Competitive gaming, or esports, as it is commonly called, has evolved into one of the world’s biggest social and virtual recreation outlets. According to Nielsen Games Video Game Tracking, more worldwide gamers than ever are playing video games, in part due to Covid-19. In fact, gaming rates are up 46% in the U.S. since March of 2020, the highest among France, UK, and Germany, the four countries researched.
The uptick in gaming and esports engagement has major collegiate athletic programs and professional athletes also increasing their efforts to capitalize off of the surge. Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Chad Ochocinco and Odell Beckham, among others, have cashed in on esports through sponsorships, investments and majority, outright or partial ownership of their own teams.
NFL veteran Rodger Saffold is one of the first professional athletes to make a big mark on esports and is also one of few current pro athletes to own his own esports team. A guard for the Tennessee Titans, when Saffold takes off his cleats, he picks up a controller and immerses himself in the esports world. Saffold has been a gamer since he was 3 years old, playing on his sister’s Super Nintendo and eventually graduating to playing Modern Warfare and Call of Duty. After streaming his content on Twitch and playing for fun with friends, Saffold was encouraged to consider investing in a team of his own.
In 2014, he turned his interest into an investment by founding his esports team RISE, making him one of the only active NFL players-turned-owners in the esports world.
“When I got into esports I knew that this was going to grow rapidly and I knew the longer that I stayed in this [industry] the more it was going to grow and stabilize,” Saffold told For(bes) The Culture.
Upon its inception, RISE capitalized on the popularity of Call of Duty Ghost and was a fierce competitor in the World Championships. It continues to draw viewers by competing in Call of Duty Tournaments. In 2021, RISE will be expanding its global reach through its newest venture, FIFA Esports.
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RISE also serves as a model for athletes actively seeking sports ownership opportunities. A Black-owned company, RISE is committed to creating opportunities for other people of color, with the goal of organically adding diversity to the esports world. “Whenever you’re getting into anything investment wise or starting your own company, you want to be innovative and to inspire real change,” says Saffold. “This is going to be a generational change. Technology is continuing to improve, something that is especially true due to Covid-19.”
Collegiate athletics is also increasing its effort to be competitive in esports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics, and the National Junior College Athletics Association now all recognize esports as a varsity sport. Colleges and universities including University of California, Irvine, University of Utah and Robert Morris have dominated in esports, a product of investing in multi million-dollar gaming facilities and recruiting top talent.
As the esports world continues to explode, an undeniable link between virtual sports experiences and traditional sports will continue to exist. Many wonder if virtual reality will replace other aspects of our sports experiences post-pandemic, and if professional athletes will continue to invest in this space. Only time and technological advancement will tell.