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.

ad-high_impact_4
Local
Fremont9 opens downtown
Fremont9 apartment complex has opened in downtown Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Fall fairytale gets cozy at Bellagio Conservatory
Bellagio Conservatory introduces its fall-themed garden titled "Falling Asleep." (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
What the house that Ted Binion died in looks like today
Casino heir Ted Binion died in this Las Vegas home in 1998. Current home owner Jane Popple spent over $600,000 to restore and modernize the home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Rescue Mission employees terminated
Don James, a former employee for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, talks about the day his team was terminated. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Raiders Cupcakes at Freed's Bakery
Freed's Bakery will have Raiders-themed cupcakes available in store and for order during football season. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s fans say goodbye to Cashman Field
Las Vegas 51s fans said goodbye to Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Monday September, 3, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s owner Don Logan's last weekend at Cashman Field
Don Logan, owner of the Las Vegas 51s, gives a tour of Cashman Field before the team's final weekend using the field. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Metro Asst. Sheriff Brett Zimmerman on Aug. 8 officer-involved shooting
Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman met with media Monday to discuss the details of the 14th officer-involved shooting of the year. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program where community and business leaders joined to welcome students back with an inspirational welcome. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Star Trek fans on show’s enduring popularity
Star Trek fans at the Star Trek Convention 2018 talk about why they think the show has stayed popular across the years Thursday, August 2, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Nonprofit provides clothing for homeless
Sydney Grover of Can You Spare A Story?, talks about how she founded the non-profit organization. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Family remembers deceased mother
Family members of Adriann Gallegos remember her. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Camp Broadway teaches kids how to sing and dance
The Smith Center's seventh annual Camp Broadway musical theater program gives 150 kids ages 6-17 an opportunity to learn musical theater skills from industry professionals over a five-day period. Marcus Villagran/ Las Vegas Review-Journal @brokejournalist
Restoring classic Corvettes to perfection
Members of the National Corvette Restorers Society Convention talk about what it takes to earn the NCRS Top Flight Award for a restored Corvette at South Point in Las Vegas on Tuesday July 17, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Watch Ruthless! at Las Vegas Little Theatre
The musical Ruthless! will be playing at Las Vegas Little Theatre from July 13-29. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Cadaver art and sword swallowing at The Dark Arts Market
Curator Erin Emrie talks about her inspiration for The Dark Arts Market at Cornish Pasty Co. in Las Vegas Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
'NO H8' Campaign comes to Las Vegas
Hundreds of locals participate in the NO H8 campaign founded by Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley as a response to Proposition 8, a California ban on same-sex marriage. The campaign has since evolved to represent equal treatment for all. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
What to expect at Station Casinos' Fourth of July celebration
Station Casinos' is hosting its annual 4th of July celebration with Fireworks by Grucci. Fireworks scheduled to go off on Wednesday, July 4 around 9 p.m. at Green Valley Ranch Resort, Red Rock Resort, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Star Wars and Golden Knights mashup at downtown art shop
Star Wars and Vegas Golden Knights fans attend the Boba Fett Golden Knight Paint Class at The Bubblegum Gallery in Las Vegas, Friday, June 29, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Tourists and locals enjoy Independence Day fireworks at Caesars Palace
Hundreds of tourists and locals gaze at the Independence Day fireworks show at Caesars Palace on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Clark County recount votes in commission’s District E primary
Clark County staff begin the recount requested by candidate Marco Hernandez in the democratic primary for the County Commission's District E seat on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Long-running local hip hop producer wants Vegas rappers to shine
Las Vegas Hip Hop producer and co-owner of Digital Insight Recording Studios Tiger Stylz reflects on 30 years of music production in the city. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
