Heard on the Hill

Can the billion-dollar esports industry get some respect?

Members of Congress can help — or at least that’s what lobbyists are hoping

From left, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries and Florida Reps. Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy battle it out in a Rocket League tournament on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Members of Congress fought to the (virtual) death Wednesday night while their staffers, drinking beer and scarfing down cheeseburger sliders, watched. Don’t worry: It was live-streamed.

The setting was a dimly lit reception room on Capitol Hill. The occasion was a video game tournament, put on by the Entertainment Software Association, that ran on the streaming site Twitch. As some huddled intently around screens to play their own side games, a battle for Florida or New York supremacy was unfolding — a Rocket League showdown between Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Hakeem Jeffries.

Rocket League, in which you drive around an arena demolition derby-style while trying to place a giant soccer ball into your opponent’s net, seems simple enough. But at first it felt like a 5-year old’s soccer match: lots of people chasing a ball and not much happening. Once lawmakers got the hang of it, the pace picked up. Team New York pulled off a 3-1 victory in the end.

Jeffries can’t claim much of the credit: All three goals were scored by his teammate and policy aide Taylor Swift. (No relation to the world-conquering pop icon.)

While gaming as a child, Jeffries never imagined the industry would grow to the behemoth it is now. “I wish I had the foresight to invest at that particular point in time,” he says. Not wanting to date himself, Jeffries wouldn’t reveal what his first console was, but it probably rhymes with “matari.”

But can video games shake off their slacker stigma and gain respect as competitive gaming becomes a billion-dollar industry? Members of Congress can help — or at least that’s what lobbyists are hoping.

Wednesday’s event was co-hosted by Future Forum, a group of young House Democrats who say they’re in touch with the “needs of millennials.”

The image of gamers as lazy kids or antisocial nerds wasting hours in a basement has long been antiquated. But now video games, and esports more broadly, are big business. That trajectory follows a proud, time-honored American tradition of turning your favorite hobby into a way to make money.

Esports is a sophisticated operation in which gamers duke it out in front of live audiences and online streamers. Some leagues host tournaments that pay out millions in prizes. And for the first time global revenues from esports will top $1 billion this year, according to gaming analytics company Newzoo.

“The average gamer is in their early 30s,” says Kevin O’Hanlon, a gaming lobbyist for ESA. “There are more women over 50 playing video games than there are men under 18.” O’Hanlon, a former Hill staffer decked out in a green Xbox tie and Playstation cufflinks, is including mobile games such as Candy Crush in that statistic.

Colleges are even offering scholarships for esports athletes. More than 3,000 students are currently receiving about $15 million in annual scholarships and aid from more than 130 schools, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

Wednesday’s gathering on Capitol Hill was a far cry from the stadium blowouts that draw audiences of thousands. But it did see a few members of Congress own up to their identities as gamers.

Rep. Marc Veasey got back into gaming after going on hiatus once he got married. Now he sees it as a way to bond with his son, as long as they monitor screen time.

“You have to put limitations on it as a parent,” he says. “And that’s the toughest part, especially when you want to play too.”

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