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Going 360: Kansas City positioned to make impact in esports industry

Populous, shows off some of its esports designs.
Posted at 2:00 PM, Nov 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-17 20:39:43-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Video games are continuing to become more and more mainstream.

Some estimates say consumers spend nearly $200 billion a year on games, which is more than movies or music. There are professional esport teams, colleges offer student-athletes esports scholarships, and gamers make money streaming themselves playing a game through websites like Twitch.

Some of the top athletes in the world like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Magic Johnson, Odell Beckham Jr. have invested into the world of esports. Even some of the richest billionaires in the world like Jerry Jones, Stan Kroenke, and Robert Kraft being notables examples, are investing money, hoping to make a presence in esports.

The Kansas City region is positioned to make an impact in the industry. Several groups based in the city are working in esports on a national or international level.

KSHB 41 is taking the topic 360. We spoke with:

  • Populous Architectural Design
  • KC Tech Council
  • Varsity Esports Foundation
  • LEVELUP Arena
  • Park University
  • KC Pioneers

The Kansas City Pioneers

Kansas City has its own professional esports team: the Pioneers. About 50 people make up the team which includes front office staff, content creators, support staff and the players. The team’s roster features esport athletes from not only the United States, but in Europe and Australia too. Some Chiefs players are also part of the esports team.

“Our mantra being Kansas City-founded, but globally driven,” said Sam Kulikov, cofounder and chief marketing officer.

The team is headquartered at Plexpod Westport Commons. Competitions take place online and in arenas across the world. The team makes money when it wins competitions, but also by streaming competitions, creating content like podcasts, and by hosting boot camps and training sessions for other teams through Let’s Game KC. The team’s goal is more about giving back.

“The main thing that spurred us into action was our passion for making an impact,” Kulikov said. “We saw esports and gaming as one of the most palpable vehicles for social change since the creation of the internet.”

The Pioneers also helped establish programs for members of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City.

“If other people attach themselves to this vibration we’re on and understand gaming has the chance to change the future, to change young people’s lives, to change Kansas City all for the better,” Kulikov said.

LEVELUP Arena

LEVELUP Arena
Inside LEVELUP Arena, which is Kansas City first esports hub

Based at Hy-Vee Arena in Kansas City, Missouri’s West Bottoms, LEVELUP Arena is the city’s first esports arena. The venue hosts competitions every week.

Outside of hosting competitions, customers can pay by the hour to use LEVELUP’s computers which are pre-loaded with games, called titles in the industry. Memberships are available and day passes offer discounts on the hourly rate. LEVELUP Arena announced plans to open public esports lounges in the student union at Kansas University.

“It’s the fastest growing thing in the world. Esports rival large NFL series, MLB, MLS, it’s just as comparable per event,” explained Josh Garr, cofounder of LEVELUP.

Garr defined esports as competitive video gaming with specific rules and prizes. Athletes compete in titles based off traditional sports, in first-person shooters, or battle arenas. Titles like Fortnite, Rocket League, Call of Duty, and League of Legends are among the most popular.

LEVELUP also coaches a youth team called the Monarchs.

“That's why we exist. We want to provide the opportunity to kids that want to make this more than just a hobby or something like that, there are so many different professions you can do,” Garr said.

Varsity Esports Foundation

Varsity Esports Foundation
Charlie Keegan visits the Varsity Esports Foundation, founded by Bubba Gaeddert, which strives to help kids all around the country launch themselves into the world of esports.

Bubba Gaeddert founded the Varsity Esports Foundation in 2018 when he saw the massive disparity between which American high schools offered esports programs to students and which didn’t.

The Varsity E-Sports, founded by Bubba Gaeddert hopes to helps young kids enter the world of esports by helping them with the resources and education necessary to enter it

“We talking about systemic inequality and digital redlining where a lot of schools just don’t have access,” he explained.

Since 2019, the nonprofit has awarded more than $500,000 in grants to schools across the country to help them launch esports programs, cover coaching costs, and more. This year along, the foundation distributed more than $300,000 in scholarships to high school esports athletes pursing college.

“If we give them an opportunity, they find belonging,” Gaeddert said.

