The difference between empathy and sympathy is a topic usually reserved for social workers. But it’s at the forefront of Sam Lin’s mind when he talks about his passion for video games.
A brand of competitive multiplayer video gaming known as esports, which has attracted hundreds of millions of players and observers, has changed the way its users perceive experience. Lin, a Baylor University student who leads the campus esports organization, has thought about this carefully.
“It’s like going to a football game or a basketball game,” he explained. “Yeah, you can have those highlight moments, but in my opinion, you don’t have the relatable moment where like, ‘Oh, I’ve played this game,’ or ‘I’ve played this game to that same level.’ I can understand exactly what they’re doing. I can be empathetic instead of sympathetic.”
Nexus Esports, in prime real estate at the 600 block of Columbus Avenue, has become Waco’s hub for a growing industry that on a global level boasts revenues of more than $900 million this year, according to market research. That represents an almost 40 percent jump from last year. And some 380 million people are expected to watch others play esports this year.
Lin visits the downtown spot once or twice a week for practices and matches with his teammates, like participants in any other sport would. Nexus Esports boasts 16 Xbox consoles, six PlayStation 4s and 27 computers that run the most current games. It also has virtual reality equipment, vintage games and trading card games.
Staffers compare its revenue model to a gym membership. For $29.99, members can visit any time during open hours of 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 2 a.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. The area is mostly full on Friday and Saturday nights, they said.
Claudette Jackson hosted her son Spencer’s birthday party there on a recent Saturday. She doesn’t agree with the culture of obsessive gaming — Nexus Esports sometimes holds overnight lock-ins ending at 7 a.m. — but she allows Spencer, 9, to play on weekends and holidays.
“You don’t have to do anything as a parent,” she said of the party. “You set up and they just play the whole time. Last time we did a sleepover — never, ever, ever again. This is, ‘Take my money, and let them have fun.’ ”
A few factors point to the rise of esports. For instance, many of the popular games are easily accessible on a variety of platforms to a generation raised on technology.
Fortnite, a shooter-survival game, is free for all users. In-game purchases are used by more active players. An entire culture surrounding Fortnite has emerged to the point that gamers are heading to rehab after becoming addicted to it.
Kirk Wakefield, the executive director of the Center for Sports Sponsorship and Sales in the Baylor marketing department, said the dopamine rush from shooting somebody in the game is addictive, and that reality should be recognized and managed.
“We regulate other addictive behavior, i.e., we don’t let you drink until a certain age,” he said. “Why are we giving you cellphones and other media and video games that can become addictive?”
Wakefield regularly interacts with industry honchos and compared the esports phenomenon to a sports fan emulating his or her favorite athletes.
“If you’re a golfer, it’s all the intricacies of every shot,” he said. “There’s something to think about and to calculate, and when you see somebody do it really well, and obviously we find some entertainment when it doesn’t go so well.”
Esports also builds community for people who might traditionally spend time at their homes playing games. Lin said there were 80 members who paid dues for his group this year, a number that doubled last year’s roster. Female students make up about one-third of the group, he said.
Nexus Esports offers deli items for users who spend their days there. The glass windows surrounding the space were an intentional choice in an effort to dispel stereotypes of what a gamer’s environment is.
“We really wanted to get away from the cave-like atmosphere,” said John Collins, who works at Nexus Esports. “Bright and open, and you can see everything. It’s more high-end, essentially.”
Last summer, the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board recommended more than $530,000 in streetscape and façade improvements for the development on Columbus Avenue. The city council later approved the funds, and Nexus Esports opened months later.
In September, Lansharx Gaming Center merged with Nexus Esports, combining the gaming worlds of Waco into one location.
Justin Thomas, another staffer, said the space caters to at-risk youth, a clientele with which he has related.
“I really relish the chance to work with them as well,” he said. “It feels really good. You can’t complain about this job at all.”
As the esports industry and accompanying technology continues to grow, enthusiasts say more and more gamers and watchers will join. Most professional basketball teams have their own NBA 2K teams, though revenue generation and marketing strategy is still being discussed.
“It’s the wild, wild West in terms of their models,” Wakefield said.
Twitch, a streaming service that allows people to watch others play video games, is a subsidiary of Amazon. Esports players often “plug” their Twitch accounts in the hopes of gaining followers, watchers and donations from those watchers.
And as technology advances, so does the performance, and the industry is continue to chip away at traditional sports.
“My personal opinion is that esports are the future of sports and that virtual reality is the future of video games,” said James Cotter, president of Baylor’s virtual reality club. “It might take a little bit, but I think virtual reality esports are the future.”