ATLANTIC CITY — The League of Legends eSports competition drew 45,000 fans to a South Korea soccer stadium for its 2014 finals. And that’s not counting the reported audience of 38 million who watched online.
But while all those people were watching other people play eSports — or video games, in common terms — the Spartan Race series draws an average of more than 10,000 people who run as far as the marathon length of 26-plus miles, with frequent stops for an obstacle course.
Representatives of both those fast-growing sports were in Atlantic City on Tuesday to describe their worlds to the crowd at the Teams ’16 convention at Harrah’s Resort.
A panel of eSports experts, including a vice president of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, talked about a competition that’s picking up fans all over the world — much to the shock of other people who don’t consider it a sport.
“We pack arenas in Korea. We pack arenas in Dubai,” said Mike Rufail, the owner of Team Envy, an eSports team.
He calls his players “digital gladiators” and says they love performing in front of big crowds. The League of Legends finals is expected to sell out Madison Square Garden in New York and Los Angeles’ Staples Center in future years.
“The one thing a gladiator craves is the roar of the crowd,” said Rufail, who has a staff of more than 50 and plans to build a 2,500-seat arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, for his team.
Nathan Lindberg is an executive at Twitch, a website that basically combines TV and Twitter and is popular with eSports-watchers. He acknowledged that many traditional sports fans still insist that people who watch these new-style competitions are just watching other people play video games.
But he also noted that Amazon.com bought Twitch a few years ago for more than $1 billion.
And Akshay Khanna, vice president for strategy for the 76ers, told the crowd that Amazon’s billion-dollar purchase was one of the best deals the Internet giant has ever made. The 76ers recently announced they have bought two eSports teams, and are getting more deeply involved in that area, Khanna said.
“More people watched the League of Legends finals than watched the NBA finals,” Khanna said.
The panelists told the Teams audience that they can attract these competitions to their cities. And Lindberg suggested later that Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center would be a great venue for one of the multiday competitions, adding that spaces made for “1,000 to 5,000 ... are in a really sweet spot right now.”
But right after that eSports panel, Joe De Sena of Spartan Race told about his competitions, which also move around the country and the world now.
“We have about 10,000 people showing up at each event and have about a $4 million economic impact” on a host area, he said. “Half of the people come from out of town.”
Tim Schneider is publisher of Sports Travel magazine and the chief organizer of Teams ‘16. He said booking the eSports and endurance-sports speakers back-to-back was intentional.
“We want to show people all ends of the spectrum,” said Schneider, who adds that the U.S. market for sports travel fills 97 million hotel room-nights a year at hotels around the country.
And the range of sports gets much wider than that. Jason Gewirtz, the editor of Sports Travel, said that in recent years, the magazine has covered crowd-drawing competitions ranging from Quidditch, inspired by the Harry Potter series, to beer pong to “beard and mustache contests. And we’ve done the Super Bowl and the Olympics, and everything in between.”