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What Will It Take To Make Hawai?i A Player In eSports?

Casey Harlow

eSports is a billion dollar industry, and growing. Cities around the world are holding eSports tournaments, hoping to attract younger visitors and become major destinations for the industry. But what would it take for Hawaii to become a player in eSports?

eSports at its core is competitive video gaming. You versus a friend. Or your team versus another.

Although this has not changed, the environment around it has. eSports is now a billion dollar industry, that includes trainers, psychologists, announcers and event planners. Fans flock to tournaments to watch their favorite teams and players compete against each other.

These fans and tournaments have caught the attention of government officials in cities like Las Vegas and New York -- which both have become destinations for eSports.

"Arlington, Texas built out a massive eSports stadium for $10 million," says Sky Kauweloa, a PhD student at the University of Hawai?i at M?noa. He's one of the few academics in the country researching eSports.

"Atlantic City, New Jersey is looking to eSports as part of their overall platform of being kind of the game center in the East Coast. And saying that eSports could be another way to attract a younger, millenial-based crowd to their city."

But could Hawai?i get on this train?

"I think a very important, and probably significant, first step is to have a tournament here in Hawai?i. A large tournament, that is sponsored by an endemic gaming or technology company, would be the low hanging fruit in which we could immediately accomplish" - Sky Kauweloa

Credit Casey Harlow / HPR

So are there any tournaments coming to Hawai?i soon?

"We haven't been formally presented with any kind of opportunity yet," says Keith Regan, Chief Administrative Officer for the Hawai?i Tourism Authority.

Regan says an eSports tournament would benefit the state's tourism industry.

"Based on some preliminary research that we've been doing, the demographics are pretty good," said Regan. "The folks that travel and participate in eSports, either just by viewing or by participating in the games, are making pretty good money. I think there's a good opportunity to possibly tap into that market."

But some see the benefits of eSports stretching beyond tourism.

State Senator Glenn Wakai is one of them. He chairs the Senate's Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, and he's a member of its Technology Committee.

"We don't do enough to leverage tourism as a catalyst for other types of business opportunities," says Wakai. "eSports is kind of one of those opportunities. Our first crack would be to get tourists here for a convention. But really use that to grow a fundamental software game development industry here in the state."

Wakai sees eSports gaining traction at Hawai?i universities and high schools with classes and competitions -- all of which could fuel economic opportunities.

But there are serious hurdles. And that could slow tech expansion here . . . including in eSports.

"There are two fundamental changes that need to be developed," says Wakai. "One is broadband capacity. The second is cost of electricity."

Broadband is our internet infrastructure. It's the pipeline dictating how much, and at what speed, information gets to and from the islands. Wakai says the state's broadband capacity is limited, and efforts to improve it failed at the state legislature this year.

"It's not knowing what the future holds, and not preparing for it. We're too complacent here in the state."

"There's a South American cable that's going to Asia, and they're going to bypass us unless we provide the infrastructure to be able to plug and play in Hawai?i," says Wakai. "We really need to get going on beefing up our infrastructure so that we have the ability to do e-gaming, to watch Netflix, and everything else that society demands."

Wakai says one of the major hurdles for getting tech infrastructure measures approved is because lawmakers and stakeholders don't know what's needed in the future.

"We're all kind of happy with our ability to go on Facebook, and go to Instagram, and it functions now," said Wakai. "But as more and more demands are placed on our broadband capacity, it's not going to function. It's not knowing what the future holds, and not preparing for it. We're too complacent here in the state."

Wakai says he plans to reintroduce the measure to beef up Hawai?i's digital infrastructure in the next legislative session.

Despite the setback, Kauweloa says Hawai?i is in a prime position to take advantage of eSports.

"Activate recently came out with a statistic saying that in 2022, Asia-Pacific is going to be capturing a large portion of the revenue that the eSports industry is going to generate. Asia-Pacific, we're right in the middle of that."

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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