It’s only a matter of time before competitive video games are bigger than football, according to Matt Roche, corporate and strategic partnerships manager for the Pittsburgh Knights esports organization.
“In terms of viewership alone, we’re on track to surpass the NFL in the next couple years,” he said.
The 2018 world championship for popular competitive game League of Legends had almost 100 million unique viewers, with an average of almost 20 million people watching at any one time, according to League of Legends creator Riot Games. Most of them watched on online streaming services like Twitch.
By comparison, this year’s Super Bowl had about 98 million total television viewers.
But in Pittsburgh, traditional sports reign supreme. Organizers of an upcoming esports tournament want to see if the city’s passionate sports fans can embrace competitive gaming.
The Steel City Showdown, coming to the Pittsburgh Playhouse on May 11-12, is a partnership between Point Park University, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Pittsburgh Knights.
The world’s biggest esports tournaments fill stadiums as pro gamers compete for multi-million dollar prizes. Pittsburgh is starting much smaller.
“We’re just going to see, does this have legs here in Pittsburgh, and is there a market here?” said Steve Tanzilli, dean of the Rowland School of Business at Point Park University, and chair of SportsPittsburgh’s esports task force.
The Steel City Showdown will feature three tournaments, each with a top prize of $1,000 and a second-place prize of $500.
Anyone can enter for a $10 fee. Admission to watch is $5.
Each tournament will be presented by a different organization.
The Penguins and Cavaliers will feature hockey simulator NHL 19 and basketball sim NBA 2K19, respectively.
The Knights will host the tournament for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a colorful fighting game featuring popular characters like Mario and Pikachu.
Tanzilli teaches classes in sports business but recently realized many students were more interested in video games than sports.
“It’s really become a phenomenon because of the internet, and the ability to stream these events,” he said.
Tanzilli started teaching a business of esports class.
“We’ve been working our way through it, and (the tournament) was kind of a natural next step,” he said.
The Steel City has some catching up to do if it wants to be an esports hub, Roche said.
“In Pittsburgh, it’s a little bit behind, compared to what we’ve seen in other major markets,” he said.
China and Korea fill Olympic-sized stadiums with gaming fans, Roche said.
To the casual viewer, the structure of esports can be hard to understand. Traditional professional sports are monolithic, overseen by organizations like the NFL and MLB. The Steelers play football — and only football.
With esports, there are dozens of different games played on a competitive level, each with its own league structure and tournament scene.
The Knights are not just one team. The organization oversees eight small teams, each competing in a different video game. More will likely be added in the near future, Roche said.
He hopes events like the Steel City Showdown will help show people that watching video games can create similar thrills to other sports.
“The same way that you go to a Steelers game, and you’re there with like-minded individuals who want to see your team win, it’s the same thing with esports,” he said.
About 200 people have signed up for the Steel City Showdown — either as spectators or competitors — as of Tuesday, according to Tanzilli.
He expects many people will show up on the day of the tournament, but organizers hope to entice more people to preregister to make it easier to plan the event.
Those who preregister to compete in any game get a Penguins bobble head, and those who preregister for the NBA 2K19 tournament will get Cavaliers merchandise.
“This group is apparently kind of a day-of group, and we’re trying to incentive them to sign up so we have some idea that they’re coming,” Tanzilli said.
Tickets for the Steel City Showdown are available at pittsburghplayhouse.com.