SALT LAKE CITY — Snickering, eye rolling and snarky comments in response to any mention of esports competitors, or their audiences, may soon go the way of the Atari Pong console, and the University of Utah appears to be on the leading edge of that new and explosive paradigm.
A little context. At the pinnacle of last year's epic, seven-game NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, almost 31 million viewers tuned in for the finale to see if LeBron James would bring home Cleveland's first sports championship in 52 years or if the high-flying Warriors would grab the trophy to cap the winningest NBA season ever. The Cavs pulled it off in the final seconds, and the New York Times later reported that it was the largest viewership for an NBA Finals game in 18 years.
In another 2016 clash of Titans, professional multiplayer video game teams SKT and Samsung Galaxy faced off in L.A.'s Staples Center for the "League of Legends" World Championship final. While 20,000 packed the Southern California venue, almost 43 million viewers from around the world watched the two South Korean teams from home, easily crushing one of the biggest NBA broadcast successes in years. Oh, and SKT was victorious, becoming the first "League of Legends" three-time world champions.
Now, the University of Utah has joined the video game competition melee. After announcing in April the formation of the first college-sponsored esports varsity team among the Power Five schools, the U. on Wednesday reported it was adding two more competition teams for the multiplayer games "Overwatch" and "Hearthstone." The school previously announced it'd be competing in "League of Legends," and one more game will likely be added soon, according to A.J. Dimick, the U.'s director of operations for esports.
The number of people engaged with esports, both as players and viewers, is far greater than many people realize, Dimick said.
"I always tell people in other schools that esports has a bigger presence than they think," Dimick said. "And the energy and enthusiasm for esports here at the U. has just been tremendous."
Data being collected on the growth of esports, both as a spectator sport and economic powerhouse, seems to bear out Dimick's assertion.
According to esports-dedicated website NewZoo, revenues increased by almost 52 percent from 2015 to 2016 and are expected to take another leap this year, with estimates of 41 percent growth and total revenues of $696 million. By 2020, the outlet projects revenues nearing $1.5 billion.
And the audiences are expanding at a similar rate, with NewZoo estimating that there will be 194 million occasional viewers and 191 million "enthusiasts" by the end of 2017, expanding to 303 million occasional and 286 million super-fans by 2020.
All of this forward-moving energy related to esports could translate directly to the campus level this fall, and Dimick said he expects some serious competition for the 35 slots that will be up for grabs when the U. opens tryouts in August. The U.'s esports club, Crimson Gaming, has over 500 members, and Dimick expects tryout interest could easily outpace that number.
When its debut esports season begins, the U. will mostly be competing against club teams, as only a relative handful of colleges have official esports teams. Dimick said the college has been working both internally and externally to cultivate interest in sanctioning esports varsity teams, but decided that time was right to move forward on its own, even as other "big" schools ponder whether or not to get in the game.
"We've been engaged in the effort for a long time now, but decided it was time to bring esports into the PAC-12," Dimick said.
So, what are these games? "League of Legends" is an online battle arena game that requires team members to work together in a fantasy/folklore setting to destroy the opposing team's base core. "Overwatch" is a team-based, first-person-shooter game, and "Hearthstone," a riff on the popular "Warcraft" game, is based on real-world collectible cards but played in an online, head-to-head setting.
Plenty of big media names are taking note of the opportunities presented by the rising popularity of esports. Both ESPN and Yahoo Sports have added new esports categories to their online coverage, and ESPN has experimented with broadcasting esports events. For now, the majority of viewership is happening via esports-dedicated streaming sites, like Twitch or Major League Gaming.
While the U. is breaking new ground at the moment, Dimick said he was sure it is only a matter of time before other major sports universities joined in a big way.
"I think there is no ceiling for how big this could get," Dimick said. "And if you look at where this is trending, it could easily become a mainstream collegiate experience."