Game on

Houston to host inaugural ESPN collegiate esports competition

ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

For the first time ever, ESPN is hosting the Collegiate Esports Championship, and it's chosen Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza to host it on May 10 to May 12 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

"We are honored ESPN has chosen Houston and Comicpalooza for their inaugural Collegiate Esports Championship," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First, in a release. "Each year we strive to provide unique experiences for our different pop culture fandoms. Esports is undoubtedly popular and expanding. Teaming up with ESPN to bring the CEC here allows us to engage our audiences in a completely new, exciting way."

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN.

"As universities continue to grow their esports programs at the varsity, non-varsity and club levels, we're proud to be providing a platform for national exposure and recognition of some of the most talented players in the collegiate space," says John Lasker, vice president of Digital Media Programming for ESPN, in a release. "Through our collaboration with top publishers in the industry, players will be able to showcase their talent in high-level competition on some of the most prominent esports titles."

Attendees and fans have access to the events with a Comicpalooza pass, but can also opt for the conference's Gaming Speed Pass for extra perks like reserved seating, a private lounge, and opportunities to meet the talent. Conference goers can also compete themselves in several different video games, according to the website.

Houston is a growing hub for esports. Mainline, a spin off company of Houston-based sports marketing company FanReact, launched this year to account for the growing presence of esports. Mainline's CEO, Chris Buckner, tells InnovationMap in an interview earlier this year that, especially because of this ESPN competition, other cities have their eyes on Houston for esports.

"I have been personally in contact with every major university in the city and they all are taking esports seriously," Buckner says in an interview. "It's actually a really exciting time for esports in Houston."

Technology is changing America's pastime, and the Houston Astros have the lead off. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Over the past decade or so, sports franchises have seen a boom in technology integration. The fact of the matter is that both the teams and the players need to tap into tech to have a competitive advantage on the field — and especially when it comes to the business side of things.

"Technologically advanced companies want to do business with technologically advanced companies," says Matt Brand, senior vice president of corporate partnerships and special events at the Houston Astros. "Old cats like me need to realize you have to stay current or else you're just going to get passed up."

Brand was the subject of a live recording of HXTV — the video arm of Houston Exponential — at The Cannon. He addressed several trends in sports technology, and shared how the Astros are approaching each new hot technology.

The Astros are pretty ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, Brand says, and the trick is keeping a pulse on potential game-changing technology far in advance of implementation.

"The things that we're developing now in 2019 and 2020 are the thing that are going to help us in 2024 and 2025," Brand says.

The approach to technology in sports is changing as younger players enter the scene.

"This generation of players want all the technology they can get," Brand says. "They want what's going on up to the day."

From esports to sports betting sites, here's what the hometeam has on its radar, according to brand.

The evolution of pitching technology

One aspect of the game that's been greatly affected by technology is pitching. Brand says that pitching coach, Brent Strom, is better able to do his job nowadays that there's better quality video and monitoring technologies. Brand cited the transformations of former pitcher Charlie Morton and current pitcher Ryan Pressly. Both saw impressive transformations in their pitching ability thanks to Strom and his technology.

"Brent has the ability to take technology and blend it with the craft," Brand says.

The players as industrial machines

One way the franchise thinks about its players is as machines — in the least objectifying way, surely. But Brand compares baseball players to major, expensive oil and gas machines, and in heavy industry, it's very common for a company to drop $30 million or more on a machine. Of course the company would schedule preventative maintenance and service appointments to protect their investments.

"We've got players now who are high performance machines," Brand says, citing players like Justin Verlander. "We want to make sure we have the best technology and the best care around them."

From doctors and nutritionists to the latest and greatest technologies, implementing the best practices is a good way to protect your assets.

Wearables and sleep technology

Another trend within sports is tracking sleep using technology. Wearable devices to track sleep and health are widely used, says Brand, but the Astros weren't comfortable with the constant monitoring.

"They feel like it's an invasion of privacy," Brand says. They feel like the data would be used against them when it came time to negotiate their contracts.

But prioritizing sleep is crucial in a sport where players travel across the country playing 162 games a season. Brand says investing in the players' sleep equipment is something they make sure to do.

Esports

Brand says, somewhat controversial, that esports is pretty low on the franchise's priority list, and there's one reason for that: Money.

"A lot of these sports teams aren't profitable right now," Brand says, noting that he knows that will probably change over the years.

While the teams themselves might not be making money, the number of users of video games makes for a different avenue to revenue.

"The platforms are what we see as profitable," Brand says, explaining how he's seen brands like Nike advertise in gaming apps.

"There's definitely a pathway to profitability, but esports means different things to different people," he says.

Sports marketing and betting

Looking toward the future, Brand says he sees movement coming in marketing and betting within sports.

With mobile devices in the hands of most sports event goers, brands have access to authentic, engaging content.

"Everyone with a phone is a producer of content, and a lot of brands want that content," he says.

Sports betting technologies have seen profitable success in other United States markets that allow it.

"Betting is the next biggest thing in sports," Brand says. "All the major leagues are saddled up with big money there. In Texas, it's illegal still, but it's coming."