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Pittsburgh Knights launches to bring pro esports to City of Champions

Aaron Aupperlee
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Pittsburgh Knights
Knights co-owner Rob Lee sporting an official Knights jersey with his gamer tag, Leonyx.
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The Pittsburgh Knights logo.
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James O'Connor, left, and Rob Lee are co-owners of the Pittsburgh Knights esports franchise.

There’s the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Penguins, the Pirates and, now, the Pittsburgh Knights.

A pair of Pittsburghers who grew up watching the city’s marquee teams launched the Pittsburgh Knights on Friday, an esports franchise they hope will grow to be as popular and profitable as big-league teams.

Co-owners James O’Connor, once among the top Counter-Strike players in the world and a sought-after coach, and Rob Lee, who founded a handful of successful esports franchises, said they want to build a strong franchise and fanbase modeled on what works for the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins and apply it to the booming world of professional video gaming.

“It’s going to be slow, but it will happen,” Lee said.

Esports is huge.

It might not be huge in Pittsburgh or the United States right now, but globally, esports has an enormous following. An estimated 60 million unique viewers online watched the final match of the League of Legends World Championship, played last month in China. More than 40,000 watched it live in the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium built for the Beijing Olympics.

Newzoo, a market research company focused on esports, estimated there are 191 million fans around the world. Revenues from esports are expected to reach $660 million this year, up $167 million from last year, and could top $1 billion by 2019, according to Newzoo.

And while the average viewing age of traditional sports is getting older, esports fans are younger. The age of the average professional baseball and football viewer increased four years from 2006 to 2016, while hockey viewers jumped seven years, according to Magna Global. The average MLB viewer is 57; NFL is 50, and NHL is 49. The average NBA viewer is 42, two years older than in 2006.

A majority of esports fans, 58 percent of the 191 million, are between 10 and 35 years old, according to Newzoo.

Lee and O’Connor said they want to field teams to play popular esports titles like Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, StarCraft and Super Smash Bros. Melee. They want to bring tournaments and conventions to the city. They even talk of one day building an esports stadium here or fielding an event large enough to sell out one of Pittsburgh’s venues.

Lee said establishing and growing the popularity of the Knights will show game developers, tournament promoters and others in the esports scene that Pittsburgh is open and serious about it.

“What we’re trying to do as the Knights is build up that infrastructure first and show that we have a following,” Lee said, adding it could take five to 10 years.

Lee is posting videos on YouTube documenting the creation of the Pittsburgh Knights.

The Pittsburgh Knights have been active since April. The franchise’s Super Smash Bros. Melee player, Stephen Abate, a Pittsburgh native, is ranked among the top 40 players in the world. The Knights fielded a PlayerUnknowns Battleground team based in Europe. Lee would eventually like to bring them to Pittsburgh.

“These kids play for Pittsburgh but these are kids that are playing on computers from the comfort of their home,” Lee said.

Its H1Z1 team is heading to Jonkoping, Sweden, for a tournament, according to the Pittsburgh Knights’ website. The franchise is considering taking on an all-women Counter-Strike Go team, Lee said.

The Pittsburgh Knights are based in Hazelwood, the neighborhood where Lee grew up. The pair turned the old library building on Monongahela Street into a PC bang, a gaming center for multiplayer games. The Pittsburgh Knights will also open Paragonyx, a studio for broadcasting games and creating video and social media content for the teams. The franchise will host tournaments, live streams and other events from Devils and Dolls, a bar on the South Side.

The franchise is hosting a launch party Friday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at 4901 Second Avenue in Hazelwood.

Lee said the Pittsburgh Knights initial investments tops seven figures but wouldn’t go into more detail. The franchise would like to raise more.

Fielding an esports team isn’t cheap. It costs teams $20 million to join the Overwatch League. A spot in League of Legends’ North American league costs $10 million. Professional esports players command salaries that can match professional sports players. Add in paying for a coach or coaches, travel and other expenses and seven figures doesn’t get a franchise very far.

Professional sports teams are taking notice of esports.

Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, will fund an Overwatch team in Boston. The Philadelphia 76ers bought team diginitas. The Miami Heat invested in Misfits, and the Houston Rockets hired a director of esports.

ESPN launched its esports vertical in January 2016.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are looking into esports but have made no commitments, team spokesman Tom McMillian said. The Steelers are, as well, but don’t have anyone on staff dedicated to it and are not planning to invest in a franchise or team, spokesman Burt Lauten told the Tribune-Review.

“We believe in the power of eSports and understand that gaming, and Madden in particular, is one of the ways in which our young fans are learning about the game of football,” Lauten wrote, referencing the popular football video game.

The Steelers were one of seven NFL teams to host a Madden Challenge event last year at Heinz Field and sent the local winner to the Madden Championship.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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