Many of their peers are struggling to find marginal positions as wage-workers, but Aaron Oak and Julie Wagness — both 25 years-old — are braving the world of small business and self-employment. Instead of jobs they don’t want, they’re doubling down on a dream of doing what they love.
They want to open an eSports bar, an idea somewhere between a sports bar, a community center and a boxing gym, revolving around the profound and growing popularity of professional video gaming. Despite many reactionary prejudices, video games have been a popular medium for entertainment and competition for over 30 years. The kids that grew up playing them now have jobs and families of their own. And for many, the pastime of their youth has grown into the passion of their adulthood.
This passion achieves another dimension when video-gaming becomes a spectator sport. The eSports approach to gaming arose in South Korea in the late 90s with a fast-paced strategy game called "StarCraft." There professional players competed in front of enormous crowds, and broadcast television channels covered major tournaments. The game’s popularity skyrocketed and, with the adoption of "StarCraft" as an unofficial Korean national sport, interested audiences sprang up in Europe and North America. Soon other games began to edge into the growing eSports market.
Today the staggering popularity of these games seems less like the world’s best-kept secret and more like a reality that many business sectors simply don’t want to admit. Local gaming juggernaut Valve Software hosts an annual tournament in Seattle for their team-based strategy game "Dota 2." The grand prize? A million dollars.
Forbes reports that "League of Legends," a similarly team-based game, has 12 million daily players. That's significantly more active users than even such lucrative products as Instagram are able to boast. And the vast majority of those players sit squarely in valuable demographics that advertisers are struggling to reach through traditional platforms like network television.
Gosu eSports Bar and Lounge is Oak and Wagness’s attempt to foster this nascent eSports community here in Seattle. “I first posted a thread online, on reddit, trying to gauge interest for this," Oak explains, "and the outpouring of support was so immense, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Wagness was more cautious in the beginning: “I was skeptical at first. Money wasn’t coming in that much. The idea of starting a new business was scary. We made a deal that we would start an indiegogo campaign, and if that succeeded then we would go through with it.”
Oak laughs. “It failed pretty miserably, actually. But we got so much support, and we found some other investors that were interested, and it started to become a reality.”
One of the first investors to back Gosu was Wagness’ father. He wasn't easily convinced.
Oak recalls his pitch, “I put a powerpoint presentation on my iPad and talked him through eSports’ popularity, our business plans, all of it. And in the presentation was a video from The International [Valve’s 'Dota 2' tournament]. It was just a shot of the crowd during a match between some popular teams, and there was a big play, and the crowd just went insane. And that’s what got him; it wasn’t any of the information in the powerpoint, it wasn’t that 'League of Legends' has 70 million registered players. It was just that this kind of excitement and energy for what we’re doing is real. And the last slide said, basically, we need $65,000. A week later he said, ‘I can give you $25,000. Hopefully that will be a starting point for you guys.’”
Flush from the excitement of this initial investment, support from the community seemed inexhaustible. They quickly attracted four more investors, one an influential local restaurateur who would be a valuable mentor for two young people just learning the business. Even Riot Games, makers of 'League of Legends,' reached out to them, offering advice and support.
It seemed like the top of the world. Oak and Wagness were entering one of the most profitable industries in the world, moments away from becoming the sort of small business success story that politicians use as examples to explain economics to reporters.
But is there really a rabidly-enthused community of adult, normally-employed video gamers out there? Are they really just waiting for establishments like Gosu to spring up? Just waiting for lairs in which to gather and squander their disposable income?
One clue comes from Seattle’s own BarCraft, a long-standing tradition in which gamers meet at bars to watch professional "StarCraft" matches. In early April, BarCraft landed at the Auto Battery, a mid-sized bar in Capitol Hill with a small bevy of high-definition televisions.
It was distinctly standing room only. Oak and Wagness were there, mixing with the crowd and liberally dispensing pins, stickers and other promotional materials. The crowd was skewed in favor of the Y-chromosome, although not to the extent that one might assume, but nowhere was the stereotype of the awkward, socially inept video gamer. Most were in their late 20s or early 30s and many seemed to have come straight from the conclusion of a 9-5 white-collar work day. People laughed, introduced themselves and cheered on the televised "StarCraft" matches, as though it were any other sport.
Matt Wilson, who organizes BarCraft, was there. “The owners of this place hadn’t heard of BarCraft before,” Matt says. “But now that they see it, they want to host us again. They love it.” It’s not hard to see why. The bar is packed on a midweek night. The crowd is friendly and orders enough food and drink for an army.
Although BarCraft started in Seattle, it has become a phenomenon in its own right. BarCrafts as far abroad as the UK and Australia enjoy huge popularity, often drawing crowds of hundreds.
Oak and Wagness’s proposed Gosu Lounge would be a permanent home for these faithful multitudes; a place to watch matches, meet other eSports fans, even play in a tournament or join an amateur team. Unfortunately, their greatest troubles lie ahead: their primary investor abruptly backed away, and their other investors were contingent upon his involvement. Now they are left only with Wagness’ father’s $25,000 seed money, and a grim determination to succeed.
The only way forward is to find someone willing and able to recognize Gosu Lounge as an investment opportunity, and Oak and Wagness are running out of time to make that happen. “We’ve put all our savings, everything we have into this,” Oak says. “Realistically, we have about two to three months before we have no choice but to put everything on hold.”
For questions or inquiries about Gosu eSports Bar and Lounge, Aaron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org