Convincing parents and other adults that competitive video gaming, or e-sports, is a legitimate industry has been Jake Utities' biggest hurdle since he started an e-sports team at St. Louis Park High School in 2017.
The multibillion-dollar e-sports industry is creating an assortment of high-paying jobs, and plays a vital role in developing job and social skills for Minnesota's teens, the former computer science and business teacher said.
In his view, the recent announcement of an e-sports venue coming to Mall of America will simplify his mission.
Bloomington-based Wisdom Gaming — a content-creation company focused on e-sports that also has its own professional e-sports teams — plans to use 18,000 square feet on the mega mall's fourth level for a split-level facility that will include a gaming area that's open to the public, a retail store and live broadcast studio for streaming content, said Nicole Du Cane, Wisdom Gaming's vice president of sales and partnerships.
The space will serve as the company's headquarters and gaming area for its professional teams, she said.
"By partnering with Mall of America, we are expanding our commitment to building fan affinity and providing an incredible opportunity for brands to authentically engage with e-sports and gaming audiences," Du Cane said.
Ideally, the venue will host virtual and in-person e-sports events that would not only attract regional gamers and fans, but those across the globe. It could also be the site of tournaments and state championships for the Minnesota Varsity League, the state's high school e-sports league that Wisdom owns and operates, Du Cane said.
That sends a clear message to Minnesota's aspiring gamers and those working in the industry, said Utities, director of the Minnesota Varsity League.
"Now, there's a place for you", he said.
It also shows Minneapolis is becoming a hub for e-sports. Very few U.S. cities have dedicated e-sports venues. Other cities with e-sports venues include Las Vegas and Arlington, Texas.
"It's great to see Mall of America dive into this because it's already a wonderful asset," said Matt Meunier, director of Sports Minneapolis, a division of Meet Minneapolis. "We think this can really provide some opportunity to really have an aggressive pitch to bring more e-sports events to the region."
Wisdom's venue, which is expected to open in the first quarter of 2022, would be the second venue of its kind to launch in the Twin Cities within the last year. In July, Version1, a pro e-sports organization owned by the Wilf family, which also owns the Minnesota Vikings, opened its 11,000-square-foot headquarters, studio and player training facility at the Vikings' TCO Performance Center in Eagan.
In addition to the gaming lounge, which would have capacity for up to 200 people, Wisdom will also have access to the TCF Rotunda inside Mall of America, which holds hundreds more, Du Cane said.
A gathering of that many people for an e-sports event is exactly what some officials are hoping will boost the region's sports tourism industry.
In January 2020, 10,000 fans attended a tournament for the popular video game Call of Duty at the Armory in Minneapolis over a three-day period. Sports Minneapolis helped Minnesota Røkkr, a Call of Duty team operated by Version1, host the event, which Meunier described as the city's biggest success with e-sports so far.
"January business is always a good thing," he said. "We brought in teams from all over North America, including Toronto, and some of their fans so that was a big success for us and helped fill our hotels."
Michael Zweigbaum started Wisdom Gaming in 2019 after seeing the industry's potential through the interest among his three sons. That same year, Utities started the Minnesota Varsity League. The MNVL now consists of 800 students and teachers representing 45 schools across the state.
E-sports has become a social outlet for many Minnesota teens. It also teaches them skills they can use toward a career in computer design, broadcasting and marketing, Utities said.
"Kids find escape and sociability through gaming," he said. "When they're talking about things they're passionate about, they can talk."
In addition to its venues, Minneapolis is also becoming known for developing technology that is fueling e-sport's growth. Launched by Twin Cities entrepreneur Gavin Lee, Gwoop created a free web application that trains the cognitive and physical elements of gaming. Gwoop does this by gamifying problem solving, memorization and reaction times.
"We're the gym for e-sports athletes," Lee said.
Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers make up a third of Gwoop's total users, Lee said, but the platform has already been adopted by more than 1,000 school programs in 40 states, most of them in the Midwest and East Coast. A typical school program has about 25 students, Lee said.
The platform provides data and analytics around improvement, and Gwoop earns revenue through advertisements on its web platform and players buying digital clothes and accessories for their avatars.
Lee recently secured $1.85 million from investors that include Minneapolis early-stage capital firm Groove Capital. The money will allow Lee to keep the platform free and accessible, add more features and functionality to the platform, and provide grants to schools for acquiring computers for gaming and starting e-sports teams.
"We have kids that otherwise wouldn't be in any activities that are now in activities, kids that have somewhere to go after school and kids making friends," Lee said. "There are so many positives that come out of gaming."