Chicago gets taste of e-sports craze with Rocket League regional

Saturday, 12 August 2017, 08:03:02 AM. Comcast SportsNet Chicago will host the Midwest Regional final of the inaugural Universal Open Rocket League two-on-two tournament on Saturday.

Trent Wieland and video game partner Daniel Gamer know each other's moves pretty well — that will come in handy when they square off against seven other teams in a Rocket League tournament in downtown Chicago Saturday — they just aren't that familiar with each other's faces.

They've never met.

That's the online gaming world for you. "Laz (Garner's screen name) has been a top-tier semipro Rocket League player for a long time now, since the beginning," said Wieland, a 19-year-old Naperville resident. "He actually approached me after I was already looking for a teammate. From there we played a little bit, and we said let's do it. We did the qualifier and obviously did well."

Well enough to reach the Midwest Regional final of the inaugural Universal Open Rocket League two-on-two tournament, a joint venture between and esports company FACEIT. SportsNet Chicago will host the regional at its downtown studio and air the final hour at 3 p.m. The entire broadcast will livestream on CSNChicago.com/RocketLeague and the NBC Sports app from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"When I told my parents I'm going to Chicago to play a video game tournament on TV, they were like, 'What? Hello?'" Wieland said. "I mean, whatever."

This particular game, Rocket League, is basically rocket-powered cars playing soccer. Wieland uses a batmobile as his car of choice, and his signature move is flipping his digital vehicle to "flick" the ball into the goal.

The parents may not get it, but NBC sees huge potential in the esports business, which market researcher Newzoo estimates could grow to $1.5 billion in revenue by 2020. "The growth has really accelerated here in the States over the last five years after really starting out in Asia and Europe," said Rob Simmelkjaer, senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures. "Not only has it caught on, but it's caught on among young fans, the young teens and twentysomethings — males — who are challenging sometimes to reach from a media company standpoint."

NBC has been encouraged by the tournament's early reception, particularly in Chicago, where 583 two-person teams registered for the tournament, nearly 200 more entrants than the next closest local qualifier in San Francisco. Overall, 2,500 teams signed up, and the first weekend of play peaked at 50,000 concurrent viewers on popular video game platform Twitch.

On that point, NBC and CSN will be more interested in the streaming numbers than traditional TV ratings, Simmelkjaer said. "I think it's fair to say linear TV ratings are not our first priority. We know that, No. 1, a lot of these core fans of these games, of esports, are not heavy TV viewers."

Count Wieland among those types. The rising University of Arizona sophomore estimates he spends between two and three hours each day playing video games and sometimes up to eight hours on a weekend day during the summer, when he's not in school.

Wieland has no desire to be a professional gamer, and he admits he and Garner will face long odds against some of the pros looking to advance to the Grand Finals Aug. 26-27 in Santa Ana, Calif., where teams will compete for a share of a $100,000 prize pool.

Wieland's just in it for the sport, and his own screen name, PlantingCargo85, is a testament to that. "It's the randomly generated Xbox name I got back when I first started playing Xbox when I was 9. ... I didn't really care that much and I didn't picture myself being on TV playing a video game," he said. "So, whatever."

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