Las Vegas esports squad shakes up video gaming world

Updated January 21, 2018 - 5:56 pm

His right hand is a blur, as is the weapon it guides.

Casper “cadiaN” Møller’s fingers clench a computer mouse in place of a rifle’s trigger.

Bad guys get Swiss cheesed on the monitor before him as the 22-year-old Dane earns his living playing video games.

Møller is working on his shot at “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” a multiplayer first-person shooter game that pits terrorists versus counterterrorists in a manic blitz akin to a digital action flick.

It’s like the computerized version of a movie Sylvester Stallone might have starred in circa 1985.

In the five years since its release, “CS:GO” has generated more than $46 million in prize money at tournaments around the world.

Last July, 15,000 fans packed an arena in Poland, normally headlined by big-name concert draws such as Metallica, Foo Fighters and Depeche Mode, for the PGL Major Kraków 2017, one of the biggest “CS:GO” events annually. It has a $1 million purse.

If all goes according to plan, the same thing soon could take place in Las Vegas.

As esports continues to explode in popularity, this city is uniquely poised to benefit as a potential hub of a booming industry, with a history of hosting esports events, a luxe new esports venue opening at Luxor soon and casinos beginning to take esports bets.

At the center of it all is Las Vegas’ first big-time esports organization, Rogue, for whom Møller plays.

Since debuting competitively in May 2016, Rogue has swiftly become a David-vs.-Goliath-, Mario-vs.-Donkey Kong-style success story.

In an era where the owners of NBA and NFL franchises are pouring tens of millions of dollars into their own esports squads, Rogue began with relative pocket change, largely financed by a local attorney.

Now, Rogue is a globally recognized brand, acquired last week by ReKTGlobal, Inc. for an undisclosed amount, with an international fan base and the ability to land top foreign talent such as Møller.

They did it the hard way, which, for their budget, was the only way: By winning.

Over and over again.

Going global

For all professional sports stars, there’s a difference between speed and quickness, velocity and reaction time.

Casper Møller is quick, like one long, skinny, fair-haired fast-twitch muscle with a Danish accent.

As the body count rises during this fall afternoon gaming session, it mirrors the trajectory of his career.

He turned pro when he was a teenager and now ranks as a veteran in an industry where monthly salaries for “CS:GO” players range from a base of $4,000 up to $20,000. Even a teenager can earn upward of $150,000 a year before he’s old enough to buy cigarettes.

“It was a very young age to all of a sudden get publicity and a high salary and all these kinds of things,” Møller says, reclined in a $200 gaming chair. “In the beginning, it kind of got to me too much. I was riding the wave, you know?”

Said wave has washed ashore in Las Vegas.

Møller got here three days ago — he hasn’t even had time to decorate his apartment room on the city’s southwest side, which is as sparsely appointed as your average jail cell — lured to town in September by Rogue, a fast-rising esports organization hitting its stride at just the right time.

Just how big are esports today?

According to video game market research company SuperData, esports developed into a $1.5 billion industry in 2017, generating revenue of nearly $700 million, and are predicted to grow 26 percent to $2.3 billion by 2020. Esports now boast an audience of well over 200 million worldwide, with 60 million people watching the most recent “League of Legends” championships in November, up from 43 million the year before. To put that number in perspective, last year’s NBA Finals drew an average of 21 million viewers per game in the United States.

The purses for the biggest tournaments have grown accordingly: A whopping $24.8 million was on the line at the International 2017 in August, the “DOTA 2” game championships, which was more prize money than offered that year by the Masters golf tournament ($10 million), the Kentucky Derby ($2 million) and the men’s bracket of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships ($20 million).

Money is now gushing into esports like the wild flow of an uncapped fire hydrant.

Big-time advertisers such as Bud Light, Coca-Cola and Gillette are buying in. The NBA is launching its inaugural “NBA 2 K” esports league this year, with 17 NBA franchises fielding teams. ESPN has its own dedicated esports portal on its website. Turner Broadcasting, The CW, ESPN and Disney XD, to name but a few, have broadcast esports events.

