Andrew Curley has been into esports since before the name was even coined. As a kid, he played Super Smash Bros. every weekend. Gathered with his friends as they button-mashed their way through endless virtual brawls, he never dreamed that playing video games could be a career.

Andrew’s journey has all the features of a good game: exploration, discovery and a lot of hard work spent on leveling up. With degrees in history and literature and “no idea what to do with them”, Andrew found himself on a “cliché 20-something solo road trip” that led him to a friend’s home in Miami. One day, she asked him to help organize a Dungeons & Dragons tournament for a group of first-time players.

“I started that evening with a bunch of complete strangers, and we ended up playing until 5 a.m.,” he recalls. “By the end, we were cheering, clapping and hugging each other like old friends. After that, I knew I wanted to give that kind of experience to people for a living.”

The next step was to return to school. “I couldn’t just show up at a studio and say ‘I love gameshire me,’” Andrew, a ball of energy behind Harry Potter wire-frame glasses, says.

His gaming education began in 2015 at SMU’s video game development program, SMU Guildhall, ranked the No. 1 game design program in the world by the Princeton Review in 2017. Part of the SMU-in-Plano campus, the founders and faculty of SMU Guildhall include industry icons and veterans, and its more than 700 graduates now work at game-design studios worldwide.

While Andrew envisioned himself as a designer, Guildhall faculty members Myque Ouellette, Steve Stringer, Mark Nausha and John Slocum helped him discover his talents as a game producer who helps manage the business of esports.

“I was well suited to creating a good social environment—at making sure everyone is happy and has bought into the project,” Andrew says. He’s tasked with everything from building a creative team, to keeping the project on schedule (and budget), to managing relationships with contractors and license holders.

Video game and online tournaments have a long history, both organized and otherwise. Everywhere gamers gather, they compete and watch each other play. Regulated tournaments offering cash prizes to victorious players sprang up in North Texas as early as the 1990spioneered by Dallas-based iD Software and the massive popularity of their flagship franchises, DOOM and Quake.

More recently, Riot Games’ 2016 League of Legends World Championship attracted nearly 60 million viewersmore than the NBA Finals that year. The Valve Corporation amassed a prize pool of nearly $25 million, the largest in history, for the 2017 edition of The International, a tournament based around Valve’s own Dota 2 title. Even the NFL is participating in EA Sports’ 2018 Madden NFL online tournament, where every team chooses a top gamer from its own fan base to represent the franchise in an esports version of the Super Bowl.

Live streaming platforms, such as Twitch.TV and YouTube Gaming, are driving rapid growth in an entertainment sector that promises to be enormously profitable but is far too young to have much formal business structure.

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Last year, companies and venture capitalists invested about $485 million in the burgeoning industry, which returned nearly $700 million in revenuean increase of 41.7 percent over 2016, according to Amsterdam-based market intelligence firm Newzoo. Game studios invested $116 million in building, updating and improving their productsbut they achieve most of their own esports gains indirectly, often through sales of the game itself.

As a gamer and fan, Andrew has always known that people love video game tournaments and watch parties. While working on his thesis, he discovered that Overwatch viewers love these events for many of the same reasons people love traditional sports.

“There’s this shared emotion when you watch and respond live online, and experience it with millions of other people when something amazing happens,” Andrew says. “Video games are designed for spectacle, and when thousands of viewers react at once, it’s like an explosion. It’s a big, crazy feedback loop.”

The cinematic spectacle of a great video game and the human interest in watching elite competitors are what fans love most about Overwatch he says, and these factors correspond directly to higher consumption levels. Now a product manager for Daybreak Games in San Diego, Andrew is applying his insights about what draws viewers—and revenue—to help guide the company’s strategy as it develops its own esports league.

Overwatch tournament at Blizzcon. Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Esports live and grow in online spaces where social media and shared links fuel the fandom, Andrew points out. “You can make meaningful connections with your favorite players online. You can get really invested in ‘your’ teams through those interactions,” he says.

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These connections are potentially profitable, which is why Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Crescent owner John Goff recently purchased a majority stake in compLexity Gaming. A 14-year-old professional esports team with more than 120 tournament championships in games ranging from HALO to League of Legends, the compLexity squad has moved from Houston to The Star in Frisco, where they now share office space with America’s Team.

Andrew has enjoyed watching esports grow from a niche hobby into a thriving industry. “Part of the appeal is that it’s more accessible,” he says. “There aren’t that many kids who have the physical attributes or special abilities to be professional athletes in traditional sportsbut they know how to play games, and they know how to get better at them. Doing that for a living is a dream that just feels more attainable.”

But he’s never forgotten the weekend tournaments he loved as a kid.

“You can’t have an esport without a passionate community, and independent competitions help feed that,” he says. “With the big money coming in, it will be important not to lose the grassroots.”

Originally published in Plano Profile’s March 2018 issue.

Kathleen Tibbetts

Kathleen is a writer, editor and social media practitioner in SMU’s Office of Public Affairs. As beat reporter for SMU Guildhall at SMU-in-Plano, she sometimes gets paid to play video games in the name...