Hoosiers paving path to becoming lucrative video game players

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Remember when beating the high score at the arcade made you king? Those times are long gone. Instead, gaming has become an untapped, economic behemoth that is catching the eyes of people across the globe. Locally, players are not only making a career out of gaming, but they are becoming stars with some players competing in arenas in front of thousands of people and even more online.

"You tell older people that, [and they ask] ‘what [do] you do?’ I play video games for money," joked Pacers NBA 2K team member Ramo Radoncic. "They say, ‘No really what do you do?’"

Believe it or not, being a pro is a growing career across the globe, and it's evolving exponentially here in central Indiana.

“When I came up playing competitive video games, there wasn’t a path to pro necessarily," said Pacers 2K team Head Coach and Senior Director Cody Parrent.

Scott Wise and Noah Hankinson are the masterminds behind Indy's first youth esports league called Evolve. They believe Evolve is the first step in that “path to turn pro.” It’s much like typical youth sports leagues for 3rd to 8th graders. There is a weekly practice, games on Saturdays, and a season champion. For Wise, his inspiration came to him watching his children play video games online. He took the idea to an esports organization called Player One Esports, and quickly the two became a match.

“Why can’t we make it a place that makes it more social? Why can’t we bring them out of their basements, out of their bedrooms, and bring them to a venue," Wise said.

“To see some of the teams that don’t have members that they know, communicating better than some that do is exciting," Hankinson said.

Hankinson is the structural designer of the program, and a former pro himself. He signed a contract as a teenager to play a game called League of Legions. His employer whisked off to Los Angeles to live with his team.

“Every single player has everything from a dietary person to an individual training person," Hankinson recounted.

With Evolve, he’s tasked with overseeing a league of endless possibility for any child, any age, and any gender.

“Opens the door for inclusion on lots of different levels," Wise said.

“Nothing has to fit in a box anymore. The world is so different now," Tipton High School esports player Chloe Carter echoed.

Carter is an honor student, a varsity cheerleader, and a singer, but she'd rather be known for her gaming expertise.

“I do hang out with the football players, and the quote end quote popular kids you would expect in high school, but these are my people," Chloe said gesturing to her teammates on Tipton High School's newly formed esports team.

“I hope that we change the stereotypes of what a gamer is," said John Robertson, a teacher at Tipton High school and the team's director.

Roberston secured a $35,000 grant to build their virtual gym, and said he always uses gaming in his classrooms to motivate kids to learn and grow. His goal now is to build a league in central Indiana that can get players to the next level.

“We’ve got several schools already networked," Robertson said.

His current squads are competing in high school tournaments right now, and at times the payout for the winners can be life altering.

“Every player on the team will get $16,000 scholarship," Robertson said of the champions for an upcoming tournament.

A growing number of colleges now give scholarships for gaming, and Tipton’s virtual athletes are already hearing from them.

“I want to be a pro," Tipton's Reis Trent said, "I want to be the person everyone talks about.”

He may be talking about players like Bryant Colon and Ramo Radoncic. The pair are professional gamers for the Indiana Pacers esports team that plays the basketball video game NBA 2K. The team is now in its second season, with Radoncic recently being traded from the Detroit Piston's NBA 2K team. Last year, Radoncic nearly became league MVP, but before being drafted he was working a much different shift.

“Still trying to soak it in. It’s crazy. I was actually a doorman in the city of New York," Radoncic said with a smile. "I used to get $1,000 to $2,000 holiday tips.”

Radoncic and Bryant made it through the 2K combine, which plays out much like the NFL combine. There were 72,000 for 102 draft spots on 21 NBA owned teams. Both were drafted in the first round, with Bryant chosen by the Pacers. This season, due to being first round picks in year one, they will make the league high salary of $37,000, but that is only the beginning.

“We have the opportunity to win up to $1.2 million in prize pool for season two," Parrent said, while adding that global esports revenues are peaking, "expected to reach a billion dollars this year.”

Pro gamers are live streaming video broadcasts of their games online, often on sites like YouTube or Twitch. They can drive large audiences.

“Some have bigger followings than pro athletes," Parrent said.

The players are able to cash in on high priced advertising dollars from those sites, and build their personal brands. Beyond prize money, the exposure of being contracted to an NBA teams esports team vaults their marketing ability to grow an even greater audience online. In this case, more eyeballs mean even more cash. Parrent called it a win-win for the players and the organization, but players can also sign outside endorsement deals too.

“I'm a full-time pro," said Bryant, who is also a former collegiate football player. "I dedicate eight plus hours, minimum eight.”

Parrent recently got back from a scouting trip in China, where he and others are looking for global talent. They scout games in person, or even online game streams, and review them a coach would practice film.

“Can they hit that green release perfect every single time they shoot a shot," Parrent gave as an example.

He is constantly searching for the next big thing, the newest Hoosier hysteria. If you think your child may be that next star, or your school should join a league, you can find contact info below for the groups in this story.

Tipton High School Esports:

John Robertson, Team Director, jrobertson@tcsc.k12.in.us

Evolve Esports:

Play@evolveyouthesports.com

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