Mary Meeker, one of the world’s top venture capitalists, noted in her influential annual “Internet Trends” report for 2017 that half of all millennials prefer esports to traditional sports, highlighting the industry’s phenomenal growth by pointing out that there are 2.6 billion quarterly video gamers now, compared with 100 million in 1995.

Esports will be a medal event at the 2022 Asia Games, and there’s a push to make them a part of the Olympics.

Academic institutions such as the University of California, Irvine, the University of Akron and Robert Morris University Illinois are offering esports scholarships and/or an esports curriculum.

UNLV launched its own esports lab last year.

Nearly everyone, it seems, wants a piece of this increasingly rich pie.

Rogue has benefited: Superstar DJ-producer Steve Aoki invested in the organization, purchasing an ownership slice last year.

He sees what so many others are starting to understand: that esports may be big, but they’re about to get a whole lot bigger.

“I really believe that, in the esports world, we’re at a crux,” says Aoki, a Vegas transplant. “And we’re about to explode.”

Esports explosion

Before there were eight-figure payouts, there was a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.

That was the grand prize in what is generally regarded as the first known video game competition.

Hosted by Stanford University in 1972, the event pitted students in the intergalactic dogfight that was “Spacewar!,” piloting barely there ships that flickered on the screen like a TV on the fritz.

During the Atari-boom of the ’80s, TBS aired the “Starcade” competitive video game show for two seasons, and in the ’90s, Nintendo hosted a variety of tournaments.

But really, it wasn’t until the onset of this decade that the modern era of esports blossomed with a mushroom cloud’s speed and fury.

Two developments were the impetus for this explosive growth.

First, a slew of hugely successful games were introduced between 2009 and 2011 (“League of Legends,” “Starcraft 2,” “DOTA 2,” “CS:GO”), all of which were tailored for multiplayer online gaming, making their play a social experience as much a competitive one and fueling their intense popularity.

Second, and more importantly, was the debut of online streaming site Twitch in 2011.

Twitch has done for esports what network television did for stick-and-ball sports: It established a new, readily accessible platform for the industry, creating an audience beyond the diehards and greatly expanding the esports universe.

Not only did Twitch begin streaming various esports events, the site also doubled as a portal for individual gamers — pro or otherwise — to stream their gaming sessions. It created a whole new esports ecosystem based on access, interactivity and mammoth amounts of content.

By February 2014, Twitch was generating the fourth-most internet traffic during peak hours in the United States, trailing only Netflix, Google and Apple.

Nine months later, Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million.

Twitch provided the outlet for players and teams to build a following with no gatekeepers — and no money.

Teams were built on a grass-roots level, with little to no financing, creating an industry from the ground up.

“You didn’t see experienced owners,” says Rogue President and co-founder Franklin Villareal, 25. “You saw kids, who did not have money, acting as leaders for another group of kids, who were the players. Those kids grew up very quickly and were very savvy, and now have some of the largest esports organizations in the world.”

The Wild West of gaming

In this wide-open landscape, successful players would become even more successful entrepreneurs while still in their teens, building esports organizations from practically nothing.

George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis launched Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) in 2010, when he was 19. Andy “Reginald” Dinh, who earned more than half a million dollars as a player, co-founded Team SoloMid (TSM) with his brother in 2009, when he was but 17.

These squads began competing against one another in tournaments that quickly became more elaborate, well-monied and popular.

Las Vegas got in the game early.

Season 4 of the IGN ProLeague, a now-shuttered esports league, brought 10,000 fans to its finals at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas in 2012 before returning the following year.

Evolution Championship Series (EVO), a popular esports tournament focused on fighting games, first came to Vegas in 2005 at Green Valley Ranch Resort.

This year’s event drew more than 10,000 spectators to Mandalay Bay Events Center in July.

Five months earlier, the DreamHack Masters Las Vegas took place at the MGM Grand Garden arena with a purse of $450,000.

