WORCESTER — By day, Justin M. Saboo is a full-time employee at Apple. By night, he returns to his home in Holden, boots up his console, and joins the world of professional gaming to stream, observe, and play.
Saboo, 25, is a professional electronic sports (eSports) coach who mentors gamers in video game competitions to win cash prizes and notoriety. And while he hasn’t made enough money off eSports to support himself full-time, the field is evolving to a point where he and many like him soon could.
That potential stream of earnings Saboo would like to tap into comes from sponsorships, competitions, and viewership through digital streaming platforms like Twitch and Youtube. These combined forces have caused the eSports industry — for coaches and players — to surge in recent years.
According to SuperData, a research group that analyzes video game metrics, the global eSports industry is estimated to be worth almost $900 million, with CNN predicting it to push past $1 billion by 2019. That number includes sponsorships, tournament winnings, and advertising. (The number does not include the video game market, which the online organization Statista estimates is worth closer to $17 billion in the U.S). Viewership of professional players is expected to climb from 214 million people to 303 million by 2019.
“Back when I started, there was no real profit to it,” Mr. Saboo said. “It was just a risk, to be honest. It was a bunch of people getting together just to see who was the best. It wasn’t until a few years down the road when we started to see actual profit.”
Mr. Saboo has spent the past few months on the sidelines watching this shift in eSports, particularly with his preferred video game series, a first-person shooter called Halo. Mr. Saboo began his gaming career in 2004, at the age of 14, playing the game for small pools of money, and soon transitioned into a coaching role. He’s participated in gaming competitions since, such as the third annual ESPN-sponsored Winter X Games this past January, which sported a $30,000 prize pool for Halo. Before long, he hopes to be back at those tournaments leading a team of players, calling the shots and devising strategies mid-game.
Mr. Saboo estimates some players and coaches make around $2,000 a month from competing or streaming gameplay online, with high-profile and agency-backed athletes often netting triple that. Most of these players devote upward of 10 hours a day toward gaming, sometimes more if a competition is coming up.
As more people crowd into professional gaming looking for their big break, media companies are starting to take notice. This winter, Major League Baseball bought streaming rights from Riot Games, which owns League of Legends, for around $200 million over two years. League of Legends held its world championship match-up at Madison Square Garden the month before and sold out the venue. Boston was home to a global Defense of the Ancients 2 (commonly just called DOTA 2) tournament this winter, sporting a $1,000,000 prize for the winning team, and smaller cash hauls close to $500,000 for runners-up. The Kraft Group, a business conglomerate that owns the New England Patriots, and sports mogul Mark Cuban, have also invested in the industry.
But for now, that eSports presence is scarce in Central Massachusetts. Mr. Saboo said only a handful of players and coaches are based locally, since most have migrated to larger cities, such as Sacramento; Charlotte, N.C.; and even Boston, to be closer to established agencies and global competitions. If eSports is to be more prevalent in smaller cities, independent gamers and development firms need incentive to stick around, he said.
Worcester is building itself to be a gaming center. In 2011, The Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI) was established on Becker College’s campus to help students, faculty, and entrepreneurs make sense of the emerging world of eSports from a development standpoint.
“We make the games they might play someday,” said Timothy M. Loew, executive director for the institute.
Rather than offering its own courses, the Becker-based institute serves more as a hub for gaming, harboring programs that connect firms and partners from around the region with aspiring students. Mr. Loew hopes to soon expand the institute’s reach and capabilities with a recent boost from federal funding, and a scheduled move into a new building on Becker’s campus next fall. The new building would also allow the institute to increase its activity from 12 weeks of the year to around 50.
“Ultimately, our goal is to get more games made in Massachusetts, and get more companies started,” Mr. Loew said.
Other schools, like the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have bolstered that cluster of gaming companies in New England through education. And so far, game development companies like Petricore in Worcester and Disruptor Beam in Framingham have found success setting their roots in the region.
College eSports clubs are also fostering innovation. Willis Li, a gamer who has played in multiple online tournaments for non-cash prizes in recent years, runs the eSports committee at Becker College. By organizing local teams and playing competitively, Li hopes to spread awareness of eSport’s growth on campus. And while he doesn’t think eSports will financially support the average gamer anytime soon, he says it’s moving that direction.
“It is still such a new and successful culture that many of the people entering the scene are usually intimidated,” Mr. Li said. “[But] the number of spectators and attendees for tournaments are increasing, [and] there are more sponsorships being handed out than ever.”