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E-Sports business booming in Memphis

As the E-Sports industry continues to evolve, Memphis is developing its own gaming community

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — E-Sports is an ever expanding industry, with fans, players and organizations across the globe, including in Memphis, where the 901 is home to communities, professional, amateur and even academic.

Grizz Gaming and new addition, Atreyo Boyd also known as Dimez, are just getting started. The Grizzlies official 2K League team traded for him right just in time for the start of the 5v5 season.

"I was so happy when I heard Memphis was a team I was coming to," said Dimez. "It's like, getting transferred to a school with you know, a few of your old friends or something like that."

Dimez is one of the most legendary players in the NBA 2K League. In fact, he's patient zero - Round one, Pick One in 2018 - the very first 2K League player ever drafted.

"I actually got to shake (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver's hands, you know what I mean? That was pretty dope," Dimez said.

Grizz Gaming is the very first pro esports team in the state of Tennessee. The 2K League is under the NBA umbrella and supports its players with salaries, benefits and housing similar to the G-League.

"The first couple years I was here, I spent a lot of time having to explain to people, 'what are eSports? What is an eSports League? What are these guys doing for a living?'" said Grizz Gaming General Manager, Lang Whitaker.

In year 6 of the league, Whitaker oversees the team compete for millions of dollars over the course of a season.

"We've had guys on this team who played here for six months and then use that money and went to college in the other six months and then came back here. So they didn't have to take student loans and that kind of thing," Whitaker said.

The 2K League is just one career path in Esports.

The Blue Angels may be the U.S. Navy’s most popular traveling attraction, but their Esports team is making its own waves.

"The Blue Angels, everybody knows, that they're the best of the best when it comes to flying," said Lt. Aaron Jones. "They’re just showing (audiences) of the awesome opportunities the Navy has. We're the exact same but in a little bit of more of a modern way. We play video games competitively."

Jones had been in the Navy for years, but in 2020 he got the chance to trade in his Navy Whites for an Esports blue jersey. Jones is captain of Goats and Glory, the Navy's official Esports team operating out of Memphis.

Much like the Blue Angels, they travel across the country, serving our country by generating interest for the Armed Forces playing video games.

"We show up at 8 a.m. in the morning, and we play video games till 4 p.m. Usually that's prepping for events we have coming up," Jones said.

Those include big tournaments for games like League of Legends, Overwatch and World of Warcraft. The 11 members of the team are full-fledged Navy sailors and truly the best of the best when it comes to video games beating out thousands of applicants in the Navy for the right to rep Guts and Glory.

Each branch of the military has their own Esports team.

While gaming eight hours a day is cool, Jones says like any soldier’s weapon, Esports is a Navy tool to connect with the next generation of sailor.

"It's crazy to think that Esports has grown this big to a point where even the military realizes like, 'hey, if we're going to connect with the next generation, Blue Angels are great. It's amazing to go watch. Little kids love it. Older folks love it. If we're going to hit that next generation over our shared hobby and our shared love, it's going to be eSports,'" Jones said.

If it's big enough for the U.S. Military, it's big enough for the University of Memphis.

The U of M just finished their first school year of the newly minted Esports undergraduate minor – but classes aren't so much about grabbing the controller.

"Right now, on the academic side, that that's not the direction that we've taken, it's more on the behind the scenes, the management, the business aspect of eSports," said professor Rhema Fuller.

Fuller teaches his students how to do things like organize Esports events and market them to sponsors. The minor includes six classes and 18 credit hours.

Fuller said the minor is meant to serve students who may already be in the sports and leisure management major in the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality & Resort Management.

"But then also we'll get kind of those management and business skills, the marketing promotion, that would be needed to work in that industry," Fuller said.

After class, students can squad up with the Memphis Esports club team.

Jonathan Brazely and Roddy Woods spend their time coaching up other students in games like Apex, Overwatch, and League of Legends. For now, they're a club of around 60 people, but they have bigger aspirations.

"Officially we're a club and we want to expand that to an actual sport because all these other colleges have sports as well," Brazely said.

The club said becoming an official team would included scheduled practices, coaches and more organization that would also help them find participants easier. They envision scholarships and the university's financial backing for equipment.

The Esports Club is grateful to the university for providing a space to gather and play their games in the student recreation center, but say it also offers up some challenges like bringing their gear from home, which opens them up to theft or damage.

"It would be better if the university could help out and kind of give us financial help, like getting some PCs, or consoles and stuff like that. So we don't have to feel obligated to bring our stuff and have the risk," Brazely said.

As things progress, Fuller hopes the two programs can work in harmony.

"I think, the academic side will progress and go as that gaming side does," Fuller said. "Esports club wants to put on this event. This is a great opportunity for the students in the classes to get hands on experience of managing, promoting, marketing the event."

Hopefully they blast their way to wins and careers in Esports too. Grizz Gaming's Whitaker is a prime example of someone who doesn't pick up the controller, but is still pivotal for a gaming organization.

"I always tell the parents, your kid gets in trouble - don't take away their video games like that could be their job, take away the books, "Whitaker joked.

"As long as you can understand Esports and understand it's a business and understand your role in it and find a role in it, there's lots of different ways you can have a career in eSports without actually playing the game."

There are Esports jobs in social media, marketing, promotion and plenty of other roles. Even Memphis high schools are getting into Esports. Christian Brothers High, Crosstown High, Collierville High, Harding Academy, Lausanne Collegiate School and Sheffield High all have or have had Esports teams.

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