But for all the money esports is attracting, the industry still has the feel of the Wild West.

It’s only loosely organized, with no predominant sanctioning body, like, say, the NCAA.

Game publishers own the rights to their titles, which they license to tournament organizers to put on events — the NFL doesn’t own the game of football the way Blizzard Entertainment owns “Overwatch,” for instance. Different competitions can have different setups and entry points — for some events, teams have to qualify to participate; for others, squads can buy their way in.

Villareal estimates there are 20 to 25 esports organizations in the United States operating on a level as big or bigger than Rogue, though they can come and go easily, fielding multiple teams in multiple games.

The one certainty in this ever-changing industry: The audience is there.

“That’s what got me into esports,” says Rogue CEO and co-founder Derek Nelson, a local attorney and business owner who’s a partner at the Cram Valdez Brigman & Nelson law firm. “I couldn’t believe there were so many people watching other people play video games. I saw these stadiums being filled, tens of millions of people watching at home, realizing that there’s no NBA yet, there’s no NFL.”

To underscore his point, he contrasts esports with another Las Vegas-based success story.

“When you think about the way the UFC was started as a new sport, it had the fighters, but it was considered a blood sport that was not mainstream,” says a youthful-looking Nelson, who has an indefatigable air about him. “As it grew and became more a part of the mainstream culture, then the fan base came. Now, it’s a big thing.

“This is the opposite,” he continues. “(Esports) has this massive fan base already, regardless of the owners and the publishers. It just hasn’t been organized yet. That’s what got me thinking, ‘I’ve got to get into this.’ ”

Rogue’s gallery

As with so many Vegas stories, this one begins in a nightclub.

As with so few Vegas stories that begin in a nightclub, this one’s worth sharing with strangers.

A couple of years back, Franklin Villareal was in town on business.

A bit of an esports wunderkind, Villareal has been immersed in the industry since he was a teen, interning at Twitch and helping found the L.A.-based Enemy (NME) esports organization.

He came to Vegas for what was supposed to be a single day of esports-related meetings.

He ended up staying for four.

On the final night of the trip, Villareal and future Rogue General Manager Sean Mulryan, who were working at NME at the time, were treated by Downtown Grand CEO Seth Schorr to a VIP table on stage at XS Nightclub, where electronic dance music superstar Zedd was performing.

There, they hatched a plan.

“We ended up meeting so many people from Vegas, it was kind of like, ‘This is definitely the place that we want to be. There’s so many people here who are so interested in this right now,” Villareal recalls. “We decided that we were going to start a new organization.”

Villareal had plenty of local contacts. High among them was esports entrepreneur Carson Knuth.

In August 2013, Knuth co-founded Leet Gaming, a tech startup with a focus on esports wagering.

“I had a friend from high school who called me, and he’s like, ‘I have this idea to start a company where you can play video games for money, like against your friends,’ ” says Knuth, recalling the origins of Leet, which esports gambling giant Unikrn purchased last spring. “If I kill you in a video game, I take a dollar from you. If you kill me, you take a dollar back. That’s when we started.”

Villareal had done some consulting for Leet.

He shared his ambitions with Knuth, who was also friends with Nelson, having worked at his law firm doing marketing before launching Leet.

Knuth brought Nelson into the fold, and in January 2016, they all met up at Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que at Red Rock Resort.

Two months later, Rogue was born.

Another two months after that, they launched their first team, an all-European squad that Villareal assembled to compete at “Overwatch,” a then-new game that would become a smash hit.

Their success was immediate: They won the game’s first tournament and never looked back, racking up title after title.

At one point, the Rogue “Overwatch” squad went on a 35-0 streak.

Rogue’s fortunes were on the rise.

Right along with those of esports.

“That’s what’s exciting to me, to think over the next 20 years what this is going to develop into,” Nelson says. “A lot of people are seeing it this way. One of the owners of the Houston Rockets said the same thing last year: ‘This is like buying an NBA team in the 1950s.’ ”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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