Online gamers’ fans are the new reality
‘This is serious business’ as hundreds of esports aficionados attend watch party at west Houston warehouse
ONE hundred video game aficionados were expected to attend an online tournament watch party at a warehouse in west Houston. By the end of the night, more than 700 families and friends from across the city packed the venue.
To party hosts, the turnout delivered a clear message: Build an electronic sports, or esports, hub and the fans will come.
Houston-based venture capital firm, Work America Capital, which funded the watch party, is developing the city’s first esports arena. Spectators will be able to pay to watch teams play competitive online video games live on stage and on jumbotrons. The building, just north of Interstate 10 and west of Beltway 8, is slated for completion by the middle of the year.
The arena marks Houston’s deepening involvement in the multimillion-dollar esports industry, and is part of Work America Capital’s larger development of a tech hub called the Founders’ District.
The warehouse, where hundreds of fans on Thursday cheered for an esports team called the Houston Outlaws, will be converted into a $70 million 120,000-square-foot co-working space called The Cannon.
It will feature 50,000 square feet for a startup incubator with remaining tenants comprising community banks, lawyers and investment advisers offering services to the incubator’s startups under one roof, said Mark Toon, co-founder of Work America Capital.
The rest of the more than 20acre site will include temporary housing for international tech entrepreneurs, a gym, a football field, retail, restaurants and the arena, Toon said.
For Toon, esports provides a strategic investment source for companies looking to attract younger, tech-savvy consumers.
Last year, the esports economy was valued at $696 million according to industry analysis company Newzoo.
Revenue generated from esports is expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2020, much of it driven by corporate sponsorships and fans buying up merchandise and ticket sales.
“Esports is here to stay,” Toon said.
At the Founders District, esports will serve as a perk for young tech entrepreneurs looking for office space and access to mentorship and venture funding, said Chris Buckner, founder of Houston tech company, FanReact, a portfolio company of Work America Capital.
Buckner views esports players and fans as entrepreneurs themselves, having built up an industry through word of mouth and a love for digital games. It’s an industry that now has the atten- tion of the International Olympic Committee.
“There’s no joking around anymore,” Buckner said. “This is serious business.”
Buckner founded FanReact in 2014 as a sports social media app. Shortly after being acquired by Work America Capital in 2016, the company pivoted over to esports.
Last year, FanReact acquired Houston-based GamerWall and South Carolina-based Pubg Online, two video game tournament organizers.
Under the acquisition, GamerWall and Pubg Online combined into Mainline, which will launch a new esports site on April 1 where fans can get all the latest news of their favorite teams and tournaments without the need to search individual Twitter or Facebook accounts.
Mainline also promoted the Thursday night watch party. After only posting a few tweets online the week before, and facing chilly, rainy Houston weather, the company expected a modest turnout.
But word of mouth spread, convincing hundreds of fans including Kristina Bell, 30, and Marcelle Martin, 31, to brace the cold and holler at the big screen whenever their favorite Houston Outlaws player virtually gunned down an opponent.
“Let’s go Outlaws, let’s go,” Bell and Martin chanted along with the crowd.
Last year Optic Gaming, a Dallas-based esports company, bought the Houston Outlaws team to enter a city-based tournament called the Overwatch League.
Thursday night marked the Houston team’s first tournament match.
“It’s great to have a home team to root for,” Bell said.
Several watch party attendees echoed Bell’s sentiment, and spoke of John Shaeffer’s vision for Houston.
When Shaeffer founded GamerWall in 2016 he didn’t consider himself a gamer and knew little about the esports community. He didn’t expect his small company to later get investment from the local Gow Media group, owners of CultureMap and radio shows, and he didn’t count on FanReact’s acquisition offer.
But watching fans of all ages and ethnicities mingle together Thursday night further convinced Shaeffer he needed to be a part of the team that would build the first physical gathering space for esports fans in Houston.
“It’s a subculture that’s begging to break on to the scene,” Shaeffer said.