The Fort Worth Business Press went back to A-Kon Friday, June 8, to see what the new OpTic Arena was all about.

For the first time, A-Kon’s four-day convention brought with it a three-day OpTic Arena esports gaming event.

The arena is the result of a collaboration by Frisco-based OpTic Gaming and NGAGE eSports, and features a series of video game events that attendees can participate in for the chance to earn prizes and merchandise.

“We needed a partner to launch the OpTic Arena with and [A-Kon] had done such a good job with its own event and congregation of like-minded individuals and so we decided to partner with them,” OpTic CEO Hector Rodriguez said. “And since A-Kon was going to be so close to home it was the right fit.”

OPTIC GAMING & ARENA

OpTic Gaming, founded in 2006, is recognized for its global audience and competitive success in the esports gaming industry. OpTic’s professional teams have 13 championships under their belt since 2012 across every major esports scene, including games Call of Duty, Counter Strike, DOTA 2, Gears of War, HALO, League of Legends and Overwatch.

“When we sought to do this we were just playing video games to be the best and we were creating content to display how good we were at a certain thing and when sponsors wanted to come in and money started to become a part of what we did and there was a possibility to make money off of what we loved doing it was really what drove me to be like we have to formalize this as an organization and as a company,” Rodriguez said. “So that was step one, in 2009 when I incorporated OpTic.”

While Rodriguez acknowledges OpTic needed a partner to launch its inaugural arena, he said that at some point the organization would like to have stand-alone events, adding that OpTic Arena is a long-term initiative for the company.

“The good thing about starting it the way we did is we get to learn along the way, and we will grow organically through this yearly meet-up with our fans. You can have a relationship with them through a screen if you want, but I think having some face-to-face time where you get to shake someone's hand, take a couple pictures, really drives the mail home.”

To Rodriguez, the esports industry is important not only because people enjoy it, but because esports is showing traditional sports what the future holds.

“You read week in and week out how viewership and attendance is declining in traditional sports and its because everybody is consuming content in the palm of their hands. And i think we’re offering that sort of option to them that they have not explored. Traditional sports are slow at adapting to new form media, so we are definitely setting the trend.”

While there are events like VidCon and Pax Prime that are known as industry standard conferences in gaming, Rodriguez says what makes OpTic Arena different is that OpTic is “the first esports team to create a fan-specific event for our fans.”

TOURNAMENTS, COMPETITIONS AND MORE

Attendees to OpTic’s inaugural esports tournament arena have the chance to participate in more than a dozen 60-player Fortnite competitions throughout the weekend, with the top five gamers per competition entered into Golden Ticket matches held at the end of the day June 9-10.

But if Fortnite isn’t your forte, OpTic Arena also features fighting gaming tournaments  — including the Super Smash Bros Melee Tournament, Dragon Ball Fighter Z Tournament, and Street Fighter V Tournament — that any attendee can enter to play for $10 per game.

An NGAGE news release detailed some games featured in the arena:

— Call of Duty - Players face off in a first-person shooter reenactment of WWII conflicts, utilizing the era's guns and weapons.

— Super Smash Bros. Melee - (the No. 7 top game by active players in 2017 according to esportsearnings.com) Players pit Nintendo's most famous mascots against each other in an attempt to knock each other off the stage for a slice of the $5,000 pot bonus.

— Dragon Ball FighterZ - The cast of the world-famous anime series shoot fireballs and exchange blindingly fast punches and kicks in a traditional 2D fighting game. Winners will earn a part of a $5,000 pot bonus.

— Street Fighter V - The latest iteration of the classic fighting game series has its cast punch, kick, throw, and fireball each other into submission in one-on-one combat. The best performers will get a part of a $5,000 prize pot.

— Fortnite - a co-op sandbox survival game where up to 60 players can participate

All of this is in addition to the Feature Stage which will showcase professional gamers and streamers playing their favorite games and engaging in exhibitions. And, not to be forgotten, the second floor of the Omni Fort Worth Hotel was transformed into a gaming hub featuring table-top and electronic gaming as part of its 24-hour Gaming Lounge.

BRINGING GAMING TO NORTH TEXAS

Jason Sands, Fort Worth Now director of sports marketing, explained that his department’s role is to bring high-profile sporting events to the city and support them.

Sands explained that last year while Fort Worth Now worked closely with the A-Kon team to bring the convention to Cowtown, after finding out OpTic was coming this year the sports marketing department got to be involved hand-in-hand with OpTic and A-Kon in the convention’s overall planning and execution.

And Sands doesn’t think this is going to be the end for events like this involving the esports industry in North Texas.

The esports industry is growing in here. Just recently Gearbox Software and Complexity relocated their offices to to Frisco, and Arlington has a new esports arena in development.

“[Esports] is a fast-growing sport … I think the metroplex has done a great job, we have a history of supporting esports … There’s a lot of opportunity here and from Fort Worth’s perspective we want to do everything to support this growing industry, show that we’re a good partner, and bring all of our resources to the table to show that events like this here will go off well and can grow and be successful here in Fort Worth.”

According to GamerWorldNews.com, the esports industry is closing in on $1.5 billion in global revenues, with North America at about $225 million in revenue, and is experiencing a 22 percent annual growth rate. And it’s no surprise that Fort Worth, and North Texas as a whole, wants to do what it can to bring a slice of that pie into its economy.

And so it seems North Texas’ involvement in the esports industry is just getting started.

According to D Magazine, Texas Rangers COO Neil Leibman and entrepreneur Chris Chaney came together to acquire a majority stake in OpTic Gaming, moving the team to Frisco from Chicago, and committing to invest $10 million.

