As the popularity of eSports continues to grow worldwide, recognizable names in sports and entertainment in Arizona have begun to take notice. 

“You can’t help but hear of more and more things that are happening in the eSports world,” said Mike Nealy, executive director of the Scottsdale-based Fiesta Bowl. 

The Fiesta Bowl organization recently partnered with Blizzard Entertainment, creator of the team-based shooter Overwatch, for the inaugural Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship in February at Arizona State University. 

In Overwatch, players choose a hero and join teams of six people to compete in team shooting matches with varying objectives depending on the map and settings players choose. 

As an organization that’s known for its college football game, Nealy said eSports was unfamiliar territory for the Fiesta Bowl. 

“It was a quick learning curve, and we were also smart enough to team up with some people who knew the space a little bit better,” Nealy said. 

The partnership with Blizzard was the first of its kind between a college football bowl organization and a game developer. Nealy said the event sold out of all the tickets that were made available, and he described it as a “tremendous success.” 

“We could have sold more tickets and probably could have had a bigger venue. The interest was pretty high,” he said. 

ESports growing audiences and revenues around the world 

The early success of the Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Championship is indicative of an eSports industry that has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. 

Global eSports revenues are expected to reach a total of $906 million in 2018, according to a report released by market research firm Newzoo. 

That’s a year-over-year growth of more than 38 percent, and the market isn’t expected to slow down any time soon. Newzoo estimates total eSports revenues will grow to more than $1.6 billion globally by 2021. 

That revenue growth is being driven by a growing audience worldwide as gaming and eSports continues to enter the mainstream. A total eSports audience of 192 million people in 2017 is expected to grow to 307 million by 2021, according to Newzoo’s report. 

The growth in the market represents an opportunity for the budding eSports industry in Arizona, said Jon Bukosky, CEO and founder of Ultimate Media Ventures, a gaming and eSports innovation company based out of Huntington Beach, California. 

“Ultimately, the eSports community is there, but nobody’s really addressed it,” Bukosky said. 

Talking Stick Resort creates ESports Arizona 

With a production company that helps organizations create eSports brands and apparel company ULT that recently launched a line of eSports apparel in Zumiez stores across the country, Ultimate Media Ventures has become a significant part of the eSports culture across North America, Bukosky said. 

That presents an opportunity for organizations like Talking Stick Resort, which partnered with Bukosky and his company in 2017 to create E/AZ, the resort’s new competitive video gaming brand that’s focused on hosting a monthly eSports series. 

Mary Shick, chief marketing officer for Talking Stick Resort, said the resort’s game offerings evolve as players evolve. 

esports competition
Talking Stick Resort launched a competitive eSports brand, E/AZ, to host monthly tournaments. The resort recently hosted a Super Smash Bros. 4 and Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament with 200 participants and a $5,000 prize pool. (Photo provided by Ultimate Media Ventures)

“Our goal is to bring consistent, innovative entertainment to Talking Stick Resort, and we consider eSports to be a new star in the world of sports and entertainment,” Shick said. 

Esports Arizona held its first tournament in October, with 200 participants battling it out in Super Smash Bros. 4 and Super Smash Bros. Melee for a total prize pool of $5,000. 

Since then, the resort has added a new game, Street Fighter V, and recent events have featured cosplay costume competitions that allow participants to dress up as their favorite characters to win money. 

“We are encouraged by the success of our initial tournaments and confident in our position as the home for eSports in Arizona,” Shick said. 

Bukosky said it’s going to take organizations like Talking Stick Resort leading the way to grow the eSports market in Arizona. 

“Effectively, they’ve done that over the last six months,” Bukosky said. “As we continue to build the brand, it gets bigger in terms of attendance and viewership.” 

Talking Stick Resort’s next eSports event is scheduled to coincide with a pool party featuring DJ Tiesto on June 23. 

“We’re doing contests across Zumiez to win a trip to Talking Stick Resort and enjoy a day of fighting games,” Bukosky said. “You get to go enjoy a pool party with Tiesto. If you were a fan just a year ago, you would have never seen anything like that before.” 

Bravado Gaming chooses Phoenix as new American home 

While there aren’t many businesses in Phoenix focused on eSports, Bukosky said the city holds promise for becoming a new hub for competitive gaming. 

“You have a great industry there in terms of players,” he said. “But what is sexy about Phoenix as a whole, it’s half the cost of trying to do business in Orange County. Just go to Santa Monica and try to get a team house.” 

Team houses are where professional eSports teams live and train together to become more competitive in the games they play. 

Affordable housing is the reason Bravado Gaming chose Phoenix as its new home. Bravado is a professional eSports team from South Africa that competes in the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. 

“We decided that we needed to move to the U.S. to better our team, because the opponents in South Africa and the teams we could play against weren’t at a high enough skill level,” said Aren Groesbeek, Bravado team member. 

After receiving the necessary funding from sponsors Alienware and Intel, Bravado announced in January that it would make the move to the United States. 

“We were looking at Los Angeles at first and other parts of California, but the pricing was quite heavy,” Groesbeek said. “We looked at Phoenix because we wanted to be near the West Coast, and the housing was really affordable.” 

The future of eSports in Arizona 

While Fiesta Bowl has no plans to get involved at the professional level, Nealy said he also sees the potential for Arizona to become a new center for eSports in the nation. 

“I hope that our entrance into this and putting a spotlight certainly on the collegiate level…is the start of something that could grow,” Nealy said. 

He said Fiesta Bowl plans to keep working with Blizzard but there are no details yet on the organization’s next eSports event. 

“There’s certainly a strong interest in growing what we’ve done together and a real strong appetite to work together, we just haven’t got the details yet,” Nealy said. “I would expect that we will at least try to repeat the type of event that we did last year.” 

As for Talking Stick Resort, Bukosky said he’s working to grow the E/AZ brand and attract more professional competitions to the area. 

“The last event we did officially geared them into what we call a regional points event for pros. So now all the pros across the country know what the brand E/AZ is and Talking Stick Resort,” he said. 

Bukosky said he’s looking to open an Ultimate Media Ventures office in Phoenix this year, and he’s in active dialogues to build a dedicated eSports arena in Arizona. 

“My firm here, we’re very committed to Arizona eSports,” Bukosky said. “I think we can swing for the fences and truly put Phoenix on the map as an eSports destination globally.”