The largest professional video game competition the Twin Cities has ever hosted kicked off Friday, drawing spectators from across the country and a slate of competitors seeking virtual glory.
Scores of fans, decked out in the gear of their favorite e-sports teams and players, packed the Armory in downtown Minneapolis for the Call of Duty Launch Weekend. The three-day extravaganza launched the recently announced Minnesota Røkkr e-sports team and Activision Blizzard's new e-sports league that pits teams from around the world against one another in its popular "Call of Duty" video game.
Organizers expect crowds of about 10,000 for the weekend, drawing in fans worldwide to cheer on their favorite players, who will duke it out in the first-person shooter video game. The event is a high-production affair that's expected to thrust the local e-sports industry onto a prominent stage.
Competitive gamers "started off in small venues like hotel rooms. Now we're talking about arenas and stadiums and tours," said Bobby Blasingame, who flew up from Dallas with his friends to support the Chicago Huntsmen against his home team, the Dallas Empire.
Many fans like Blasingame roamed the Armory throughout the day, taking in its size and spectacle as they marveled at how far e-sports have come.
Blasingame watched the professional matchups on the venue's main floor before heading to the basement to see nearly 200 amateur teams face off for a $250,000 prize pool that will be split among the top finishers. Fans watched matches over players' shoulders and checked leaderboards and snapped selfies between games.
"That's actually what the best thing about events are for me, is being able to come here, cheer on teams but be with friends," said Blasingame, who linked up with friends whom he met at gaming events across the country.
In many ways, the lead-up to the professional matches mimicked the type of spectacle you see at major sporting events.
A panel of mic'd-up analysts discussed each team's strengths and weaknesses. A massive screen in the arena played promo reels of the teams discussing their matches and taking jabs at their opponents. And an emcee announced each player one by one as they took the stage to loud cheers.
Teams of five set up on the main stage at tables adjacent to each other as fans watched the action on the big screen. An announcer gave play-by-play commentary through matches that went several games long. Some matchups were even billed as "bad blood battles" between teams with large rivalries or interesting story lines; the Røkkr has a "grudge match" against regional rival Chicago Huntsmen on Saturday night and a "Battle of the North" against the Toronto Ultra on Sunday night.
Taylor Schmidt, a 25-year-old Minnesota Røkkr fan from Minneapolis, happily volunteered to staff the event all weekend. He drew parallels between the new Minnesota e-sports team and the recently launched Minnesota United soccer club, arguing the Røkkr could reach such popularity with enough exposure.
"I think there's just such a demand for it," Schmidt said. "It will be the same level as basketball and soccer, from a market share standpoint."
Brett Diamond is also high on the Røkkr's market potential. The chief operating officer of WISE Ventures Esports, which manages the Minnesota team, said he wants to build a groundswell with a team that fans can rally around.
"There's a cultural relevance to these events," Diamond said. "If you spend time … talking to these fans, they're every bit as passionate about these events and these teams as any sports fan you'll find."