These are boom times for pro video game players, and Justin Kogge and his Vanguard team are looking to stake a claim in an industry on the rise.

Hours after getting eliminated, Dibs and JohnnyCocaCola are still hanging around Game Arena, watching and socializing as the tournament grinds on toward midnight. On the big screen, the weekly “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” contest rolls into the quarterfinals, where two elite players square off. It’s a chaotic battle—spinning dervish characters, glowing shields and clouds of smoke, while explosions thud from the speakers. For an outsider, it’s hard to make sense of the quick-twitch action.

Luckily, Dibs and JohnnyCocaCola are happy to explain. Sam Moore and Logan Nagel, as they’re known elsewhere, are veterans of the local “Smash” scene, and at the wizened ages of 25 and 22, respectively, they have years more experience than most other competitors in the arena. These players are tight-knit, perhaps because they’re misfits in other settings. “A lot of people in the ‘Smash’ community never fit in anywhere else,” Moore says. They’ve held gatherings and tournaments across the city—at a comic shop, Coffee Underground and Donatos near Ohio State’s campus, and now, finally, at Game Arena,
a venue sparking with energy in a sleepy Mill Run shopping center.

Opened in February 2018, Game Arena has more than 70 high-end computers—some costing more than $2,000 apiece—ergonomic chairs, a tournament room outfitted with a projection screen and a broadcast booth, and a food and drink counter. (Alcohol is available, but the gaming community, with its substantial underage clientele, leans toward caffeine; a fridge full of Mountain Dew products is marked “Game Fuel.”) It’s a strip-mall video-game paradise, both for casual gamers and competitive players, the type of place that’s still an anomaly but is starting to pop up across the U.S.

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This Thursday night event in January marks a milestone: Game Arena’s 100th “Smash” tourney, which has drawn 167 players from around Ohio, Moore says. Earlier in the evening, founder Justin Kogge gave a brief speech, thanking players and promoting the April opening of Game Arena’s second location at OSU’s Gateway. Cheers and applause filled the tournament room. Shortly after, an exuberant Game Arena employee shouted, “2020 is going to be the year of Ohio ‘Smash’!”

There’s hunger for this place among gamers, now more than ever, and Kogge is thrilled to sate it. In November, he also launched the Vanguard pro esports team, fielding players in “Smash” and “Fortnite”—in which his players have already won hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kogge’s investors are backing complementary businesses in apparel, graphic design and operational software for gaming centers, all of which could propel them to the forefront of the growing esports industry in Columbus and beyond.

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Esports can be a tough sell for the uninitiated, and most people don’t have Kogge or Dibs or JohnnyCocaCola around to patiently explain the cosmos. So, until recently, they’ve grown outside the confines of mainstream attention.

For starters, pro gaming isn’t easy to compare to the likes of baseball or hockey—esports consist of many, many individual games played in a variety of settings, leagues and tournaments. Some pro teams, like the Chicago Huntsmen, play a single game (“Call of Duty”) while organizations like Complexity Gaming compete across multiple titles, including “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Madden NFL.” Some games are played competitively but without any overarching structure. This esports landscape, messy and forever in flux, is invariably referred to as the Wild West.

“How does it become more stable? It’s a billion-dollar question,” says Brandon Smith, the esports director for the Office of Student Life at Ohio State, which opened its own arena in Lincoln Tower last fall and will launch the first official OSU gaming teams near the end of February.

What’s clear: Esports are no longer a fringe attraction. A 2018 report from Goldman Sachs estimated that esports generated $655 million in revenue in 2017 and would boast a global monthly audience of 225 million viewers by the end of 2020, more than the NHL and MLB. “Online video sites like Twitch and YouTube have a larger audience for gaming alone than HBO, Netflix and ESPN combined,” the report stated. Analysts estimated that by 2022 esports will reach 276 million viewers, comparable to the NFL, and rack up $3 billion annually.

Growing popularity and revenue have attracted investment from owners in major sports, like Robert Kraft (New England Patriots) and Fred Wilpon (New York Mets). In May 2019, Complexity’s majority owner Jerry Jones opened a new 11,000-square-foot home for the esports team on the campus of his Dallas Cowboys’ headquarters in Frisco, Texas. Complexity now shares training facilities and branding with the most valuable sports franchise in the world.

But unlike traditional sports leagues, which are controlled by team owners, pro esports are typically run by game development companies. In 2017, Riot Games sold franchise rights to 10 teams competing in “League of Legends” for $10 million or more each. That same year, Activision Blizzard sold 12 city-based franchises in an international “Overwatch” league for $20 million apiece, and then created a similar league in “Call of Duty” with a reported price tag of $25 million per squad. Nintendo, on the other hand, has put fewer resources into promoting “Smash” as a competitive game, and most players, even elite ones, don’t make much from tournaments.

