Esports Draw an Audience More Interested in Fun Than Payouts

Photo courtesy of Neokura/ Wikimedia Commons

For the past several years, the most common topic at casino gaming conferences has been the future. As with any human enterprise, the gaming industry must adapt to new conditions or decline, and casinos must acknowledge the inevitability that gambling tastes will change. This has been happening since people started gambling: Faro, basset and landsknecht are no longer popular—it would be rare to find a current gambler who could even identify those games.

In other words, people are still gambling, but the ways they play wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to a time traveler from 150 years ago. They might be confused and possibly a bit frightened if suddenly confronted by a modern slot machine but, after a while, they would get the idea.

Which brings us to EVO 2017, which took place at the Mandalay Bay last month. EVO is short for the Evolution Championship Series, an annual tournament that seeks to crown the best players in several fighting video games, one of many popular genres of esports. This isn’t the first time the tournament has been held in Las Vegas—it’s been here since 2005.

There has been a fair amount of anxiety over the purported antipathy of millennials to traditional casino gambling.

So what makes EVO 2017 worth commenting on? Primarily, it was a chance to take stock of how well Las Vegas resorts are doing at attracting younger visitors. There has been a fair amount of anxiety over the purported antipathy of millennials to traditional casino gambling. While it is true that slot win has lagged statewide since the recession and that, generally, twentysomethings aren’t flooding casinos, it is also true that they never really were. A 2006 Harrah’s survey found that the median age of casino gamblers was 46, slightly older than the United States average. If casino revenues are slumping, don’t blame the millennials (yet).

But to remain relevant when casino gambling is everywhere, Las Vegas has successfully broadened its appeal. Group travel, for business and leisure, is a growing market. It’s hard to make a case for esports as a replacement for traditional casino gambling, but it is easy to see the real opportunities for it to fill resort conference centers and hotel rooms.

This year, EVO had just over 10,000 entries split among nine games: Street Fighter V, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, King of Fighters XIV, Injustice 2, Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator 2, Blazblue: Central Fiction, Tekken 7, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

Let’s say you wanted to test your skill in Street Fighter (the most popular game at this year’s event). For $30, you could have registered yourself in the tournament, which would get you a slot in a double-elimination qualification pool of eight or more players. You’d have to bring your own controller, and if you wanted a cheering section, they’d pay $40 each to get in. If you finished in the top two of your pool, you would advance to the semifinal bracket, and if you make it into the top eight of the semifinals, you’d move on to the finals.

So the lure for players isn’t necessarily money. …Instead, the real appeal is meeting people from around the world who share your passion.

The top eight players finish in the money, with the champion receiving 60 percent of the prize pool and others a diminishing share. This year’s last surviving Street Fighter V player, for example, won about $15,000, while eighth place took home $262. That’s several orders of magnitude smaller than the prize pool at the World Series of Poker; Scott Blumstein had an $8.15 million payday for rising to the top of a field less than three times the size of Street Fighter V’s.

So the lure for players isn’t necessarily money, although no one hates leaving Las Vegas with more cash than they arrived with. Instead, the real appeal is meeting people from around the world who share your passion. Several vendors were there, selling game- and anime-related prints, shirts and accessories, while a small group of game developers offered players the chance to try out their games and solicited feedback from them. EVO 2017 wasn’t just about crowning nine champions; it was, more broadly, a chance for game lovers to meet other game lovers.

A cursory look around the tournament area showed that, yes, EVO participation skews younger than play on the casino floor, and most attendees appeared to be enjoying themselves. Did any of them gamble? That’s possible. But even if they didn’t, that’s hardly a deal-breaker in modern Las Vegas.

Overall, EVO 2017 proved that esports are not the future of Las Vegas: They are its present. At the right scale and in the right location, esports should remain part of our city for a long time.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.