorry. I’m helping kids today.’”
Before it opened last month, SoPro’s owners got a taste of what’s to come.
Johnathan Wendel, one of the most accomplished video game champions of all time, dropped by and gave the place a thumbs-up. Wendel, who goes by the name Fata1ity and is originally from Independence, is retired now and living in Las Vegas, where he sells his signature line of gaming products. He made almost a half million dollars from 1999 to 2006 playing competitive video games such as “Quake” and others.
J.J. Santaniello of Overland Park, who does a podcast on video games with two friends called The Frozen North, also likes what he sees in SoPro.
“What’s good about a place like this is, you’ve got a centralized location where people can go by and say, ‘I bet there’s other gamers in there,’” he says. “We truly support what they’re doing. And we’re really happy for the gaming community in Kansas City. There’s really nothing around here like this.”
SoPro plans to make money in several ways, owner Murphy says, including charging for gaming time, selling day or half-day passes, collecting tournament entry fees and by hosting events.
Gamers can even bring in their own machines and play personal games beside their friends. They also can learn how to play various games.
“It’s like a personal trainer at a gym,” Murphy explains. “You can come in and pay an hourly fee to have a gamer train you on a game.”
It’s a concept that has worked in other cities. SoPro’s founders visited Ignite Gaming Lounge in Chicago, a thriving business, to learn what makes such a venture successful.
Ronnie Blackburn and her UMKC club eventually won that “League of Legends” tournament, beating Brady Springe’s team among about a dozen squads. Springe’s team finished fifth.
It was SoPro’s first tournament, and gamers expressed their delight at having somewhere to play and be together.
“This is not only going to work, it’s going to be packed,” says Brandon Parkinson, 27, of Kansas City, who came to watch a friend play in the tournament. “I don’t play ‘League’ now. But I can’t wait to learn and get on a team myself. This is awesome!”
To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jamesafussell.