RALEIGH — PNC Arena holds a variety of events throughout the year, including professional hockey and college basketball games, concerts, and even monster truck rallies. This past weekend, however, Raleigh’s largest indoor venue hosted something a bit out of the ordinary: a professional video game tournament.
The Apex Legends Global Series 2 Championship, sponsored by EA Sports and Lenovo, certainly wasn’t your old-school local area network (LAN) party. It was the real deal.
Dozens of teams, with players from all over the world, gathered around two massive LED screens and the arena’s video board to duke it out over a $2 million prize pool. The winning team, DarkZero Esports from Australia, took home $500,000, with the rest of the competing teams each leaving with a slice of the purse based on their respective rankings.
But like all sporting events, there is more to the experience than competition between players and the big prize money.
“When you go down into the stands, it’s like taking soccer fans and WWE and smashing them together,” explained Jeff Palumbo, Lenovo’s Global Esports Solutions Manager. “There is a participation and energy that is unlike anything else.”
Palumbo couldn’t have been more accurate, as PNC’s lower bowl and suites were filled all weekend with a diverse array of fans, each wearing soccer-style jerseys, waving flags, and cheering on their favorite players. And this is nothing to say of the hundreds of thousands of fans across the globe streaming the event online through platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
“The amount of money that is in esports right now is unheard of … $1.8 billion by the end of the year is the estimate,” according to Palumbo. “It’s skyrocketing. Right now, esports is second only to soccer (in terms of revenue).”
Local businesses and universities are doing their best to adapt and take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by this emerging market. In the Raleigh area alone, technology businesses such as Epic Games, Ubisoft, Red Hat, Cisco, and IBM have formed the Greater Raleigh Esports Local Organizing Committee (GRELOC) to direct attention to the state capital as a new hotspot for the online gaming industry.
In the Fall of 2020, UNC Wilmington introduced an esports certificate program for individuals interested in gaming, streaming, and careers in the industry. William Peace University began offering a bachelor’s degree in Esports & Administration last fall. NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill are also looking to invest in their own esports programs and degrees.
But interest in esports and online gaming is not exclusive to just the private sector, as state and local governments have also been at work to ensure their communities get a piece of the action.
Thanks to the efforts of Republican state Rep. Jason Saine, the House Deputy Conference Chair from District 97, the General Assembly’s most recent budget included $5 million in funds to incentivize esports productions and events to be hosted in the state. With the passing of this Esports Industry Grant Fund, North Carolina officially became the first and only state in the country to encourage esports events within its borders.
“We put in $5 million in the initial budget to try it and see if it works, and that was only in November. We’ve already exhausted about $2.5 million of that,” explained Saine in an interview with North State Journal. “We are halfway there, and we aren’t even through a full year yet.”
When asked whether one could expect to see a continued relationship between governments and the esports industry in the future, Saine responded, “I think we should, and I think we will. This is a great way to partner, and it really means that at the end of the day, the taxpayers win because we will get a lot more money out of this than what we put out there.
“You think about the international audience that this is going to bring this weekend to Raleigh. Every time they cut to break, they’re going to be talking about our state,” said Saine. “We really have an opportunity to showcase who we are and what we offer. And I think that just leads to more and more business wanting to locate here and wanting to grow homegrown business here.”