Cornhusker State Games the Latest Sign of Esports Growth in Nebraska

Aug. 12, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

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The floor of the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln was bathed in neon red, green, and purple lighting people of all ages streamed in for the first day of the esports portion of Cornhusker State Games, a competitive amateur sporting event modeled after the Olympics.

Esports refers to the world of competitive video game playing, a growing industry that becomes more mainstream every year. The official definition is “a multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers.”

Executive Director of the Nebraska Sports Council Dave Mlnarik (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Every popular competitive game one could think of was present, console classics like Halo, Super Smash Brothers and Tekken to PC sensations like League of Legends and Rocket League.

Whether they came to play seriously or just have fun, everyone was excited to see fellow gamers gathered for the first time under the Cornhusker State Games banner, right alongside more “traditional” sports like soccer, hockey, or gymnastics.

That might draw scoffs from some sports purists, but Lexi Kottas, who came to compete in the Magic Gathering Online tournament, said it’s a form of sport.

“It's not just a physical thing like you need to understand the game. You need to understand the strategy,” Kottas said.

Midland University esports coach Thomas Anthone was in attendance to compete with other members of his team and said, at the collegiate level, it's most definitely a sport. And yes, you read that correctly; esports has made its way into the collegiate world.

"It's a sport. We're putting in eight hours a day, pretty much practicing grinding, doing film reviews, VOD review, stuff like that, making sure that we pick up small mistakes and we can correct those, and then also strategizing against the enemy team,” Anthone said.

Midland University is part of a growing esports college league in Nebraska.Concordia University has a team and so does the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Unified Esports Association CEO Ramsey Jamoul (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Dave Mlnarik is Executive Director of the Nebraska Sports Council, the body that decides which events get added to the Cornhusker State Games. At 52, Mlnarik said when he was growing up, it was inconceivable video games could ever be considered a “sport” in the traditional sense. Today, he still doesn’t fully “get it”, but he’s getting there.

“I'm learning as we go and and one of the first things that's eye opening is that it's very popular and and it’s here to stay,” Mlnarik said, “and so for us to be inclusive of all types of participants, all ages, all abilities, it fits our mantra perfectly.”

As for whether he thinks esports should be considered an actual “sport,” he suggests modern definitions of “sports” and “athlete” may need to be broadened.

“Yeah, or just not worry about using it so much,” Mlnarik said.

Mlnarik adds the event could not have happened without the participation of the Unified Esports Association, an esports tournament organizer that supplies games, consoles, and other infrastructure for competitions.

Content Creator Tristin Chambers (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Unified CEO Ramsey Jamoul played video games competitively for Kansas State University and said he was able to witness the professional esports scene develop firsthand.

“I saw opportunities for players to not only go to college for scholarship but really career opportunities that were serious. They could make a living playing video games or make a living in the video game industry as a whole,” Jamoul said.

Jamoul recognizes most players will not go pro, but said everyone deserves the opportunity to have pro-experience.

While initially serving customers in the Midwest, Jamoul said increased interest in esports has grown the company to the point it now organizes tournaments coast to coast.

“When and we started seeing that it was replicable- that every community had really great players, really great community leaders that wanted to see these same opportunities come to their town, it became very easy for us to start finding like-minded people that wanted to see esports and those opportunities grow.”

According to analytics website, esports in the US is projected to be a $1.5 billion industry by 2023 as game streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming increase in popularity. High-profile investors like Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’Neal and Drake add even more attention.

Back at Pinnacle Bank Arena there was an entrepreneurial vibe along with the fun of the tournaments. Tristin Chambers lives in Lincoln and bills himself as a content creator, CEO of an esports and entertainment holdings company and owner of his own esports team. He said he’s here, at least in part, to scout fresh talent.

“Yeah, I mean that's a function of it, but it's also that I've known the guys who created Unified before was known as Unified, and so you know, when they reached out to me and wanted me to to come be an influencer, I was on board with it,” Chambers said. “ You know, it's important to me to really show that esports presence.”

Omar Manning Plays Super Smash Bros.
Husker Wide Receiver Omar Manning Plays Super Smash Bros. at the Cornhusker State Games (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Perhaps one of the best reflections of the far-reach of esports in Nebraska was the arrival of Husker wide receiver Omar Manning, who was working the event on behalf of Unified. He said he’s a video game fan himself and esports has potential.

“I mean you look at the audience, the audience is there. Like on YouTube, streamers, Twitch, you know they get millions of views, so you know obviously there’s a want for that in the market,” Manning said.

The Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau was a sponsor of the event. Executive Director Jeff Maul said while he doesn’t have a final number, attendance estimates exceeded expectations and he hopes to bring even more esports events to Nebraska.

“I'd say it's probably just on the cusp of becoming that next big trend that best next big, attended event,” Maul said. “You know, we didn't have a ton of spectators at Pinnacle Bank Arena, because really, esports is still so new, but when you consider 214 million Americans play video games including 64% of adults and 70% of kids under 18, there's a lot of people playing this and this will only continue to grow.”

Maul said the Bureau will attend the 2021 Esports Travel Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this winter to make connections with industry insiders in hopes of snagging a high-profile esports event.

At this point whether the competitions are considered “real” sports or not, seems inconsequential.

(Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)