Inside Charlotte's World Of Professional Video Gaming
Kai Hickey works his fingers along the buttons of a gold-colored PlayStation controller, willing the car on his computer screen to careen into a large soccer ball, which soars into the air. Then, with the press of a button, he sends the car blasting skyward.
The high schooler senior is sitting in a South End co-working space that is the hub of Charlotte’s professional video game scene. He’s transfixed as he practices "Rocket League," a popular video game in which players maneuver rocket-propelled cars to play soccer in a virtual arena.
As Hickey’s car hurdles through the air, the ball loses momentum and starts to fall. He flicks the left thumbstick on his controller in an attempt to shoot the ball into the net, but the ball plummets to the ground.
Hickey mutters to himself, pops open a menu on his computer, and fixes an input error. Then he tries the same shot again. Success.
For the next several minutes, he repeats this motion over and over. To the novice viewer, it looks easy. But in the video game world, this is high-level stuff, and his skills and connections within the Charlotte esports scene are about to pay off big-time.
A Massive Industry
The world of spectator-friendly competitive video gaming, known as esports, has exploded in recent years, with global audiences and tournament prize pools that now rival those in some traditional sports. The industry is massive, bringing in nearly $950 million in revenue and just under 500 million viewers combined in 2020.
The biggest gaming tournaments often resemble a traditional sporting match: two or more individuals or teams compete against each other, with announcers providing commentary and analysis to audiences watching live at the tournament venue, and to the thousands or millions of people streaming the match on their home computers or on TV.
In Charlotte, this South End office building is where some of the biggest gaming action happens.
The sleek Tabbris coworking space is home to the Charlotte Phoenix professional esports team, and another esports-centric business, Stay Plugged IN.
The Charlotte Phoenix was founded in 2019, and has competed in pro leagues including World of Warcraft, "Apex Legends" and "Rocket League." It has 10 professional esports athletes who practice and compete as their full-time jobs, making money through sponsorships and winnings.
Stay Plugged IN is a recruiting service and skills development company that identifies the area’s most talented gamers and helps them land college scholarships.
Playing = Training
On this afternoon, the Tabbris office is buzzing as members of the Charlotte Phoenix and Stay Plugged IN work on gaming technique, edit YouTube videos and podcasts and chat about upcoming events and marketing efforts.
It’s a place that looks like it was plucked from Silicon Valley — casually dressed workers in T-shirts and jeans moving about in an open and well-lit space, with a ring of ready-to-use gaming PCs and a stocked bar.
On tournament days in non-COVID times, it comes alive with crowds. Today, it is relatively quiet. Hickey works as a digital content editor here when he’s not in school or studying.
Similar to traditional athletes, the best esports players can bring in huge paychecks, through tournament winnings, sponsorships and advertising, or online streaming revenue. But it takes a lot of hard work and practice.
And “practicing” does not mean just playing the game. Hickey spends five to eight hours some days repeatedly working on the same motions and mechanics, perfecting them until they have become basic instinct. Athletes understand this level of grind.
“It helps build that muscle memory over time, just like basketball,” Hickey said. “You sit there and shoot the same three over and over again, you sit there and do the same dribbling over and over again.”
Parents may roll their eyes at kids who spend hours in their rooms glued to video games, but for a growing number of young people, esports can be the means to a college scholarship.
Stay Plugged IN founder Rick Suarez has made it his mission to get more parents to understand this.
“I dove into (the business of matching players and colleges) because I saw how many scholarships were being given,” Suarez said.
In the 2018-19 school year, some 200 colleges in the U.S. offered $16 million in esports scholarships, more than a threefold increase since 2015, according to the National Association of College Esports.
Imagine Stay Plugged IN as a college sports recruiting service with talent evaluators and scouts that identify high school players across the country and place them at colleges with esports teams.
And it’s not just technical prowess with a controller or a keyboard that the scouts — and the colleges — are looking for. So Stay Plugged IN teaches students how to do things like edit videos, run a social media page, and use Adobe products.
‘CosmicFlippy’ Goes To College
Hickey is working to become an expert at all of that.
A lifelong gamer, he began playing "Rocket League" when the game launched in 2015, putting in some 300 hours on a PlayStation 4 at his home in Indian Trail before transitioning to a high-tech gaming PC. He started logging up to six hours a day, and his skills skyrocketed.
Notoriety among the "Rocket League" crowd followed. He’s known online by his gamer name, “CosmicFlippy,” and while he’s a kind and unimposing presence in person, CosmicFlippy terrorizes his opponents in the virtual arena. He is currently ranked in the top 2,000 players worldwide, out of millions, and has his sights set on cracking the top 100 in the near future.
With this growing talent comes the possibility of winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournaments, especially if he can find a good school or team to play for. But as his senior year arrived, he felt that time was running out.
“In my mind, I was on a timeline,” Hickey said. He worried he’d have to make a choice between a pro gaming career and college. Stay Plugged IN gave him the chance to do both.
Hickey created an esports club at his high school, Sun Valley High School, and brought members to a local tournament hosted by Stay Plugged IN and the Phoenix. Stay Plugged IN recognized Hickey’s skills — not only at gaming but also his video editing knowledge — and hired him as an intern while offering to network him to colleges around the country.
A year later, the connection paid off. Hickey landed a full-tuition esports scholarship to Columbia College in Missouri.
Putting Charlotte On The Map C
Could Charlotte one day be a national hub for esports?
Suarez and the Charlotte Phoenix leadership are trying to get there.
They envision fans and players traveling from around the world to compete at live events in packed stadiums, bringing attention and tourism dollars to Charlotte. And they want to be seen as a connector between young players and colleges and professional teams.
"We literally want to have a week-in and week-out presence here in Charlotte where kids are coming in literally to be seen by different recruiters on a consistent basis,” Suarez said. “And we want it to be an entertainment district where not only are you getting your fill for esports but you’re getting a taste of what Charlotte really is as a city.”
David Griffith is The Charlotte Ledger’s reporting intern.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission.