• Rick Limpert & Axel Martinez

Thumbs and Toggles

It is Georgia's Other Production Boom. Video Game Production is in Serious Growth Mode

In November 2018, that same Georgia World Congress Center hosted DreamHack 2018 as Atlanta joined Valencia, Marseilles and Stockholm as past host cities of this major three-day festival that brings gamers together for competitions, networking and more. DreamHack turns its venues into small cities with a popular 24-hour Local Area Network (LAN) area, Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC) section with catering and sleeping amenities, and a number of eSports tournaments.

It may surprise some, but the video game industry made more than twice as much as the global box office for films in 2017, reaping $70.4 billion versus cinema's $35.9 billion. Video gaming grew by 18%, while the world box office fell $1 billion short when it came to projections.

With college scholarships now being awarded for playing video games, it's no wonder universities are scrambling to field competitive eSports teams, just as they would a varsity basketball or football squad. Hollace Bain is President of Panther Gaming at Georgia State University, which is home to all of the club-eSports teams at GSU. Panther Gaming currently has teams for CS:GO, LoL, Overwatch, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros Melee, Super Smash Bros 4, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Realm Royale, with more possibly on the way. Bain says that eSports can be a lightning rod and attract top tech talent to the university. “In the past couple of years, the university has given funding to the Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) to upkeep and maintain varsity and junior varsity eSports teams,” explains Bain. “We are extremely lucky to have the university want to get behind eSports, especially since the central reason for doing so is to help students further their careers in the eSports industry. After the eSports Program was introduced, we have seen a huge increase in people wanting to get involved in any way they can. It has been truly inspiring to see so many students actively trying to strengthen the eSports and gaming scene here at GSU.”

Nobody may have a bigger stake in gaming and its future than Todd Harris. Harris is the COO and co-founder of Alpharetta’s Hi-Rez Studios, an independent, privately held video game developer based in Alpharetta. Founded in 2005, Harris and his team have been producing quality games like Global Agenda, the critically acclaimed Tribes: Ascend, the third-person MOBA Smite, card game Hand of the Gods: Smite Tactics and the hero shooter Paladins.

In the last 13 years, Harris said he’s had a ringside seat watching his industry grow in Georgia. “Back in 2005, there were eight small game companies in Georgia, and there are now over 130 game companies here. That growth has benefited the state since gaming creates permanent high paying, high tech jobs. In 2017 the video game industry had a $750 million economic impact on the Georgia economy, and it keeps many of our STEM graduates working here vs. leaving for the West Coast.”

Harris also organized the Hi-Rez Expo at DreamHack, bringing competition to the forefront. “(Just like sports) eSports is the idea of multiplayer online games being played at a competitive level, often in front of spectators. It can sound a bit strange, but of course, we watch other people play golf instead of playing golf and watch people drive cars with competitions like NASCAR. There are already over 300 million eSports fans - with more people watching video games each month than watching CNN.” Those hawking video games say it’s the interactive nature of playing games against another real person or community of players that proves to be the secret sauce.

Sales figures show that video games beating movies is nothing new. Grand Theft Auto 5, released on November 17, 2013, amassed sales numbers that were mind-blowing, and it made many realize one thing: movies can’t keep up with video games. Grand Theft 5 sold 11.21 million units within the first 24 hours of its release and managed to make $815.7 million in the first day... numbers virtually and realistically impossible for the motion picture or television industries. It currently holds seven Guinness World Records including the fastest game to hit $1 billion. As of 2018, it has almost 100 million copies sold and has generated $6 billion in profits. It has been hailed as the "most profitable entertainment product ever” and the envy of Hollywood investors.

The new game, ARK: Survival Evolved is now available worldwide on the Nintendo Switch and offers something in terms of critical mass that movies can’t bring to the table. The award-winning dinosaur survival adventure brings Nintendo Switch players the same open world experience millions already enjoy: taming over 80 dinosaurs, conquering enemies, and creating enormous structures anywhere- at home and on the go! As many as 64 players can form a team together online or enjoy a solo offline Jurassic experience.

It’s this movement, Harris says, that is bigger than just an individual sitting in his basement playing video games. “(This) is really a celebration of community,” smiles Harris. “Attendees travel from around the world to reconnect with old friends and make new ones around their shared passion for gaming. The vibe of an event like this is really one of a festival, with competition, but also casual play, and cosplay, and EDM concerts and more. People who attend events like DreamHack understand how social gaming can be.”

Video game debuts have replaced Hollywood premieres as “must attend” events for not only professional gamers, but also celebrities and those in the tech industry. Microsoft just threw a real-life festival at Britain's iconic Goodwood Estate, in Chichester, UK, to debut its new Forza Horizon 4 rally and motorsports game. The weekend festival featured hot air balloon rides, off-roading experiences and basically the ability to see your favorite video game come to life.

The festival gave Microsoft a chance to showcase their Team Adventure mode. This mode gives the experience of chatting with your friends as you play. When playing on LAN with a full team, Team Adventure mode in Forza Horizon 4 gives players the ability to look at the people on your team as they crash into you, or as you leave them in the dust. Richard Devine of the Windows Central blog attended the event and is on board with the community aspect that is making video games so popular. “One thing was immediately clear and remains so to this day (is that) it's definitely best played with friends.”

Atlanta has even become a hub and testing ground for companies producing hardware and accessories for gamers. For 10 years, KontrolFreek has remained under the radar in Atlanta producing gaming accessories that enhance the gaming experience and give gamers of all skill levels a competitive edge. KontrolFreek’s R&D includes studying of ergonomics for each product, so it also helps to reduce gamer fatigue, improving overall gaming comfort and preventing injury.

