With all the glitz of a rock concert and the high stakes of a pro sports qualifying match, professional esports is making its Madison debut.
Some 1,000 video game fans are expected to pack the Orpheum Theater Saturday afternoon for a heated battle among top-tier “Call of Duty” pros, as Minnesota Røkkr, the host team, faces off against the Florida Mutineers and the L.A. Guerrillas.
Billed as the “Minnesota Røkkr Home Series,” the event pits one four-player team against another in real time while the strategies and skills they employ in the military-style video game on their gaming stations is projected on a 32-foot-wide screen suspended above the stage.
Scene from an unofficial National Junior College Athletic Association Esports competition between students from Madison Area Technical College and Crowder College playing Call of Duty Warzone 2, March 22, 2023.
“The experience is really a hybrid of a sporting event and a rock concert,” said Brett Diamond, who worked for the NFL for 11 years becoming COO of the esports organization Version1, which includes Røkkr as well as pro teams for the video games Rocket League and Valorant.
“If you’re just watching the fans, you could be at any professional sporting event,” Diamond said. “They are passionate, they are excited, they are cheering, they are chanting. The intensity and the passion that these fans bring to the event is one of the exciting things about it.”
For many years a variety of groups – from Destination Madison and the Madison Area Sports Commission to the Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP — has eyed the booming world of professional esports.
But getting them to Madison is “something that we’ve been trying to figure out for probably 10 years, as esports has risen in popularity,” said Jamie Patrick, vice-president for convention sales, sports and services at Destination Madison and the Madison Area Sports Commission. “We needed to start planting our flag and hosting a really cool event.”
“Esports is a huge global industry,” said Jennifer Javornik, co-founder of the Wisconsin Games Alliance, the professional association for the video game industry in the state. “North America is a little bit behind Asia and Europe. Madison has all the components that should lead to a vibrant esports (scene). We have college teams that are doing really well and are relatively mature. We have the university, which is a huge concentration of the demographic that loves esports.”
“It was really important to get a professional esports team to Madison to start building that ecosystem and establishing Madison as an esports community,” she said. “I see esports as something that helps our cred as a hub of the video game industry.”
Making the playoffs
A subset of the broader video game industry, esports can be played online or at a live event, and at varying levels. Madison has held a few smaller live esport events, “but nothing professional,” said Joe Hanson, head esports coach at Madison Area Technical College, which has a thriving esports program and a state-of-the-art gaming facility at its Truax campus. As with a growing number of colleges, esports is now an official part of the MATC athletics department.
The atmosphere at a live esports competition — like the Minnesota Røkkr Major II in Prior Lake, Minnesota, shown here — is a hybrid of a rock concert and pro sports event, organizers say.
Importing a pro competition like the Røkkr event “is a large step in the right direction,” said Hanson, who plans to attend Saturday with his 17-year-old son. MATC, also known as Madison College, will also be welcoming the three competing teams, who can use the school’s esports space to warm up, he said.
“It’s pretty awesome to think that we’re going to have three professional esport teams just hanging out in our lab,” he said, “using it essentially as a practice arena before their weekend events.”
Saturday’s four-hour, regular seasonal competition at the Orpheum will include matches at 2 and 5 p.m., plus a live match at another location shown virtually in between. Diamond expects about a third of Saturday’s fans will come from out of state, and the rest from across Wisconsin.
Røkkr (pronounced “rocker”) and its two opponents from Florida and California all have mixed records this year, “which makes it exciting, where everyone’s fighting to make the playoffs,” Diamond said. The teams are about halfway through their season, “so the teams are jockeying for playoff contention, and every match really matters.”
Røkkr is one of a dozen teams — 10 from the U.S., one each from Toronto and London — vying for a spot in the “Call of Duty” league championships to be held in June, with a first-place prize of $1.2 million.
“These players are the best in the world at what they do. And what they happen to do is playing video games,” Diamond said.
“The time they put in, whether it’s practice, watching film, their workout routine — they put in the same amount of hours per day that an NFL player does,” he said. And “the fans are just as invested in the wins and losses as any traditional sports fan.”