The duo also formed Infinite Esports & Entertainment, the holding company for NGAGE Esports, the company that will manage the new 100,000-square-foot esports stadium at the Arlington Convention Center.

OpTic CEO Hector Rodriguez was born in Texas and said he always knew someday he’d and up back in the Lone Star State. When deciding where to move the company within Texas, Rodriguez said they toured and considered multiple cities before landing on Frisco.

“They didn't have an incentive package,” he said. “What they did have, though, was a forward thinking vision of what esports could be and what they could offer, not necessarily from a monetary standpoint but from a city-support standpoint.”

In the mid-2000’s Rodriguez entertained the possibility of being a pro gamer in Call of Duty, but says he quickly found that he wasn’t going to be in the top of the top.

“But I didn’t let that impede my ability to be a part of the growing esports industry,” he said, adding that his favorite game to play is still Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare.

The Fort Worth Convention Center hosted Major League Gaming in 2017 for the organization’s Call of Duty World League tournament, but when comparing MLG’s event to OpTic’s, Sands says the arena is different due to its partnership aspect.

“This is a unique partnership between A-Kon and esports ... Over 33,000 people expected? That looks like success, and it's a great foundation to build off of for the future for esports, A-Kon and the city,” Sands said. “The metroplex is becoming a hub for esports and for Fort Worth we’re doing what we can to support the industry and identify opportunities that are going to be win-wins for all our partners.”

“Our office wants to make sure that we are connecting local businesses to the visitors that are coming in, because it all is part of the experience,” he added.

While any event that brings more than 30,000 people to a city is good for its economy — think people buying food, merchandise, staying in hotels, attending attractions — Fort Worth Now also offers a program called Fort Worth savings that allows downtown restaurants and retail to offer discounts to those people in town for big events like A-Kon and OpTic Arena at the convention center.

“I’ve been in the sports tourism industry for 15 years and we’ve never seen a sport blow up as fast as esports and I think this is relative to the millenial and their connectivity and how they communicate,” Sands said. “I think the connectivity of esports is one of the contributors to its rise and we’re excited to see where it’s going to go.”

Sands explained that he thinks the traditional sports industry has something to watch and learn as far as how they utilise social media and connectivity.

While there aren’t currently any other esports events on Fort Worth Now’s calendar, the sports marketing department will be attending an esports conference next month to continue conversations with partners and continue to bring events to Fort Worth.

BEING A PROFESSIONAL GAMER

To get an idea of what it’s like to be a professional gamer, the Fort Worth Business Press sat down with 19-year-old Gilbert Rojo (gamertag Xplosive), captain of OpTic’s Gears of War pro-team.

Rojo explained that to prepare for the bi-monthly tournaments and competitions his five-man roster participates in they practice gaming 4-6 hours per day, 5-6 days per week.

But Rojo says the hardest part about being a professional gamer isn’t being competitive online, it’s proving yourself at offline tournaments — like those hosted in as part of OpTic Arena.

“Back in the day, especially six or seven years ago, no one really looked at games like, Oh I’m gonna compete and I can do that for a living. I can win thousands of dollars if I can just play good,’ ” he said.

Rojo added that people who are playing at the pro-level right now are those people who “found their passion for gaming and competing early on in their careers” and could see the future and potential that others couldn’t.

“With the recent success of esports lately there’s been a big boost in population of people trying to compete. But there’s more to competing than just being good at the video game and that’s going to be the hardest thing for all newcomers to learn,” Rojo said, adding that a lot of professional and competitive gaming involves having good teamwork, communication and self-presentation.

In addition to their coach, Rojo’s team currently consists of himself, Billy Putnam (gamertag Mental), Brian Valenzuela (gamertag Solurs), Alex Ascencion (gamertag Sumuns) and a fifth member they plan to announce in the next few weeks.

Prior to his current role with OpTic, Rojo played for Denial Esports and NME Sports, but he has since been on the OpTic Gears of War team for just over two years.

An avid Gears of War player since he was only 9 years old, Rojo has only ever played Gears of War at the pro level. He says his team has experienced a lot of recent success, winning five major tournaments in a row, but in his tenure as a pro gamer, Rojo has won 13 championships.

He says that when he originally started down the path to being a professional esports player he faced some pushback from his parents, but after winning his first tournament in January 2016 under Denial Esports, he says they saw that he could really make a living doing something he loves.

D Magazine has reported that local esports players are bringing in six figure salaries, not including their full benefits packages and competition for tournament winnings up to $1 million.

And while Rojo didn’t show us his pay stubs, he did say that as a group the Gears of War team has participated in three or four $300,000 jackpot events and has won all of them. The tournament winnings are then released to OpTic and split amongst the five teammates.

But if you’re in it for the money, you won’t be happy, Rojo says.

“My advice for people who are aspiring professional gamers is to have fun with the game and make sure you love what you’re doing. The reason having video games as our career is so special is because everyday we go to work and don’t feel like we’re working,” he said. “But if you’re in it for the money go be miserable somewhere else, because if you’re in it for the money I promise you’re going to be just as miserable here as working 9-5 in an office.”

Rojo explained that events like OpTic arena are important for the industry because game developers are struggling to appeal to both the casual gamer and the people who have been playing the game for years.

“It’s about finding that balance, and I think events such as this one are what brings the community together because when you meet people online you get close to them but seeing them in person is what brings esports to that next step and makes it so special,” Rojo said. Anyone can get online, but when you’re in person it’s different. That’s when all your dreams can come true — at least for the weekend.”

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