NBC Sports tournament shows e-sports’ growth

August 25, 2018

Sixteen of the world’s top competitors in a quickly rising sport convened Friday at NBC Sports Group’s headquarters in Stamford. But they did not step on any field or court. They only needed a PC and a controller.

Friday marked the first day of the grand finals of the Universal Open, a tournament co-organized and broadcast by NBC Sports featuring players of the video game Rocket League, which consists of soccer-like matches played with rocket-powered vehicles. NBC Sports’ involvement reflects its deepening interest in e-sports, as it seeks to diversify its audience and capitalize on the growing popularity of professional video gaming.

“E-sports are becoming a huge part of the consumption of particularly younger audiences,” Rob Simmelkjaer, senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures, a new-business development arm of the parent company, said in an interview Friday. “They are spending a huge amount of their time playing and a growing part of their time watching. We felt that, as a sports media company, it was a space that we absolutely needed to occupy and plant a flag in.”

This year marks the second edition of Universal Open and the first time it has been held at NBC Sports’ headquarters.

Playing in the same studio that was used for play-calling in February during the Winter Olympics, the 16 gamers are playing in two-versus-two matches, generally comprising best-of-five series of five-minute games. Half of the teams represent North America, while the other half come from Europe.

The gamers, who are in their teens and 20s, adopt eccentric names when they compete. Marius Ranheim, 22, of Trondheim, Norway, and Kyle Robertson, 15, of Edinburgh, Scotland respectively go as “gReazymeister” and “Scrub Killa,” under the team name “Girls.” The team moniker was a spur-of-the-moment choice.

Rocket League players’ dedication to the game is much more deliberate. Ranheim and Robertson said they have each clocked about 5,000 hours playing the game since it was released in 2015.

“You need a lot of time to play,” Ranheim said. “It doesn’t take that much time to get good, but it does to reach the next level.”

Both Ranheim and Robertson are signed to contracts with corporate sponsors. They would further boost their earnings with a share of the $100,000 prize pool. The winning team in Sunday’s championship match, which will be a best-of-seven series, is set to take home $32,500.

Grand final matches are streamed live, with commentary, on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the online Twitch gaming network. The action will also air later, in a taped format, on the NBCSN cable channel and regional sports networks.

Players are not following the viewer chat sessions on Twitch and other social media during their matches, but they said they appreciate the widespread interest. More than 25,000 were watching mid-afternoon Friday on Twitch.

“It’s motivating when there are a lot of people who want to see you compete and win,” Robertson said.

The grand finalists emerged from a global field of more than 10,000 competitors who entered the qualifying rounds in June on the online gaming platform run by Faceit, the other organizer of Universal Open.

“This is definitely our premier competition for Rocket League,” said Michele Attisani, co-founder and chief business officer of Faceit. “This is very much in line with our philosophy to grow the Rocket League community and get them together in new ways to engage and enjoy the game.”

Universal Open is also a boon for Rocket League’s maker, Psyonix. In addition to its PC format, the game is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

“Tournament play is just fun, and it’s fun to get your friends together,” said Cory Lanier, Psyonix’s e-sports program specialist. “Rocket League is rooted in competition, so I think it was only natural for us to come into an event like this. I feel like we’ll keep seeing more and more growth.”

NBC Sports and Faceit said they are exploring future editions of Universal Open, which could include a live audience in Stamford. The companies also partnered on a competition based on EA Sports’ NHL game that was held at NBC Sports headquarters during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“With Stamford being a population center of Fairfield County, an hour outside New York City, and with a lot of young people, there’s an opportunity for the area to become a regional e-sports hub,” Simmelkjaer said. “That would be something we would love to be a part of, if it happens.”

pschott@scni.com: 203-964-22236; twitter: @paulschott

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