WACO, Texas — One sports championship event garnered 5.1 million viewers in 2021.
That number was 1.6 million viewers more than the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup. The rise in popularity of esports can't be ignored, and before long, the sport could have a place in the Olympic games.
"I always kind of known esports existed, but in the last few years, they’ve really blown up and I didn’t even know there was a high school esports league to begin with," Lake Belton esports club member Kyle Treheron said.
Lake Belton High School opened an esports lab and has a club that competes against other students across the nation. When the bell rings for dismissal, they all pile into what looks like the most high-tech room on campus.
Coach Kristie Shepherd says that this is the first time that many of these students have had a coach. The old-school way of thinking about video games and how it rots the brain is exactly that, old-school and outdated.
"I think they’ve seen it can be a social aspect because they are here in this room together, they plan together, they strategize together, they do homework together, we eat a family meal together before we game," Shepherd said. "There are a lot of positive aspects that I hope we’ve turned a positive light on that will change the turn on esports and gaming in general.”
One gamer won as much as $7 million in winnings and 2021 and numerous others made over $1 million. That doesn't include the many gamers who make millions streaming on platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook.
The International Olympic Committee announced in 2021 that they would be adding five esports events to help grow the sport.
"It makes me so excited for these kids, the idea of that being an Olympic sport is just phenomenal," Shepherd said.
Jacob Gerakos is a Lake Belton freshman who also plays water polo, a summer Olympic sport. When asked what he would choose if both were options, his response was:
"Probably esports," he said. "I feel like I’d just be more happy playing esports.”
Scott Cole is a professional esports broadcaster who is involved in the NBA 2K League, EA Sports, and Madden Series. He says that esports should be in the Olympics.
"They know this is where the audience is going," he said. "You can't deny those numbers. We’re talking about millions and millions of viewers, advertisers want that, NBC wants that.
He says that acceptance for the sport will come.
People laughed at the NFL, people never thought of a professional football league as something we needed. People really turned their noses up at esports for the last 15 years.
Professional sports leagues like the NBA have started to invest in leagues of their own. Superstars like Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray are joining video gaming teams.
“VPs of companies, CEOs of companies are saying now how do we get involved in that league of legends," Cole said.
He says that an American national team could bring national pride to the sport, which could also help.
The IOC says that 2024 is too premature for the sport. 2028 could be a more realistic target date as the Summer games come back to the United States in Los Angeles.