With the potentials of esports comes with potential problems of cyberbullying and addiction. Gaeddert says the best way to counter these problems is to introduce gamers to esports in structured, sanctioned team settings where coaches can teach responsibility and time management skills. He says one of the benefits of esports is it can promote inclusivity as men and women play together on the same team.

Gaeddert works closely with the High School Esports League, another Kansas City-based institution helping sanction and host esports competitions for high schools.

Park University

Park University esports
A student competes in esports at Park University, which is one of the first university in the state to offer scholarships in esports.

The university in Parkville, Missouri, was the first in the region to offer scholarships to esports student-athletes. About 25 members of the esports team have a partial scholarship at the school. Most serious competitions are in the spring.

Mia McCoy is one of those student-athletes. She competes in a title called “Overwatch.” While most people assume getting a scholarship in video games sounds easy, it is far from that. Being on the team means she’s part of practices that can go three hours long. The sessions mostly consist of scrimmaging another university over the internet, then breaking down the match and strategies.

Despite the demanding practices, Mccoy see a benefit from her being on the team.

“As soon as I joined the team, something changed in me. I became more competitive, I started becoming more outgoing, I would talk a lot more. That’s when I started loving it, when I had that community to support you,” McCoy explained.

Her mother, Monica McCoy, noticed Mia’s transformation too. Monica admits she was at first nervous about her daughter playing video games so much when she was a child, but is she happy with the path Mia chose.

“Since she’s been at Park, Mia has definitely grown into herself and I believe that gaming and esports has brought that out of her,” Monica said.

McCoy, a junior, would like to be an esports coach after graduating from Park. Her current coach, Adam Farm, can see that reality.

“My main focus is to provide students leadership opportunities and leadership skills and career skills to take that and go find a job right out of college,” Farm explained.

KC Tech Council

Inside the offices of Kara Lowe, president and CEO of the KC Tech Council.

Kara Lowe sees opportunity in the esports realm. She’s the president and CEO of Kansas City Tech Council. The agency advocates for technology within the region by sponsoring workforce development, coordinating networking events, and lobbying for the industry. She see's that in the world of esports.

“Esports is a terrific cross-section of two things Kansas City is really good at,” Lowe said. “We’re a sports town and we’re a technology town.”

Lowe said Kansas City must also be a leader in the world of esports. Her job is to make sure the city has an active role in attracting esports-related business. Already, one in 10 members of the regional workforce work in technology.

“Other economic activity kinda comes along with tech. It’s a real boon for a lot of different areas of Kansas City’s economy,” Lowe said.

Populous

Brian Mirakian, Director of Esports at Populous
Brian Mirakian, the Director of Esports at Populous, shows some of the firm designs over the years, including a esports venue in Arlington, Texas which is the largest esports venue in North America.

Populous, is a Kansas City-based architecture and design firm well known for its work on sports stadiums has entered the esports realm.

“We’re building a completely dedicated division just for esports and gaming, which is really exciting,” said Brian Mirakian, Populous’ director of esports.

The firm has had a major impact in the world of esports, including creating a venue in Arlington, Texas which is the largest esports-dedicated venue in North America. The venue host about 3,000 in-person fans to watch esports competitions.

Mirakian said sight lines to view video screens carry a particular importance in esports venues. Competitions can last all day, so there has to be entertainment for fans during downtime. He sees many similarities to designing an esports arena and designing a traditional sports stadium.

“I think the future is quite bright. All the indications are that people love to be together,” Mirakian said.

The firm is now has it's sights on just creating physical arena, but virtual ones as well. The firm recently partnered with an esports team from Australia called PWR to build an arena within the game Fortnite.

Virtual Arena created by Populous
A virtual arena created by Populous, a local Kansas City-based design firm.

“Fans will have the opportunity to walk in with an oculus, sit down in a virtual arena in a seat and watch an event happen virtually,” Mirakian explained.

Those options open an endless amount of opportunity for Populous and other firms.

As part of KSHB 41 News' commitment to providing context and depth in our reporting, we've excited to share our latest project, which we're calling 360. This project takes stories and topics that our communities are talking about and explores different perspectives on the issue. You can be a part of the process by e-mailing your ideas and thoughts to us at 360@kshb.com.