Credit: Courtesy of The Overwatch League

Wearing a black T-shirt and black Nike shorts, Johnathon Fields walks from his apartment to a nearby Starbucks on an early September evening for a quick Frappuccino fix. He’s made this trip several times since moving to D.C. in April. There isn’t anything notable about his presence, no reason for him to interact with anyone, really, but shortly after entering the coffee shop, a man behind the counter he doesn’t recognize shouts, “Hey, JT!” Another screams, “Green!” at him in what he describes as a “demon voice.” 

Fields doesn’t know how to react. “This is not real,” he remembers thinking. “I’m just in Starbucks trying to get a Frap. This is not real.”

On Twitter, Fields is a well-known persona who goes by the handle @DemonJT_ and has more than 16,300 followers. Those who have listened to him online know that he often screams, “Green!” in that same voice as the Starbucks employee. He’s not a complete unknown. But this moment, this unexpected dose of reality, is different than any of the attention he’s received through social media.

The 25-year-old Chicago native is getting a taste of mainstream fame. And for something that society has viewed as more of a time-wasting hobby than a viable career path, or even a sport. Fields is a professional esports player for Wizards District Gaming, an NBA 2K team owned by local sports magnate Ted Leonsis. He is part of the new breed of professional athletes that are being paid to play video games. Every team in the NBA 2K League pays $35,000 to their first round draft pick for the six-month season and $32,000 for the other five players. Housing is also provided.

As esports becomes more accepted as a mainstream sport, professionals like Fields can only expect their profile to grow. Wizards District Gaming concluded its inaugural NBA 2K League season in mid-August, and the team selected Fields in the first round of the league’s draft in April. The Leonsis-led Monumental Sports and Entertainment also has controlling interest in Team Liquid, a multi-regional professional esports organization that oversees several teams.

Earlier this month, local entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Ein purchased a D.C.-based franchise in The Overwatch League, which runs a professional esports competition for the enormously popular Overwatch first-person shooter video game. The team, Overwatch DC, will play its inaugural season in 2019.

Owners of traditional sports teams like Leonsis and Ein are banking on the prediction that esports is the future and that D.C. will be a key player in that universe. 

“Esports is far and away the fastest growing platform in the world of sports,” says Ein, who owns the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis (and, full disclosure, Washington City Paper). “Most traditional sports are declining or flat. Esports is exploding. The growth, by any measure—participation and viewership—is showing significant double-digit growth.”

Marketing research company Newzoo predicted in a February 2018 report that revenues for the global esports economy will hit $905 million this year, a 38 percent increase from 2017.

When Ein asked recent U.S. Open women’s champion Naomi Osaka to come down early to practice for her Kastles match this summer, the 20-year-old told him she couldn’t. She was part of the sold-out crowd watching The Overwatch League Grand Finals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Tennis would have to wait.

The two-day event drew an estimated global average of 861,205 viewers per minute across TV and streaming platforms, with a U.S. average of 289,175 viewers per minute, according to L.A. Biz. Forty-five percent of the U.S. audience (129,792) fell into the highly coveted 18-to-34 age demographic.

Video games are no longer relegated to basements, played among enthusiastic hobbyists. Rebranded as esports, it’s a lucrative business and an in-demand sport.

“I think for the longest time there’s been this debate whether esports is a sport, is it not a sport. You can go on Twitter after major esports event, people angrily tweeting one way or another. From our perspective, truthfully it doesn’t matter,” says Grant Paranjape, the director of esports for Monumental Sports and Entertainment. “It’s a new, innovative form of entertainment. It’s highly engaging and captivating to millions of people—not just millions of people, but the key demographic for a lot of brands out there.”

Johnathon Fields Credit: Courtesy NBAE/Getty Images

Paranjape, 24, didn’t grow up as a sports fan in Birmingham, Michigan. Instead of going to Detroit Red Wings games, he would play video games with his friends on the Nintendo 64 console. Paranjape also played World of Warcraft competitively throughout high school, before going to college to study neuroscience. Because of this, he sees himself  “as sports owners’ worst nightmare, to some degrees.” Playing and watching sports were not a priority for him.

“There are a lot of people like me, who play video games as a primary form of entertainment,” says Paranjape, who earned an MBA from Tulane University at 22. “Esports is a good vehicle to reach a lot of people like me and do it in a meaningful way.”

