Flashback to Providence during the ‘70s and ‘80s: The school day ends and East Side students walk down Thayer Street to Jake’s Ice Cream Shop – where Chase Bank is now – to play coin-operated classics like pinball, PacMan, Asteroids, Missile Command, and Miracle on Ice. After work, an older crowd binges one-off arcade games at pubs and eateries across the city, including Spats and Oliver’s (Thayer), Penny’s (Wayland Square), Challenger’s Bar, and The Recess Pub (Downtown). For the full-scale arcade experience, some gamers travel to malls in Warwick and Swansea.
Flashforward to Providence in 2020: Competitive video games played on internet consoles and computers – including Super Mario Bros, Fortnite, and Hearthstone – are now grouped under the umbrella term of “esports.” At Providence College, the esports club team boasts 150 members who compete in collegiate leagues like Tespa and the American Video Game League. In 2018, the team traveled among thousands to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to watch pro esports teams compete for slices of a $250,000 prize pool.
In a matter of decades, our city’s relationship with competitive video games has changed dramatically. Why? And what will Providence’s role be in the future of esports?
These questions are explored by East Side resident and industry luminary William Collis in his recently released guide, The Book of Esports. Collis earned his MBA from Harvard before moving to Providence to work at Hasbro, and after falling in love with the city, he never left. In the intervening years, Collis has been busy co-founding successful esports companies like the coaching platform Gamer Sensei, the pro team Oxygen Esports, and the analytics company Genji. He also earned an Honorary Professorship of Esports at Becker College, where he helped design one of the first-ever accredited undergraduate majors on the topic.
The Book of Esports offers a colorful overview of esports for parents, students, and anyone curious to understand the fastest growing entertainment industry of our time. “I wanted to write something that would get everyone on the same page,” says Collis, “but first and foremost, I wanted to write something that would be a blast to read.”
Collis emphasizes that “the gold rush of esports is here.” The rise of live-stream broadcasts, platforms for sharing gamer profiles like Twitch and YouTube, competitive leagues with big-brand sponsorships, and game publisher sales have transformed esports into today’s $27 billion industry, according to an analysis by Collis and colleagues. With ample runway for growth, Goldman Sachs predicts that global esports viewership will be near that of the NFL by 2022, growing to 276 million and surpassing the audience size of the NHL and MLB. Like other marquee players in the big business world, esports has attracted major investments from celebrities, including Robert Kraft, Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Jennifer Lopez, Ashton Kutcher, and Will Smith.
Although this revolution in digital gaming is a global phenomenon, Collis still believes that the appeal remains the same as ever: Above all else, games are creative, interesting, and really fun. As a kid, Collis recalls, “I had a real aha moment when I realized that games are really beautiful. They had great stories, engaging characters, and vivid worlds. All the elements you’d expect from art and literature.” Moreover, esports cultivates skill, strategy, teamwork, and decision-making. “It’s a notable skill,” explains Tim Loew, general manager of the Becker College Varsity Esports Program, “just like being a varsity athlete or expert pianist. At Becker – and dozens of other schools around the United States – gaming skills will help get you into college. And maybe even earn a full scholarship, too.”
Stories of stardom and success are woven throughout The Book of Esports, introducing down-to-earth perspectives that conjure up favorite tales from classic athletes; this may be why Peter Olson, former CEO of Random House and Professor at Harvard Business School, called it “one of the most important sports books of the decade.”
As a university city, Providence is well-positioned to produce new leaders in the world of esports. “It’s a new industry, so the people making the biggest impacts will be college graduates,” Collis says, “and we have a spectrum of multidisciplinary talent, which plays enormously into Providence and Rhode Island’s favor.” With entrepreneurs and designers, venues and campus computer labs, and proximity to centers in Foxborough, Boston, and New York City, the Creative Capital is already making its mark on the future of esports. So, on your next walk down Thayer Street, keep an eye out for new arcades like Base Station VR Lounge. Though the consoles and graphics look different, the love of gaming felt by Providence’s pinball pioneers is still very much alive. Find The Book of Esports at your local bookstore.