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Contender eSports founder Brett Payne and his wife Kristi expect to open a Springfield location of the video gaming franchise in January.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
Contender eSports founder Brett Payne and his wife Kristi expect to open a Springfield location of the video gaming franchise in January.

Game On: Locals get involved in growing esports industry

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A Springfield-based esports franchise company is just a few weeks away from pressing play on a local video gaming center.

Contender eSports Springfield LLC is expected to open by January, said franchise founder Brett Payne. He and his wife Kristi are all in on the competitive multiplayer video gaming industry that’s poised to surpass $1 billion in worldwide revenue this year.

Local colleges also are paying attention, with Drury University launching an esports program this year. Missouri State University is devoting space in Plaster Student Union next year for students to play and watch the competitions.

“We want to elevate the awareness of esports in Springfield,” Payne said of his venture. “I think Springfield can very much be an epicenter of this industry in the Midwest.”

Payne started his umbrella company, Contender eSports LLC, in September 2018. Four franchises have been sold, and now the Paynes are opening the first in Springfield, at 3010 S. National Ave.

Audience attraction
The majority of esports titles are fighting games, first-person shooters, real-time strategy or multiplayer online battle arena contests. And they’re attracting quite the audience.

According to gaming researcher Newzoo, spending this year in the global esports industry is expected to reach $1.1 billion – up 27% from 2018. Of that, the highest-grossing revenue stream is in sponsorships, at $457 million in 2019.

North America is the largest market in the esports industry, according to Newzoo, with 2019 revenue estimated at $409 million. That total is projected to reach $691 million by 2022.

“There has been a huge surge of interest in the industry of esports,” Payne said, noting esports arenas are being built while the competitions garner national television attention on ESPN and ABC.

In March, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA) announced plans to construct a $50 million arena in downtown Philadelphia for competitive video gaming. Dubbed the Fusion Arena, the 3,500-seat venue is scheduled to open in early 2021.

At Contender eSports, Payne said the same game competitions likely to be offered at Fusion Arena – League of Legends, Overwatch and Fortnite, for example – will be at the Springfield facility. It’ll also hold tournaments, seasons and leagues for all games.

Building a Contender
Infill is ongoing in the 2,500-square-foot space, which Payne said formerly housed a check advance and payday loan agency. The Paynes signed a five-year lease for an undisclosed rate with SVN/Rankin Co.

Payne said the first Contender eSports franchise location opened in June in Toledo, Ohio, followed by centers in Houston, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana. The company, based in the Efactory at 405 E. Jefferson Ave., has signed agreements for over a dozen more franchise centers to open around the country in 2020, he said.

According to the company’s website, the investment for a franchise ranges from $199,400 to $325,180, including a $39,000 franchise fee. Payne said he expects startup costs to land around $260,000 to open the Springfield center. 

Aside from his Contender eSports businesses, Payne also owns marketing and consulting firm Kinetic 5 Consulting. He intends to maintain ownership of the firm along with the new venture. He said he will not be among the four employees at the gaming center upon its opening next month.

Payne said Contender eSports would be open late at night seven days a week – midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday – with visitors given the option to pay by the hour, purchase day or night passes, or sign up for monthly memberships.

Education in esports
Some of those visitors or members will include college-aged youth, Payne said, noting he’s been tracking activity around the industry from higher education institutions like Drury and MSU.

Drury added esports as a non-NCAA program in the 2019-20 academic year, hiring Michael Jones as head coach.

Jones came to the university from Culver-Stockton College in Canton, where he oversaw the start of its esports program in 2017.

A 2016 graduate of MSU with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Jones said he is a longtime gamer and follower of esports.

“I want to make a career out of it,” he said of esports coaching.

The five-person Drury team currently competes in League of Legends and Rocket League. Overwatch and Super Smash Bros. are expected to be added to the competition roster next fall, Jones said.

The college’s esports training facility is in a renovated second-floor space in Springfield Hall.

“Drury has been very supportive of the program,” he said, declining to disclose the university’s facility renovation and investment costs. “That’s what helped me make the decision.”

While not committed to an esports program at this time, MSU plans to renovate a second-floor space in Plaster Student Union for an esports cafe.

“We want it to be a space where students feel comfortable and can hang out,” said Dee Siscoe, MSU’s vice president of student affairs.

Design plans are anticipated to be complete in the winter, with infill work to start in the spring.

“We hope to have it ready to show off to new students as they are coming to campus,” Siscoe said, anticipating a summer opening.

At Drury, the first semester for its new program was a modest success, Jones said, noting each of its teams finished over .500 for the season.

“The program here at Drury is here to stay,” he said, noting the team is co-ed. “Esports is here to stay. For young men, 18-25, this is what they’re doing, this is what they’re watching.”

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