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Chicago franchise in new, pro Call of Duty League another sign of eSports’ growing popularity

The Chicago Huntsmen will join teams from 11 other cities in the league that’s set to debut in January.

Video-game tournament participants at Ignite Gaming Lounge, 3341 N. Elston Ave.
A player takes part in a recent video-game tournament at Ignite Gaming Lounge, 3341 N. Elston Ave. “I think eSports is at the point right now where it wants to become the next NFL or the NBA or the MLB,” says Flavius Maximus, one of Ignite’s owners.
Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

The newest sports franchise in Chicago won’t play any traditional sport. It’s an eSports team that’s set to begin play in January in software giant Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty League.

“Chicago is a place we really wanted to be,” says Andy Miller, whose NRG eSports has been awarded the franchise for the newly named Chicago Huntsmen to be part of the 12-team expansion league. “It’s a great market for eSports, and this will be the first major team here.”

Miller, a co-owner of the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings, has financial backers who include Jennifer Lopez, Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez.

Miller also is a co-founder of the San Francisco Shock, one of 20 professional eSports teams that play in the 2-year-old Overwatch League — Overwatch as in the cartoonish, team-based shooter game made by Activision Blizzard. On Sept. 29, the Shock beat the Vancouver Titans 4-0 in the OWL grand finals before 12,000 fans at Philadephia’s Wells Fargo Center and 1.1 million more watching online or on ABC.

The Call of Duty League is planned as a second major competitive gaming league, as games that once were confined to arcades and basements have become what to eSports analytics firm NewZoo says is a $1 billion-a-year industry. Activision Blizzard set prices to get a Call of Duty League franchise at $25 million, according to ESPN.

“I think eSports is at the point right now where it wants to become the next NFL or the NBA or the MLB,” says Flavius Maximus, one of the owners of Ignite Gaming Lounge, 3341 N. Elston Ave. on the Northwest Side, which promotes itself as a “social gaming experience” that books gaming time in packages of an hour or longer.

Thousands watched as the San Francisco Shock beat the Vancouver Titans Sept. 29 at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center to win the the Overwatch League Grand Finals.
Thousands watched as the San Francisco Shock beat the Vancouver Titans Sept. 29 at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center to win the the Overwatch League Grand Finals.
Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

The Call of Duty League aims to build on OWL, which expanded this year to 20 teams, from 12, in North America, Asia and Europe. OWL was the first eSports league with city-based teams and a business structure like those in traditional sports.

The Call of Duty League also is set to include teams in Atlanta, Dallas, Florida, London, Minnesota, New York, Paris, Seattle and Toronto, with two teams in Los Angeles.

Miller says he’s seeking a venue to accommodate 3,000 to 5,000 fans for games that will also include weekend-long amateur tournaments and a “WWE-like atmosphere.”

Andy Miller.
Andy Miller.
NRG eSports

One sign of how eSports have been growing in popularity: Chicago’s Robert Morris University in 2014 was the first college in the United States to award scholarships to eSports players. The program attracts player-students from around the country and already has seen varsity video-game leave school early to join professional teams.

“We’ve seen rapid, rapid growth since 2014,” says Kurt Melcher, executive director of the RMU eSports program.

Seventy-three students now participate in RMU eSports, with coaches who hold practices and scrimmages in a dark, computer-filled hall in the athletic department and a new “eSports arena” on the school’s second floor.

The National Association of College Esports says it has more than 150 members, and about 270 NCAA or NAIA schools in the NCAA or NAIA have eSports programs, according to Melcher.

In April, a Robert Morris junior varsity team dominated the Collegiate Starleague finals in Atlantic City, winning $5,000 — designated as future scholarship money.

“We didn’t lose a single set all tournament,” says Grant “Zile” Welling, 19, a sophomore who moved to Chicago from Kentucky to join RMU’s eSports program on scholarship. “It was pretty cool to go to Atlantic City in front of an audience and win what’s a lot of money for a college student.”

Video-game tournament participants at Ignite Gaming Lounge, 3341 N. Elston Ave.
Video-game tournament participants at Ignite Gaming Lounge, 3341 N. Elston Ave.
Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

At Ignite on the Northwest Side, an eSports professionals night recently drew a crowd mostly of young men who exchanged business cards and tinkered with a Microsoft virtual reality demonstration while sipping cocktails named for video-game characters. TVs above the bar were tuned to a stream of a teenager playing Fortnite.

“You’ve got plenty of bars in Chicago that do sports,” Maximus says. “But you can’t name one bar that’s playing a video game right now.”

Ignite opened on Elston in 2012 as a kid-friendly place mostly for casual play on dedicated PC rigs.

But Maximus had eSports in mind when he opened a second location last December in Skokie. Half of the 20,000 square-foot facility doubles as an eSports event space where, a month ago, about 300 people came to watch Red Bull Conquest, a regional qualifier for a national fighting-game tournament.

Ignite also regularly hosts viewing parties for events like the Overwatch League grand finals — sort of an eSports Super Bowl party.