Even if you don’t consider yourself a “gamer,” you’ve probably played a video game at some point in your life. Whether it was your first time picking up an N64 controller and turning friends into enemies with a round of Mario Kart or something fast-paced like Halo or Call of Duty, games can be massively entertaining.

Tracing its history back to Pong, released in 1972, gaming has become a worldwide phenomenon. According to the Global Games Market Report for 2017, the industry as a whole will rake in a whopping $107 billion before year’s end. To put this into a little more perspective, the video game industry made twice as much money as the movie industry did in 2013, and it’ll nearly triple it in 2018.

“The video game industry made twice as much money as the movie industry did in 2013, and it’ll nearly triple it in 2018.”

Last year, the League of Legends World Championship Finals sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles in just under an hour. As video games have moved from the niche corners of society to become mainstream, their acceptance and user base have grown right alongside their popularity, with more than 1.2 billion players worldwide.

All of this hype and popularity has lead to another area that many people never thought possible — the world of eSports. Though gaming tournaments have been held since the days of arcade games, in the last couple of decades, the eSports industry has become yet another behemoth in the entertainment world, netting about half a billion dollars last year.

Though the eSports world is mostly dominant in large cities around the world like LA, Seoul and Cologne, Germany, Jacksonville is no stranger to the scene. At gaming events around the city like GAAM and Wasabicon, you can see local players competing in tournaments for rewards or prize money.

Tom Croom, CEO and president of Green Mustard Entertainment, Inc. who puts on Wasabicon, said he was first introduced to the concept of eSports (before there was a name for it) way back in late ‘80s. As someone who has watched the gaming world grow from the ground up, he thinks there’s one reason for the recent rise in popularity and acceptance — money.

“People are taking eSports more seriously for the same reason they take other major sports seriously — the cash behind it,” Tom said. “Since 2011, over $100 million has been awarded in eSports competitions for Dota 2.”

While some people may not understand the concept of an eSports “athlete,” there’s no denying the dedication and skill of the top players around the world for various titles like Smite, League of Legends, Starcraft and Counterstrike.

“As video games become more mainstream, their acceptance and user base have grown right alongside their popularity, with more than 1.2 billion players worldwide.”

Challenging the typical definition of an athlete, pro gamers compete on an entirely different level than your friend who claims they can “destroy you in Madden bro.” The top athletes and teams in the eSports world are serious when it comes to competition, and with prize pools now in the hundreds of millions, they can also dedicate their careers solely to the sport.

Cliff Comastro, president and CEO of GLHF Game Bar in downtown Jax, is one local who helps to put on eSports events locally … and he even competes. He thinks the public perception of an eSports athlete in the U.S. is getting better as the industry becomes more widespread.

“In North America, people are still trying to grasp the whole idea of ‘eSports,’” he said. “… these players are dedicating their lives to becoming the best at what they do. These players still practice, train and travel across the world to compete for thousands to millions of dollars. They also receive money from sponsors just like your traditional ‘athlete.’”

Much like other traditional athletes, eSports competitors prep for their events with training and planning, even hosting practice games with other teams or watching footage from past events.

“The core element in all sports are the same: practice and repetition,” Tom said. “In soccer, you scrimmage other teams. In eSports, you practice against other players. In football, you memorize and repeat a play. In eSports, you memorize and repeat key moves. It’s all muscle memory and focus … but with different muscles.”

Over on the Westside of town, Dustin Gartenbush, the owner of Video Game Rescue, hosts events every week for local competitors to win prizes.

“While some people may not understand the concept of an eSports ‘athlete,’ there’s no denying the dedication and skill of the top players around the world.”

“Video Game Rescue was the primary supporter of Jax SMASH Weekly Tournaments at our venue since the VGRcade opened in 2015,” Dustin said. “Each Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., the SMASH [Super Smash Bros.] Community gets together to play competitively for prizes.”

Thanks to people like Dustin, Tom, Cliff and others like Ryan Thompson who puts on GAAM, the world of eSports is rapidly becoming accepted by Americans. With hundreds of billions of dollars supporting the world of gaming, don’t be surprised if you see future competitions hosted on ESPN alongside football.