Joseph "Beatbox Joe" Munera plays Super Smash Bros. on the Twitch screen.
Joseph "Beatbox Joe" Munera plays Super Smash Bros. Ultimate at Otaku Cafe in Castle Hills. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When Paul Fritz first noticed video games on his students’ tablets, he sought to stamp out the distraction. Although Fritz teaches video game design and animation at Roosevelt High School, he didn’t allow video games to be played during instruction.

But when he looked closer, he realized the students weren’t playing games. They were watching professional gamers streaming their play on YouTube. Fritz said about half to three-quarters of his students are avid spectators of esports, the world of competitive video gaming that’s turning Fortnite gamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins into overnight celebrities and earning the most famous pro gamers millions of dollars.

Other elite gamers are parlaying their skills into athletics scholarships at universities or salaries from professional esports teams of at least $75,000.

So when Fritz’s students voiced interest in forming an esports club on campus, he was more than willing to let them. Do well enough, and they could earn as much as $40,000 in scholarships from schools such as Kerrville’s Schreiner University, which is recruiting esports players to compete in a collegiate league.

“It’s a good opportunity for them get a pathway to college just like other sports are,” Fritz said. “It’s something I think schools need to start considering, especially given how huge esports is getting. It’s going to be a billion-dollar industry soon, and it’s just going to keep growing.”

According to esports analytics firm Newzoo, the global industry is expected to eclipse $1 billion this year with just shy of a half-million viewers watching in person and online through streaming platforms such as Twitch.

The City of Arlington built a 100,000-square-foot esports facility costing $10 million. The venue opened last fall with a tournament that garnered a $750,000 prize pool.

The revenue-generating potential of esports arenas got the attention of Port San Antonio CEO Jim Perschbach as the 1,900-acre industrial hub looked to build a tech facility that catered to STEM learners and educators, creatives and engineers, technologists and product buyers, as well as competitive gamers.

“Part of it, plain and simple, is this is a great way to fund what’s going to be an educational facility,” Perschbach said.

The Port’s board of directors last month advanced a feasibility study, one that will determine the cost of building a 130,000-square-foot innovation center housing creative space, a gaming arena, a STEM museum, and showplace for local technology.

A rendering of the Port San Antonio facility that could include a competitive gaming arena.
A rendering of the Port San Antonio facility that could include a competitive gaming arena. Credit: Courtesy / Port SA

The technology arena, which also will host robotics and drone-racing tournaments among other STEM competitions, was the brainchild of David Monroe, who runs the San Antonio Museum of Science and Art, Perschbach said. Monroe has already drawn younger people to the traditionally blue-collar Port, formerly an Air Force base and now a hub for aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and cybersecurity companies. The esports arena would add another focal point to the Port – a destination for people who wouldn’t otherwise have an excuse to drive to Southwest San Antonio.

“Part of it is it’s going to attract a lot of people,” Perschbach said. “And what better way to do that than to find something people like doing and show them there is a career opportunity at the end of it?”

Local pro gamer Bri Becker’s lifelong devotion to gaming has paid dividends. A member of the professional esports team the Pittsburgh Knights who plays the first-person shooter game Counter-strike, Becker has earned a living doing what she learned as a family-bonding activity with her computer programmer father and brothers. Now 27, the San Antonio native has been playing video games for more than 20 years.

But it’s hard for most young San Antonio residents with a passion for gaming to become involved competitively. High schools like Roosevelt are just beginning to sanction video game sports teams – albeit as clubs and not official athletic organizations – and apart from a few arcades and cybercafes there are few public venues in the city where kids can build their skills. The arena could give more kids the opportunity to develop their talents, Becker said.

“Local players need more opportunities to develop themselves as a competitor if they want to compete at a national or even a global scale, and at the same time, a healthy local scene is what ultimately keeps the professional scenes from stagnating, because it feeds new and upcoming players who have what it takes to compete and have proven themselves in a professional setting,” she said. “What better way to accomplish all of this than with the esports facility?”

Dozens of gamers stream into Otaku Cafe in Castle Hills just about every night for gaming events, said co-owner Ric Giron. Its biggest tournaments, such as for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, draw hundreds of gamers and spectators, Giron said. With other cities investing millions in esports venues, it’s high time San Antonio’s gaming community got its own home, Giron said.

“Here in town we could really use something that,” he said. “San Antonio has got a really big following in a lot of genres and an awful lot of nerds that want a home. I feel like, if done right, this thing could be really, really cool.”

(From right) Oscar "Oasis" Robles and Nick "Nik" Cruz compete against one another on Super Smash Bros.
(From right) Oscar “Oasis” Robles and Nick “Nik” Cruz compete against one another on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

With livestreaming platform Twitch becoming increasingly lucrative for its most popular personalities, as well as esports tournaments garnering larger audiences the possibility of making money as a pro gamer seems less out of reach for hardcore gamers, and career opportunities will exist outside of the actual gaming, said Sam Elizondo, part-owner of LFG Cybercafe in Northwest San Antonio.

For example, broadcasting esports tournaments will require all of the TV production work that goes into broadcasting such major sports as basketball, football, and soccer, Elizondo said.

“All those same things that occur in traditional sports happen in the realm of esports,” he said. “They’re mirrored.”

Roosevelt’s esports club has formed seven teams to compete in the national High School Esports League. Every Wednesday the club, which includes about 50 of Fritz’s students, meets to discuss fundraising opportunities for entry into the league. Thanks to LFG Cybercafe, the group’s spring league competitions are sponsored, Fritz said.

Becker said esports will help expose students to STEM concepts and career paths they might not have otherwise have explored.

“I would say most people don’t realize how many job opportunities there are in esports,” she said.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.