Epic Games went the opposite route with its megahit “Fortnite,” pushing $100 million into prize pools for the 2018–19 season and leaving the competition wide open. The 2019 “Fortnite” World Cup drew more than 40 million players worldwide through online qualifiers, which culminated in a live final event at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City last July. The $3 million top prize went to Bugha, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania.

Vanguard’s future players—the team was established not long after the cup—also entered the fray. Vinh Phung, a Northland-area player who simply goes by Phung, and his duos partner, Kez—aka Toronto resident Kalvin Dam—finished one spot shy of the finals in a qualifier. Kerry Callendar, a Westerville resident with the gamertag of iKerry, advanced to the second round in eight of the 10 qualifiers but couldn’t get further. Fourteen-year-old Yung Calculator was the most successful. The Dublin resident, real name Jonathan Weber, finished 16th in the duos finals in New York and earned $50,000. In the months following the cup, his trios team and his four-player squad placed first and second in consecutive “Fortnite” series events, hauling in $375,000, and Dam’s squad took one first-place prize and $187,500. It was a promising run for the month-old Vanguard team.

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Kogge grew up dreaming of being a pro gamer before there were hardly any careers to speak of in the industry. He says he was among the best in the country at “NCAA Football” and “Madden” when he was in his early teens, but he couldn’t make much money or even find tournaments. Now 28, he estimates he only won about $1,000 in competitions.

While pursuing a marketing degree at Ohio State, the Hilliard Darby graduate came up with the idea for Game Arena, inspired by his experiences playing remotely against friends in internet cafés around the world. Kogge envisioned his gaming center as a host for tournaments and showcasing players’ talents. “I was creating what I wanted in high school for myself.”

In 2016, he found his space: a former Hollywood Video store on the edge of Hilliard. He met with the owner, Sethi Associates, to lease the vacant property. Instead, he got an angel investment.

Neil and David Sethi had been looking for ways to diversify the real estate portfolio controlled by their property management company, and they recognized Kogge had a great idea. Yet he lacked things they could provide—contacts, a business background and a better balance sheet—so they invested and took on co-executive roles in operating Game Arena. Through Kogge, they met others in the gaming business, and the investment grew into a broader esports enterprise with several components: Metactix is building software for operating game centers; Esportsgear makes apparel, like Vanguard’s jerseys; and creative marketing firm SKRV has been doing graphic design for the other verticals.

But the biggest leap of faith was starting the esports team. “It was a natural extension of Justin’s ability to identify talent, quite honestly,” Neil says. “If he did not have that ability, we would never have started Vanguard.”

They were lucky Game Arena opened during the “Fortnite” boom, Kogge says. He recognized players coming in with pro-level talent, starting with Callendar and Phung, and the team now includes Weber, Dam, Brendan O’Brien (aka Jaomock) and “Smash” player Colin Landals (aka Colinies). They get access to a nutritionist, a physical trainer, a graphics team and video editors. They also receive a salary, which allows them to focus solely on gaming if they choose. Phung kept his job, a good corporate gig, and Weber, a freshman, still attends high school, but he and his family worked with the district so that he could satisfy his requirements with three two-hour days per week at an online school. Each player spends anywhere from six to 12 hours a day practicing.

In addition to prize money, many players earn a living by livestreaming—broadcasting their play online along with commentary—though none of the Vanguard players has a large enough audience for that to be very profitable yet. Weber has been the most successful in tourneys, racking up $210,000 total as of late January. (He splurged on a Rolex, but he’s also investing.) In the past, teams may have made their money by taking a cut of those winnings, but Neil Sethi says that practice is going by the wayside in favor of building a brand around popular players, attracting fans, selling merchandise and luring sponsors. In short, esports teams are beginning to look more like their stick-and-ball counterparts.

In turn, traditional sports teams are embracing the power of video games. The Cleveland Cavs and Columbus Crew each have official esports doppelgängers representing them in “NBA 2K” and “FIFA 20.” In an unexpected turn of events, former NFL Pro Bowler Jay Ajayi was a running back for the Philadelphia Eagles until late December, but after getting cut he began playing “FIFA” for the Philadelphia Union pro soccer club.

Last year, the Blue Jackets organized the team’s inaugural “NHL 19” tournament with a live final inside Nationwide Arena, won by OSU student Matthew Gutkoski, aka Top Shelf Cookie. A few months later, he won the NHL World Gaming Championships in Las Vegas and pocketed $50,000.