“We are proudly headquartered in Atlanta,” offers Ashish Mistry, CEO of KontrolFreek. “That allows us to have a deep involvement with professional gamers, YouTubers, and our large FreekNation community allows us to collaborate on new ideas and create products gamers actually want and need.”

To celebrate 10 years, KontrolFreek is undergoing a rebranding, which means a new logo, visual mark and updated color palette to go along with new products.

This creates a visual representation of the strong and growing community of gaming enthusiasts and KontrolFreek evangelists in Atlanta and beyond. “Our new branding puts a face to FreekNation, allowing us to better connect with our active and passionate community and, more importantly, help them better identify with one another,” adds Mistry. “By incorporating our legacy controller shape into the new logo design, we maintain continuity while advancing the company beyond our core thumbstick product. This upcoming 10-year milestone is exciting and further bolsters our dedication to creating great products and experiences for gamers.”

Mistry said it’s important to get startups in Georgia educated and as partners in the eSports universe. “We support the continued growth of eSports through professional sponsorships and partner programs, and have longstanding relationships with some of the world’s top pro players and eSports organizations. Fittingly, all of our products are 100% tournament legal.”

Another local collegiate eSports athlete, Thomas Ronan, says the leaps in getting others to recognize the scope of eSports is happening as fast as the local gaming community is growing. “I’ve seen an incredible jump in the growth of the gaming community, and the overall emergence of eSports as a global phenomenon heavily within the last (few) years. From seeing universities offer scholarships to players for varsity eSports program to DreamHack coming to Atlanta, the city has an eruptive growth in its gaming scene.” With eSports being the “new kid on the block” and only a small sample size available for analyzing, Ronan, who attended a smaller DreamHack event in Atlanta during the summer of 2017, says the change from one year to the next has resulted in “cooler booths” and an improved layout.

Hi-Rez’s Harris thinks the film industry and other sectors can get on board and partner with eSports events. “There will start to be more crossover events. Both Dragon*Con and MomoCon added gaming competition and content a few years back, and you will start to see some more at traditional sporting events as well.”

Having students and educators get on board at this early stage with school administrators can also start paying dividends in ways current club and varsity sports do throughout the school year. “The biggest outreach will happen at the high school and college level with structured play,” stated Harris. “Many high school and college kids already play video games, of course, but sometimes it is done in isolation with risk of not being integrated into the school community. eSports provides a more structured way to enjoy video games and play on behalf of your school. It involves cooperation and competition, and when done well, it develops the whole person in ways similar to traditional sports.” In Georgia, structured high school eSports will begin in many schools this February, with teams competing toward a state championship just like other varsity activities.

Another sign that gaming has arrived in Georgia is the formation of a local Overwatch League. In the fall, the city of Atlanta joined the Overwatch League, a global city-based eSports league. In the eSports universe, this is akin to a new professional sports franchise setting up shop in a city.

A partnership between Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises and Province, Inc., has yielded Atlanta Esports Ventures, and it will operate in the Overwatch League for its new season in 2019. Each participating city or franchise will battle it out in Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter video game. The strength of this league is worth a mention and something to watch with a company like Cox getting involved. Cox is one of the largest companies in the Atlanta metro area with over 60,000 employees. It owns the likes of Cox Communications, Cox Media Group, Kelly Blue Book, Autotrader.com, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and some smaller emerging tech companies.

"The popularity of Overwatch and eSports in general has created a diverse fan base that we in Atlanta are excited to engage,” said Paul Hamilton, president and CEO of Atlanta Esports Ventures. “With the creativity of Blizzard Entertainment and the determination of Atlanta Esports Ventures, we are poised to create the pre-eminent eSports team in the heart of the Southeast.”

Those looking to create content in Georgia are getting help as well. PowerSpike is an Atlanta startup geared to help content creators on Twitch.tv connect with advertisers and sponsors. The company recently acquired $500,000 in funding from notable investors including Techstars Atlanta. There are currently 2.2 million content creators using Twitch.tv, and the best content is getting millions and millions of views each day.

“PowerSpike takes famous content creators on platforms like Twitch.tv, which is a platform centered on video game live streaming, and we help connect them with brands and advertisers for sponsorship opportunities,” CEO and founder AJ Damiano. Damiano, and his team of nine are located in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market and work with midsize businesses in Georgia and around the country in an effort to connect enterprise companies with live-streaming advertising in an industry that is showing immediate results.

Is the motion picture industry keeping a close eye on the growth of video games and its loyal community? “We are very excited about the growth of both these industries in Georgia,” stated Asante Bradford, Project Manager in the Digital Entertainment and Emerging Technology division at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “We see a lot of the same variables which helped our film industry grow: pro-business infrastructure, access to a talented workforce and of course, ease of access to the rest of the world through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The creative industries in Georgia employ nearly 200,000 people and contribute more than $37 billion in annual revenue. We see no signs of this momentum slowing down.”

Bradford also said that DreamHack was a big win for the film industry in terms of networking. “Not only did DreamHack Atlanta give us the opportunity to connect with gaming companies who already have a presence here in Georgia, but we were able to introduce ourselves to new digital entertainment companies. One of the biggest challenges facing companies today is workforce. This event put a spotlight on the next generation. We saw participation from local colleges, high schools and even elementary schools increase. In addition, we had the opportunity to offer free access to 50 kids to participate in the DreamHack event.”

Harris and DreamHack organizers say that Atlanta and the State of Georgia are in a great position to benefit from this growth, like Dennis Hayes was with the first consumer modem decades ago. “We have many of the necessary elements - publishers like Hi-Rez Studios and Blue Mammoth; league operators like ELeague and Skillshot, events like DreamHack and Dragon*Con, and professional teams as well. One missing piece would be more infrastructure like an eSports arena and team practice facilities - these are the type of venues being built in the other eSports centers like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a few cities in Texas.”

Let the games begin!

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