eSports: Out of the basement, into the mainstream

In another setting, Jennifer Burton’s sweeping moves could have been an interpretive dance.

She pointed one hand, then the other in front of her, turned quickly to her right, swooped low enough to nearly touch the ground, then quickly turned around.

But Burton wasn’t on a stage performing with music. Wearing virtual reality goggles Saturday at the Wichita eSports Convention at the Experiential Engineering Building on the campus of Wichita State University, she was fending off attackers on a subway.

Her hands held Oculis Touch controls, which resemble oversized bracelets rather than pillars or a mouse.

“It’s extremely intuitive,” Burton said.

Off to Burton’s right, two players were absorbed in a game of League of Legends on a screen so massive it would be the envy of any man cave. The screen took up nearly an entire wall in the main gathering space of the engineering building.

The Wichita eSports Convention, which began Friday night and continues through Sunday, is a reflection of gaming’s mushrooming popularity. A little more than 100 people came to the first convention two years ago.

This year, the organizers’ most optimistic goal for attendance is 10 times that.

“Our original intention was to really be the (eSports) community for Wichita,” said Ramsey Jamoul, chief executive of Wichita eSports. “We got to show Wichita off to everybody else.

“We’ve seen some growth that makes us believe we can take this to the Midwest and even national level,” he said. “It really has changed what our original direction was. We’ve definitely loved the growth and we are on board for it.”

This year’s convention is spread out on three floors of the Experiential Engineering Building and features nine different gaming tournaments — including a $15,000 League of Legends competition.

Players came from several states to take part in the convention.

Nick Engstrom came down from Kansas City to check it out, he said.

Engstrom, known in gaming circles as “Nick the Nerd,” helps run the KC Game On events. Those events are little more than gaming, he said, and he wanted to see how the Wichita event was incorporating sponsorships, video game development, vendors and cosplay.

That combination looks to be an effective way to build conventions in the booming gaming industry, he said. The boom is being fueled by people in their upper 30s and younger.

“We’ve all just kind of grown up with the games, so that culture is just growing and growing,” Engstrom said.

ESports could well become the next X Games, he said: a collection of niche sports that exploded onto the international scene.

Burton and her husband are opening a video games arcade called The Grinning Goblin Tavern in south Wichita later this year, joining Fireshark as next-generation video gaming businesses. In doing market research to determine whether their venture could be profitable, Burton said, they learned an estimated 140,000 people in Wichita regularly play video games.

“It’s becoming absolutely huge,” Burton said of gaming. “People are kind of coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘Yes, I do this and I love it.’ 

Chancy Moberly is one of them.

“People wake up, they go to this boring job they don’t like and come home and get to be in a reality they do like,” said Moberly, who was volunteering at the convention. “It’s an escape from reality.”

But it can be even more than that, she said. As technological enhancements make players feel more and more like they are actually in the scene they are viewing, the experiences can be transforming.

“Eventually, it might be completely different than it is now,” she said. “You might be wearing contacts, and you’re not there, but you are.

“I honestly think that’s a good thing. There’s people who can’t travel the world, or maybe can’t walk, and they can in virtual reality.”

The convention continues from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Leave a Reply