Pittsburgh Playhouse photo courtesy of Point Park University.

A little over a year ago, when Mayoral Chief of Staff Dan Gilman and the Sports & Exhibition Authority first approached Stephen Tanzilli about chairing a competitive video games task force, he was skeptical.

“I had my reservations,” says Tanzilli, who led his own sports talent agency for a number of years before becoming Dean of the Rowland School of Business at Point Park University. “I was like, ‘Really? How can this be a thing?’”

Quickly, Tanzilli learned why competitive video gaming, or esports, is a thing.

According to the World Economic Forum, the esports industry had a worldwide audience of 380 million in 2018, and is projected to be worth more than one billion by the end of 2020. The game-focused streaming website Twitch, bought by Amazon for $970 million in 2014, has more subscribers than Netflix and HBO.

“The fastest sell-out at the Staples Center was not a Lakers game or Cher, it was an esports event,” says Tanzilli. “It’s the fastest growing industry in the country.”

As the industry has grown, major cities like Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas have invested millions in their local leagues in the last decade. Can esports be a profitable and viable industry in Pittsburgh? Tanzilli and his team are hoping to find out.

Their first test will come on May 11-12 at the university’s new Pittsburgh Playhouse Downtown, when the Rowland School of Business hosts the Steel City Showdown. At the event gamers will compete for prizes of up to $1,000 across several different titles including Super Smash Bros. and NBA 2K19.

Point Park’s partners for the event are the city’s first and only professional esports team, the Pittsburgh Knights, as well as the West Virginia-based charity, AbleGamers, which supports technology and services that provide people with physical disabilities access to video games.

“The hope is if this goes well, maybe we do something on a much larger basis down the road,” says Tanzilli.

Of course, building up the industry means more than just finding gamers. Like any professional sport, it requires a web of support staff and expertise. In an effort to fill these jobs, and keep up with the changing tastes of the student body, Point Park started offering an esports business class in the fall of 2018. The second semester of the course is now nearly over.

“There are opportunities in sponsorship, in ticket sales, in licensing,” says Tanzilli. “I think sooner than later we’ll see agents and collective bargaining start to play a role.”

Some parts of the new curriculum are based on existing courses at the University of Akron and Harrisburg University. But Tanzilli says the course at Point Park builds on ideas that are foundational to Point Park’s School of Sports, Arts & Entertainment Management.

“Representing an athlete or being an athlete is a short, short career,” says Tanzilli. “How do you maximize that short earning potential to go on and do great things?”

Surprising as it may sound, one answer may lie in the growing business of competitive video gaming.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.