Growing up with the game
Madison’s reputation as a town with a large, engaged college-age population was not lost on the organizers of the April 1 competition, Diamond said. While many players of the first-person-shooter game “Call of Duty” range in age from 21 to 35, the average player is 26 and likely male.
Many in their 20s grew up with the game. That was the case for Jake Petersen, a business analyst in Madison who started playing “Call of Duty” more than a decade ago.
“I was a freshman in high school, and it was just the most popular game to play at the time,” said Petersen, 26, who grew up in Wauwatosa. “It was just really fun to talk to friends after school while gaming.”
He also became a fan of watching esports tournaments early on. “It was a pretty niche, grassroots scene,” unlike the more polished, high-energy events today, he said. Petersen even aspired to become a professional gamer when he was younger.
“Even though I didn’t achieve that, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “You make a lot of good memories and friends along the way when you’re playing any game competitively.”
The Røkkr team competes at a previous esports event in Prior Lake, Minnesota. Røkkr will travel to Madison to take on two other pro “Call of Duty” teams April 1 at the Orpheum Theater.
Now he plays occasionally, but remains a fan — and he’ll be at the Orpheum Saturday.
“It’s very unique for (a competition) to be coming to Madison, which is why I’m so excited about it,” he said. “Large esports events like this generally don’t come to Wisconsin. Often the bigger cities with bigger venues get those opportunities to host tournaments.”
Part of a team
Owned in part by the Wilf family, also owners of the Minnesota Vikings, Version1 is stepping out of its home state for the first time with the Røkkr event in Madison, Diamond said.
In 2021, the region’s software development industry, which includes game development, grossed $1.9 billion overall, according to statistics from MadREP. Jobs in the region’s software development sector number over 12,000, more than six times the national average for a region of similar size. That area job growth is projected to continue a steady 9% annual rise into 2026, according to a 2021 report.
And Madison-area colleges are well on board with the esports trend. Increasingly used as a recruiting tool, strong esports programs can give students from all walks of life a sense of camaraderie and a greater sense of connection to their school, Hanson said.
“There’s still a lot of growth that can happen in esports,” he said. “At the collegiate level, it’s exploding right now.”
“The esports world is definitely blowing up, and young people are looking to be part of a team,” agreed Suann Saltzberry, director of athletics at Edgewood College, which brought on an esports coach in early 2022 and offers scholarships for esports athletes.
“It’s an area of growth, because these kids are looking to continue to play, and to play at a competitive level,” Saltzberry said. “We’re looking to potentially renovate our esports arena space here on campus, to make it bigger and offer more PCs so more players can play at the same time. It’s been interesting for me to understand the logistics behind it and how it works, but there are kids choosing colleges for what they offer in esports.”
Fans provide a lot of the energy at live esports events, like this past competition featuring the Røkkr “Call of Duty” team out of the Twin Cities.
UW-Madison doesn’t have an esports program, but it does have an official esports club with more than 1,500 members and competitive teams for 10 different esports, said club president Michael Verban. And while the club doesn’t currently have a designated campus home, the university plans to include an esports space in the Bakke Recwell and Wellbeing Center, a student athletic facility under construction on the west side of campus that is scheduled to open this fall, he said.
Drawing a crowd
Compared to many in-person pro esports events — which can fill U.S. stadiums with crowds of 13,000 to 20,000 people, and more than double that in Asia — the Røkkr competition in Madison and a second one in St. Paul on May 6 will have a different feel, Diamond said.
That’s by design. “We’re trying something new,” he said.
After touring possible sites including the Orpheum, Version1 “picked the venue, because they thought it had the vibe they were going for with their fans,” said Patrick of Destination Madison. “It’ll create an intimate atmosphere. The Orpheum’s got a lot of history. They just felt the vibe connected with who they are as a team.”
With its Downtown location and tickets priced from $33 (Gold VIP seats go for $238), Verban thinks there will be a lot of interest in Saturday’s event among college students.
“I can guarantee,” said the UW-Madison senior, “that there will be a lot of people who would love being able to see a live event in town.”