Mainstream media is slowly catching on. Jacob Wolf got into esports about eight or nine years ago and played Call of Duty at “a pretty high level online.” He then jumped into  the world of League of Legends, another popular video game with a die-hard fanbase. 

Wolf started writing about esports as a freelancer four years ago, when coverage was usually limited to niche websites. A few years later, in spring of 2016, ESPN contacted him. The media giant was launching an esports site and wanted Wolf to be a staff writer. He’s been at ESPN since, and is considered one of the biggest names in esports media.

“The audience is out there, and they deserve coverage, want coverage,” says Wolf, 21. “It’s important for us to be there.”

In D.C., The Washington Post has tapped Mike Hume to be the assignment editor that handles esports. Previously, Hume (a friend and former colleague of this reporter) edited coverage of professional football and the local NFL team for the paper. 

At a time when sports departments, and newsrooms in general, around the country are shrinking, it’s important to cover subjects that are seeing growth and have an engaged audience, says Hume.

“If you’re a sports department, you need to be aware of that,” he adds. “Here, we have a very ripe growth opportunity.”

The professionalization of esports has been an exciting development for longtime video game fans in the area. And the fact that teams and leagues are coming to D.C. is an added bonus. 

Jared Brody, a 26-year-old from Silver Spring, has been to a number of Super Smash Bros. tournaments over the last decade, honing his skills in competitions around the region. More recently, he started playing and streaming Overwatch on Twitch, the Amazon-owned live streaming video platform that has become a popular way to watch gamers compete.

One of his roommates is into NBA 2K and plans to attend watch parties for Wizards District Gaming, and both are excited about the arrival of the Overwatch DC team. D.C. may not be as well-known for its esports scene as some cities in California, where many video game companies are based, but Brody believes it’s only a matter of time before the District gets there.

“It seems like it’s up and coming,” he says.

Kay Kennedy of Springfield has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined. She’s a professional cosplayer—short for “costume play” in which people dress as fictional characters—and has her own streaming channel on Twitch. She’s been working on a costume for the Overwatch character Junkrat for years and is currently finishing up her Mercy costume.

The more mainstream esports has become, the more opportunities and attention Kennedy, who goes by the name Byndo Gehk online, receives. And she no longer needs to explain what she does for a living—at least not as often. People are starting to understand and catch up to her world.

“I think it’s opening everyone’s mind a little bit more,” says Kennedy, 27. “It’s easier for us to engage with a new audience coming in.”

Having more eyes on esports, and the professionalization of it, also means issues that plague the gaming world will be magnified. Women in esports have had to deal with harassment and misogyny to the point that some choose not to speak at all during voice chats in video games, Kennedy says. The culture of the angry male video gamer, she hopes, will slowly fade as esports becomes more mainstream.

“Everyone has to be professional,” says Kennedy. “Just like any other sport, the players will get in trouble if they act out, do something uncouth. … That has to be normalized too.”

On the top center of poster board ads for the soon-to-be-opened Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8 is the word “ESPORTS,” featured prominently in the same size and font as the words, “BASKETBALL” and “MUSIC.”

This is by carefully researched design. Events DC, the convention and sports authority for D.C. that co-developed the arena, built the 4,200-seat venue with esports in mind.

The St. James, a 450,000-square-foot sports and wellness complex that recently opened in Springfield, also plans to host esports events. 

“It has been a really big deal for us. We look at some key, strategic initiatives for our organizations that can come in the form of building new venues or new market segments, and esports was at the forefront of the new market segment,” says Gregory O’Dell, president and chief executive officer of Events DC.

Like with mainstream sports, the idea and hope behind those who run esports franchises is that the community will rally around the teams. They believe that fans will buy team merchandise and feel passion for local esports players the same way they do for local athletes like John Wall, Alex Ovechkin, or Elena Delle Donne. And that they will watch the teams, both online and in person, cheering loudly alongside thousands of fellow fans.

“It is so tremendously exciting. It really does feel like we’re in a middle of a revolution of people not just watching screens but participating,” says Overwatch DC assistant general manager Kate Mitchell.

Eventually, if esports continues to grow the way fans, media members, and team owners expect, and the D.C. teams continue to build an audience, professional players like Fields will find it difficult to blend in during their daily routines. In some ways, it’s already happening.