"Pawn Stars" fans visit Richard Harrison's memorial at Gold & Silver Pawn
"Pawn Stars" fans from around the world visit the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas following the passing of Richard "Old Man" Harrison on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Construction for new 51s ballpark underway
New home of the Las Vegas 51s is planned to be finished by March 2019 in Summerlin according to team president Don Logan. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Entertainment
The 46th annual Greek Food Festival will feed 25,000 people in Las Vegas
Madame Tussauds Has The Newest VR Experience On The Strip
Madame Tussauds Has The Newest VR Experience On The Strip. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Zia Records Move
Zias Records is moving from its Sahara Avenue and Arville Street location to a bigger store. (Mat Luscheck/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Students At The International Contortion Convention In Las Vegas Learn How To Bend And Twist Their Bodies
Students At The International Contortion Convention In Las Vegas Learn How To Bend And Twist Their Bodies. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Video from Fertitta wedding Sep. 1
video from @wedstagrams of Fertitta wedding at Red Rock Resort
You Can Get Vegan Unicorn Toast In Downtown Las Vegas
You Can Get Vegan Unicorn Toast In Downtown Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Five must-see bands at Psycho Las Vegas 2018
Five must-see bands at Psycho Las Vegas 2018
Zuma's Ice Cube Carving Is Satisfying To Watch
Zuma's Ice Cube Carving Is Satisfying To Watch (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Therapy In Downtown Las Vegas Serves Cast Iron S'mores
Therapy In Downtown Las Vegas Serves Cast Iron S'mores. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Brunch Spot The Stove Makes Unicorn Hot Chocolate And Bananas Foster Pancakes
New Brunch Spot The Stove Makes Unicorn Hot Chocolate And Bananas Foster Pancakes. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Octopus On The Las Vegas Strip Predicted The Winner Of The World Cup
The Octopus On The Las Vegas Strip Predicted The Winner Of The World Cup. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-journal)
TLC by the Numbers
Watch Ruthless! at Las Vegas Little Theatre
The musical Ruthless! will be playing at Las Vegas Little Theatre from July 13-29. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
How to feel like a kid again in Las Vegas
How to feel like a kid again in Las Vegas
People Lined Up For Over 5 Hours For Build-a-bear's "Pay Your Age" Promotion At Galleria Mall
People Lined Up For Over 5 Hours For Build-a-bear's "Pay Your Age" Promotion At Galleria Mall. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Cadaver art and sword swallowing at The Dark Arts Market
Curator Erin Emrie talks about her inspiration for The Dark Arts Market at Cornish Pasty Co. in Las Vegas Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Over 40,000 People Attend The 4th Of July Parade In Summerlin In Las Vegas
Over 40,000 People Attend The 4th Of July Parade In Summerlin In Las Vegas. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What to expect at Station Casinos' Fourth of July celebration
Station Casinos' is hosting its annual 4th of July celebration with Fireworks by Grucci. Fireworks scheduled to go off on Wednesday, July 4 around 9 p.m. at Green Valley Ranch Resort, Red Rock Resort, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Pawn Stars' Richard Harrison honored at memorial service
A memorial service was conducted for Richard "Old Man" Harrison at Palm Mortuary in Las Vegas on Sunday, July 1, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Tourists and locals enjoy Independence Day fireworks at Caesars Palace
Hundreds of tourists and locals gaze at the Independence Day fireworks show at Caesars Palace on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
5 must-see bands at Warped Tour 2018
Five must-see bands at Warped Tour 2018
This Banana Split In Las Vegas Is Made With Fire And Liquid Nitrogen Right At Your Table.
This Banana Split In Las Vegas Is Made With Fire And Liquid Nitrogen Right At Your Table. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pixar Pier At Disneyland Is Open With New Food And A New Roller Coaster
Pixar Pier At Disneyland Is Open With New Food And A New Roller Coaster (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Here's What It's Like To Ride The New Incredicoaster At Disneyland
Here's What It's Like To Ride The New Incredicoaster At Disneyland (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
"Pawn Stars" fans visit Richard Harrison's memorial at Gold & Silver Pawn
"Pawn Stars" fans from around the world visit the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas following the passing of Richard "Old Man" Harrison on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like