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As the esports ecosystem takes shape, universities across the country are getting in on the gaming action with related academic programs and competitive teams. “It’s wild. It’s really sometimes hard to keep track of, but it’s exciting,” says Liz Keegan, a professor at the Columbus College of Art & Design who’s structuring the school’s new game art and design major, which will prepare students for careers in gaming industries starting this fall.

Ohio State also plans to launch its interdisciplinary esports major in the fall, in addition to a research initiative into human performance in gaming. Then there’s the OSU esports arena, a shiny new computer lab with 62 open-play stations for any student, plus two areas reserved for university teams in “Rocket League,” “Overwatch” and “League of Legends”—the first official esports teams in the Big Ten. They’ll be housed within student life instead of the athletic department and referred to as “premier” rather than varsity.

The NCAA has decided not to govern esports for now, in large part because elite players begin earning money well before college, conflicting with its view of amateurism. Smith says OSU players will be free to make money outside the university as long as their first commitment is to the Buckeyes. The teams won’t offer scholarships to start, though that could change with time.

The local entrepreneurial community is diving in as well, with startups like eFuse, a website that’s akin to LinkedIn for esports, and Lightstream, which builds software to make livestreaming easier. Esports Engine, founded by Hilliard resident Adam Apicella, partners with game publishers to produce live events, broadcasts and competitions. In 2016, when he worked for New York-based Major League Gaming, Apicella helped stage the first North American esports competition held in a pro stadium at Nationwide Arena, a “Counter-Strike” championship event that he says sold out four months in advance. In his time with MLG, he found Columbus to be especially receptive to pro gaming as a spectator sport. “People are used to buying tickets for spectacle,” he says. “They’re used to going to Ohio State games.”

Apicella believes the city could be a regional force in the industry because of its growing population of young people and the presence of OSU. Chris Volpe, CEO of Multivarious Games, is another longtime advocate for establishing Columbus as a Midwestern hub for esports and game development, his company’s field. There are a few frontrunners—LA, New York City and Dallas are mentioned most often—but Volpe says most U.S. cities are still figuring everything out. In the next year and a half, he’s aiming to create an esports headquarters with a training facility and a pro team owned by Multivarious.

Kogge and the Sethis are big believers in Columbus’ potential, too, and they view their current work as laying that foundation. All these industry insiders are sure that esports—not long ago dismissed or overlooked—will be mainstream entertainment soon. “I think it’s a matter of when, not if,” David Sethi says. Esports will creep up, his brother adds, and one day no one will remember what it was like before it was huge.

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Despite the rosy outlook of enthusiasts and analysts alike, there are still barriers to overcome. Apicella points to the lagging infrastructure. Because esports took shape largely online rather than in the physical world, pro teams haven’t built up venues or cities full of fans devoted to any particular franchise, limiting readymade event revenue. Volpe points out that there’s still a perception problem—people stereotyping gamers or not understanding esports at all.

But time will cure these ills, the experts say. The skeptics’ refrain—who would pay to watch other people play video games—will fade while esports tournaments become as normal as football games within the younger generation’s culture. The advent of more youth leagues and school teams will accelerate that shift. Kogge already helped persuade all three Hilliard high schools to start esports club teams—a handful of Central Ohio high schools now compete statewide in Esports Ohio’s leagues—and Game Arena provides space weekly for the Hilliard Cybercats.

The brief arc of players’ careers is another concern. They start young—especially in “Fortnite,” where the 14-year-old Weber, aka Yung Calc, is closer to the rule than the exception—and their time winning big prizes often ends before they’re as old as most college grads (so university teams will likely exist on a secondary tier rather than as a route to the pros). Some people attribute it to physiology—micro advantages in reflexes at a younger age, Kogge says—but Volpe believes careers will get longer as the money expands and teams invest more in individual players.

Phung and Callendar are already 24, so they’re likely on a shorter trajectory when it comes to playing “Fortnite” for Vanguard. (Phung recently won a tournament
derisively called the Boomer Cup, open only to players over 23.) But both seem as excited about Kogge’s vision as they are about their own playing days. Phung had offers from other major teams, and the biggest reason he chose Vanguard was they offered to help him find employment once his pro career is over, perhaps in a managerial role with the team. The Sethis say their array of esports companies provide plenty of opportunities as players age out.

Kogge would like to open more Game Arenas, but his moonshot is owning a franchise in “League of Legends,” his favorite game. It’s a closed league right now, not to mention the entry price in the tens of millions, so it’s unclear how that would work or when it will be an option. But who knows? The scenery changes every six months in esports. Kogge has witnessed a drastic shift in just the past 10 years since he was in high school, and he admits he was teary-eyed watching kids from Hilliard show up for their club teams on the first day. He’d wanted that kind of experience when he was their age, in a place just like Game Arena, and he helped make those dreams a reality for others. Imagine what another decade could bring. 

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