This Sunday, two teams will go head-to-head at a sold-out Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for the chance to win $1.1 million. But the event is not the venue's typical NBA game — it's professional gaming.
The 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals, which is like the game's Super Bowl, will feature the Vancouver Titans facing off against the San Francisco Shock. Overwatch is a team-based shooter video game developed by Blizzard Entertainment. There are 20 teams in the league based in cities across the globe, from the U.S. to China.
This is the second year the Overwatch League has held the Grand Finals, and it marks an even greater milestone for esports. The city's home team, the Philadelphia Fusion, broke ground on a $50 million esports complex that will be dedicated to competitive gaming.
Professional gaming is an emerging industry growing in popularity and offering lucrative pay and notoriety. Just look at the Overwatch League. Players are offered benefits that include:
The esports market is projected to exceed $1 billion for the first time in 2019, a year-over-year growth of 26.7%, according to games and esports analytics company Newzoo. Esports sponsorships alone are expected to generate nearly $460 million in 2019.
Some big-name investors have taken advantage of the esports boom.
The Overwatch League operates as a franchise with owners such as Robert Kraft, who also owns the New England Patriots; Jeff Wilpon, COO of the New York Mets; and Stan and Josh Kroenke, who together own the Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, Denver Nuggets and Arsenal F.C.
The investments aren't limited to just Overwatch.
Swift, the parent company of Team SoloMid, a professional esports organization, earned $37 million in Series A funding in 2018, led by a group of investors that include NBA stars Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala, as well as Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang. Michael Jordan led a $26 million investment in gaming company aXiomatic Gaming in the fall of 2018.
Shares of Activision-Blizzard are up about 12% since the start of the year at press time. However, the stock tumbled to below half its value between October and February due to greater competition from rival Electronic Arts. Over the last few months, shares have bounced back after earning multiple upgrades in September, as analysts reacted to new updates and sequels for brands like Overwatch and Diablo.
Securing a career in esports is no easy feat.
There are 199 professional players in the Overwatch League. That's a fraction of the nearly 40 million people playing Overwatch in 2019. To become a pro, a player has to build their rank through lower division tournaments in hopes of receiving an invitation to play professionally in a league.
Jake Lyon, a 23-year-old professional player in the Overwatch League for the Houston Outlaws, joined the league in its inaugural season in 2018.
Prior to becoming a professional gamer, Lyon studied economics in college but fell a few credits short of his degree before switching careers. Lyon would not disclose specific salary figures but said his contract is strong compared to the rest of the league. Players' contracts are not made public, but the top salaries are reported to be in the six-figure range annually.
"Realistically, I was going to make more money than I would make out of college, and at the same time, working in the esports industry has always been my dream," Lyon said.
While Lyon has long-term career goals in esports beyond being a player, he does acknowledge that a career in gaming has its downsides.
"l feel like generally my mindset is that esports is fickle and is limited, in a sense," Lyon said. "Nobody knows how long a game is going to last or how long an individual player's career is going to last."
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.