UNLV’s Esports Lab Is Exactly What the Gaming Industry Needs

Professor Robert Rippee’s course prepares students for the casino component of the future

Photo courtesy of Neokura/ Wikimedia Commons

Gamers play League of Legends during an esports competition in Paris.

Few college players willingly abandon a match of Overwatch to attend class, but Robert Rippee’s esports lab at UNLV may be the most fun a gamer can have without a controller.

“Most of my students are upperclassmen and grad students,” says Rippee, who is also the director of UNLV’s hospitality lab. “I say this to them on day one: ‘You’re going to come out of my class as some of the most well-educated experts on esports in the city because you will have covered every element of it over the course of 16 weeks.’”

He’s not exaggerating.

Part of Rippee’s curriculum includes developing hypothetical business models around how “esports and video gaming [converge] with integrated and casino resorts,” he says, poring over case studies and drafting a game plan to attract the industry’s most valuable player: the spectator.

“UFC is a great example to case study for esports,” Rippee says. “Where does most of the revenue for UFC come from? It comes from fans. It doesn’t come from people who are fighting or participating. Esports is going to be no different.”

While offered by the International Gaming Institute of UNLV, the esports lab is by no means an exclusive course. Since its inception in fall 2016, the class has attracted students from various disciplines. “I even have law school students in my class who are working on law degrees, who see that this is going to have an impact in the regulatory environment, and the compliance environment, [and figure] maybe they should build an understanding of it right now,” Rippee says.

Millennial Esports CEO Alex Igelman is a walking example of this thought process. As a former gaming lawyer, Igelman recognized a shift in the gambling industry early on, leading him to become one of the first internet gaming attorneys. He later applied that expertise to Downtown’s Millennial Esports, which has become a hotbed for Halo Championship Series circuits and Madden tournaments. Last month, he shared his insight with Rippee’s class and gave them a tour of the 15,000-square-foot arena.

“The student body he has is made up of a disparate and diverse group of people,” Igelman says. “I think we’re going to see a number of these people being available for the job pool in the future, whether it’s on the production side, whether it’s on the manager side, whether it’s on the legal side, the business side. It’s a very unique course.”

Students will meet professionals like Igelman all semester-long because Rippee’s guest speaker schedule is stacked. “I like to bring the real world into my classroom,” he says. “It’s not theoretical.” He’s arranging for industry insiders from Hakkasan Group, GameCo. and others, but also designers from Ubisoft, the game publisher behind Assassin’s Creed, and even Nolan freaking Bushnell, the founder of Atari. Just last month, Mark “Garvey” Candella, of video game streaming giant Twitch, spoke to the class. Who will follow is anyone’s guess.

What’s certain is esports aren’t just a gamer’s game anymore. They’re a prospective billion-dollar business with a culture that “Las Vegas and many other economies” are finally “waking up” to, Rippee says. As the gambling capital ambles out of its slumber, it must proceed with caution. Creating dedicated esports arenas shows drive, but “Focusing too much on just purely esports games is very risky because that’s a smaller percentage of the total audience,” he says. “Most of the people are casual gamers, or infrequent gamers. You can exclude them because you built the facility for pro-level gamers.”

Millennial Esports already seems to be addressing this issue with more casual-friendly events. Igelman says the arena will host drone races in 2018. And just last weekend, it hosted Amazon’s Mobile Masters, a two-day mobile esports event with an $80,000 prize pool. “In my opinion, mobile esports will be the esports of the future,” he says, based off the “wider appeal and broader reach” of them. Everyone’s killed time on their tablet or smartphone playing a mobile game. This particular brand of esports could suck those casual players in. The CEO says he’s also banking on the rise of mobile racing. Right now, Millennial Esports is in the process of acquiring developer Eden Games and its mobile racing title Gear.Club. Racing’s no Dota 2 when it comes to skill, but it’s fun and it’s easy to comprehend for the masses.

It’s too early to tell where esports will go, but Igelman and Rippee both agree that they’ll be a permanent fixture of Las Vegas casinos. “Whether or not the casino of the future will have a dedicated space like [Millennial Esports] is yet to be seen,” Igelman says. “But will there be multipurpose venues designed for esports as well as other things? I think so.”