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New group aims to draw esports awareness

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A newly formed coalition by the Springfield Sports Commission is targeting a burgeoning industry as an opportunity to make the Queen City an esports destination.

The Springfield Esports Coalition was launched last month to spur awareness of the competitive multiplayer video gaming market and further generate local sports tourism.

The coalition comprises a committee of the Springfield Sports Commission with representation from its board of directors, along with the support of Contender eSports LLC. The latter business, a Springfield-based umbrella company founded by Brett Payne in 2018 to sell video gaming center franchises across the United States, has been working to build a foothold in the esports market. In early 2020, Contender eSports opened a gaming center with 47 PCs in Springfield.

Springfield Sports Commission Executive Director Lance Kettering said the coalition plans to provide monthly networking gatherings and is organizing a trio of esports events this year to reach a wide age range of gamers. He said the idea for the new group stemmed from a conversation with Payne over lunch around 10 months ago.

“Esports is kind of a market segment that doesn’t traditionally have a home,” Kettering said. “It’s not uncommon for it to gravitate toward the sports travel and tourism industry. We saw it as an opportunity to capitalize on a market that is underserved locally and regionally.”

Payne, whose company has 13 gaming center locations in nine states and Canada, said he could have formed a coalition on his own to generate esports interest locally.

“I didn’t want to feel like I was pulling them into my company and trying to self-promote,” he said, noting he encourages all Contender eSports franchisees to find ways to serve their cities.

He said founding the coalition under the purview of the Springfield Sports Commission, which promotes sports tourism in the area, was an opportunity to bring more validity to esports.

“That would organically give it more authenticity for our city,” he said. “It also serves the purpose of what the sports commission is doing anyway because we also do tournaments with people traveling in.”

Esports interest
Memberships in the esports coalition, which cost $100, are available for individuals and sold on the Springfield Sports Commission website, Kettering said. Coalition members will receive access to monthly meetings, collaboration on all esports events and discounts on PCs, peripherals and networking equipment.

“Our goal of this membership is to reach those who are involved in the gaming world,” Kettering said, noting the coalition also is seeking to obtain event sponsorships from businesses.

Aside from Kettering and Payne, the coalition’s eight-person committee comprises the following:

  • Ryan Bowling, Old Missouri Bank, the group’s chair;
  • Katie Johnson, the sports commission’s assistant director;
  • Marc Mayer, Guaranty Bank;
  • Nyla Milleson, Drury University;
  • Kyle McClure, City Utilities of Springfield; and
  • Josh Scott, Springfield Public Schools.

While the Springfield Esports Coalition isn’t the only group of its type – the Kansas City Sports Commission established its own esports coalition in 2020 – Payne said he wants Springfield to become the No. 1 city for esports in the country. Some local higher education institutions have become part of the industry, as Drury University debuted a competitive esports program in 2019, followed last year by Ozarks Technical Community College.

OTC officials said in a news release that its first season, which drew 39 team members, far exceeded expectations. The squad also is the first sports team fielded by the college in its 33-year history, according to past reporting.

“We definitely had more students than we expected,” said Tiffany Ford, department chair for computer information science and the college’s esports adviser, in the release. “The competitive esports team is as large as we can manage right now.”

Missouri State University has an esports club and devoted space last year in its renovated Plaster Student Union to allow for competitive and casual competitions in games such as League of Legends, Rocket League and Overwatch, according to its website. Kettering said Springfield Public Schools began an esports program last fall for high school students.

The local schools’ investments feed into a growing interest for esports. In 2025, the global market revenue for the esports industry is projected to reach over $1.8 billion, up roughly 64% from 2021, according to market research company Statista. China was the largest market by revenue in 2021, according to Statista, earning $360.1 million. The United States followed at $243 million. Goldman Sachs predicted that esports would have roughly the same viewership levels in 2022 as the NFL.

Event planning
Events in the works this year for the Springfield Sports Coalition include the Missouri High School Esports Invitational in the spring, the Corporate Cup in spring or early summer and the Missouri High School Esports Showcase in the fall. Contender eSports will host at least some of the competitions, Kettering said, adding other venues, pricing structures and dates are still being worked out.

The Missouri High School Esports Invitational is targeting 16 teams, Kettering said.

“The goal is to have eight local and eight out-of-town [teams],” he said, noting the weekend tournament is intended to generate hotel bookings, as well as restaurant and retail spending.

Details for the other two events are still in progress, although Kettering said the Corporate Cup would involve several weeks of game play for teams comprising employees of companies. He said registration soon will be available on the sports commission website, adding the cost is $500 per team or $1,000 for three teams.

“The Corporate Cup is something that will lend toward businesses understanding more about esports,” he said. “That is the goal.”

Payne said he’s excited to not only host the coalition’s upcoming events but in a bigger picture to capture what it can mean for the community’s continued exposure to esports.

“In the last year or so, I’ve noticed there were really interesting pieces of what was happening in our city, with the university [esports] programs, SPS introducing it into the school athletic program, what’s happening with us and different locations going up,” he said, adding Contender eSports plans 10 new video gaming centers to open this year, including in Saudi Arabia.

“Of course, I want to build my business. There’s no question about that, but the deeper level thing is can we make an impact with our city?” he said of local growth prospects for the industry. “Let’s put a big star on the United States of America for esports in our city.”

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