Thousands of electronic gaming enthusiasts will descend on the new, state-of-the-art St. Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC this month for four days of ferocious fighting.
The November 16-18 battles won’t put flesh-and-blood fighters in a ring or a cage but rather virtual brawlers projected on massive video screens, as the nation’s best efighters square off in the Red Bull Conquest National Final. The event is expected to draw spectators from around the nation as fighters from 15 different regions vie for prizes and bragging rights as the ultimate competitors in “Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition,” “Tekken 7” and “Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2.”
It’s a moment city officials hope will put DC on the map as fertile ground for the rapidly blossoming – and potentially hugely lucrative – esports industry. In fact, the new $65 million arena in Congress Heights, which will also serve as the home court of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and Wizards’ G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, was designed in part with esports competitions in mind.
Jimmy Nguyen, national competition director for Red Bull Conquest, tells On Tap that the nation’s capital does not yet have the egaming reputation of California, New York or Texas, but it is rapidly earning its place on the map. He also says DC has a natural appeal for major showcases because it’s an attractive draw for tourists.
“It could be the next area that could flourish and become a stage where we do all of our big events,” Nguyen says. “What we’re trying to do is create opportunities and grow together, and see where we can take this for years to come.”
Events DC, the convention and sports authority for the District, has been angling to get the city involved in the esports realm for years, and finally scored big when it landed the Red Bull Conquest.
Max Brown, chairman of the Events DC board of directors, says the new arena is a natural fit for the virtual sports competition and was built to accommodate such events.
“The arena was built with extreme Wi-Fi and the fastest ethernet to be able to create memorable experiences that are ideal for esports tournaments and its fans,” Brown says. “Tech is shaping the future of entertainment and with the cutting-edge capabilities of the new arena, esports is just another opportunity for us to showcase DC on a global stage – and attract even more events and visitors to the city, similar to Red Bull’s Conquest Final.”
Earlier this year, Events DC also partnered with industry leader NRG Esports to establish a new training home for elite egamers based in DC.
Nguyen says while Red Bull is famous primarily for its wildly popular energy drinks and sponsorship of extreme sports competitions, it has been aggressively moving into the esports realm for the past two years.
“The next big thing is esports and gaming,” he says. “It’s something that we see as viable to the culture.”
Nguyen also rejects the notion that esports are strictly for kids or “computer nerds.” He says that mode of thinking is seriously outdated.
“Back in the day, it was easy to say this a little hobby that nerds and geeks do, but now we’re all geeks and nerds. The more mainstream it gets, it’s hard to say gaming doesn’t matter anymore. We recognize that, and we want to give everybody the opportunity to get involved.”
In the realm of DC-based egaming, perhaps no figure looms larger than Austin “Boo” Painter – star player for the Wizards District Gaming, a virtual NBA team that just completed its first successful season in the burgeoning NBA 2K League. The 24-year-old former State Department security specialist from Luray, Virginia quit his job last year to become a professional egamer with Wizards 2K.
Painter is among roughly 100 paid players in the new league chosen from among 72,000 contestants nationwide. The league pays for his housing and provides a salary that he says allows him to “live healthy” doing what he loves, which includes playing live ebasketball that is streamed to thousands of fans weekly.
“I wake up every day and play [NBA] 2K,” he says, hardly seeming to believe it himself. “When I have kids, I’m never going to tell them to get off the video games because this could happen to them. Esports are growing, and now every little kid looks at video gamers like they want to do this all day too.”
The Red Bull National Conquest Final takes place Friday, November 16 to Sunday, November 18. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit www.redbull.com/us-en/events/conquest. For more information about the Wizards District Gaming, visit http://wizardsdg.nba.com.
St. Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; www.esaontherise.com