July 28, 2021

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WSOP Goes All-In On Virtual Tournament As COVID Drives eSports Growth

4 min read

If venture capitalists got word of a business that had been operating for 30 years, had customers in 118 countries and had a flagship annual event that attracted nearly 200,000 fans, they’d likely be lining up to throw money at the product.

And in this case, the product is the World Series of Poker, which refers to itself as “the largest, richest and most prestigious gaming event in the world.” But unfortunately for VCs, the World Series of Poker (or “WSOP”) is more than set for funding at the moment thanks to a growing list of corporate sponsors, as well as alliances with broadcasters, digital media and Las Vegas casinos.

With the U.S. portion of the WSOP’s pandemic-postponed Main Event slated to begin next weekend, the stakes and climate for eSports and online gambling have never been better. The tournament looks set to do just fine even in a COVID-19 era that’s sent traditional in-person competitive sports like professional baseball, hockey and basketball scrambling this year.

“Due to travel restrictions and out of an abundance of caution for player safety, this year’s format will be unique where early round play will begin online before shifting to a live setting for final table action on two continents,” the WSOP said in a recent press release.

The lucky nine players who make it through to the final in-person tournament will also be subject to special COVID-19 rules and procedures, including undergoing health screening prior to live participation.

e Is For Everywhere

While the World Series of Poker claims the largest prizes and participation, it’s far from alone in the burgeoning universe of eSports competitions and paid professional “e-thletes.”

For example, the U.S. Air Force (and newly formed U.S. Space Force) announced last week that they would compete in the “CODE Bowl” against their armed forces peers in the United Kingdom’s Army, Navy and Marines. “CODE” stands for “Call of Duty Endowment,” a hat-tip to the popular military-themed video game series.

“Air Force Gaming is the official hub of gaming and eSports for the entire Air Force and Space Force,” according to an AFG press release. And although the upcoming international tournament is designed to be fun, improve morale and mental health, and raise money for charity, “AFG counts more than 10,000 servicemen and women on all platforms in just their first season of competition.”

Meanwhile, NASCAR is adapting to the e-gaming trend and transitioning its own annual celebrity poker tournament/fundraiser this month to a virtual event.

“This year has certainly presented its challenges,” NASCAR Foundation Chairman Mike Helton said. “But it has also created new opportunities and we are very excited to host our first virtual poker tournament, allowing greater participation as we raise funds to help the children in our racing communities.”

There’s Big Money In eSports

According to a recent ranking of the top 10 eSports companies by Forbes, their collective value is worth nearly $2.5 billion.

While the likes of Team Liquid, FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves might not enjoy the recognition of the New York Yankees just yet, the eSports industry’s key metric to watch is growth. It’s not so much a measure of where professional eSports are presently at that matters, but rather, a projection of where they’ll be in another five, 10 or 20 years.

“What you have seen in the last year is other eSports companies are catching on to what has been our philosophy from day one, which is to explore the outer reaches of what gaming can be,” FaZe Clan CEO Lee Trink said, noting his focus on signing the biggest talent players and content creators.

As far as the future is concerned, Hollywood-based eSports tournament group “Team 33” announced last week that it was pleased to have signed another top professional gamer to its growing stable of players.

Team 33 said it was “beyond excited” to add Joseph Deen to its roster after two years of training with him. It gave Deen a $33,000 signing bonus, as well as a new $5,000 gaming system. That’s a pretty good payday for Deen, who’s only 8 years old.

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