N.C. State takes first steps to build up North Carolina esports ecosystem
North Carolina State University's Rainbow Six Siege esports roster.
Provided by Esports at NCSU

N.C. State takes first steps to build up North Carolina esports ecosystem

How North Carolina is making itself more attractive to tournament organizers

Jason Saine has been a gamer ever since he got an Atari 600XL as a kid. At just about every stage of his life, gaming has been his go-to way to spend his free time.

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In college, Saine and his friends would play out Madden tournament brackets written on a wall. Around 2004, while working as a firefighter, his wife bought him an Xbox for his birthday so he could play Halo online with his co-workers from the fire station.

Even now that he’s a representative in the North Carolina General Assembly, Saine loves to wind down at night by playing games like Call of Duty. As a result of his extensive gaming background, Saine was happy to oblige when his son, Jackson, asked if they could attend the Fortnite World Cup in July of 2019.

The whole Saine family made the trip from Lincolnton, North Carolina, to New York City for Epic Games’ battle royale tournament. Though he loved the competition, what caught Saine’s attention even more was the amount of money he saw attendees spend at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.

“I think to myself while we’re there, ‘Man, we really should have this in North Carolina, especially with Epic Games being located in Cary, North Carolina,’” Saine said. “That got me back into gaming hardcore because I got really excited about it.”

Since then, Saine has advocated for North Carolina to invest in esports. As a result, the state government has given North Carolina State University a $16 million grant for esports-related development and has instituted a fund to subsidize video game tournament production costs in order to make the state more attractive as an esports destination.

Esports at North Carolina State University

Esports are already an important part of student life at N.C. State. Currently, the university’s Esports Club includes teams for VALORANT, League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League and Smite, along with a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate scene that largely functions independently from the rest of the club.

N.C. State’s Rainbow Six Siege roster is currently considered the best collegiate team in the nation. They won this year’s preseason bracket and are one of only three undefeated teams in the regular season.

Yet, according to Esports Club president Avinash Sukhramani, a better representation of the club is its Discord server, which includes between 300 and 400 active members.

“Esports at N.C. State is, first and foremost, a community before we’re an esports team,” Sukhramani said.

N.C. State is located in Raleigh and makes up one point of the Research Triangle, along with Duke University in Durham and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The region is home to campuses for technological powerhouses like Google, Epic Games and Lenovo, and is slated to host a campus for Apple.

With more than 36,000 students, N.C. State is also the largest university in North Carolina and has a strong emphasis on science, technology, mathematics and engineering. So, when the Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau advocated for an esports arena to be built in the area, N.C. State stood out as the ideal candidate.

“All these giant companies opening up in the area allows for infrastructure, allows for people to move here and allows for things like esports to thrive when technology is thriving already,” Sukhramani said.

In addition, Raleigh has already hosted major esports events, including the Six Major Raleigh 2019 and the Halo Championship Series Kickoff Major in December of 2021. N.C. State itself has been the site for regional Smash Ultimate tournaments like Just Roll With It! 12 and The Peabnut Formal.

The $16 million investment

Sukhramani learned about N.C. State’s $16 million grant “through the grapevine” shortly before the official announcement in February.

“When I saw the actual figure, I said, ‘Holy s***!’” Sukhramani said. “I jumped up from my computer, I called everyone I knew. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It’s unreal being at this place at this time that it’s happening.”

N.C. State’s vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer, Marc Hoit, was selected to spearhead the school’s esports initiatives. He said esports can foster important skills in students who participate.

“The majority of the games and the competitions require great teamwork, great strategies, good communications, good planning,” Hoit said. “[These are] things that we want all of our students to graduate with and all of our folks that go out into the business world to have.”

Hoit said he doesn’t expect the new arena to be merely a competition space, either. He said it will also have the potential to provide a diverse array of educational opportunities for students in fields like STEM, psychology, health and training for competitive gamers, and event organization and production.

N.C. State’s $16 million grant will be split between two projects. The first is a $12 million arena, which is slated to be the largest collegiate esports facility in the United States. The current largest, Full Sail University’s “The Fortress,” cost only $6 million.

While N.C. State’s esports arena will not be the first of its kind in the state, it will dwarf the others. For example, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has a $2.4 million budget for equipment, technology and marketing for the esports facility it is currently building. According to Sukhramani, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Gaming Arena cost around $500,000 (though UNC declined to confirm this number before the time of publication).

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the Carolina Gaming Arena,” Sukhramani said. “I’m not going to diss it by any means. But, it’s tucked away in the bottom of a dorm. It is not the central figure on campus at all.”

North Carolina State University's Overwatch eports roster
N.C. State’s Overwatch roster | Provided by Esports at NCSU

Reaching beyond Raleigh

The second half of N.C. State’s esports investment is called the “mobile arena.” This $4 million truck will carry all the equipment necessary to run a small esports event. As a result, it will be a resource that people throughout North Carolina can request in order to host tournaments without traveling to Raleigh.

Benefiting all of North Carolina was on Saine’s mind when he crafted the Esports Industry Grant Fund, which was included in the most recent state budget.

Modeled after the Film and Entertainment Grant Program, this fund will allow tournament organizers who host events anywhere in North Carolina to recover up to 25% of their production costs, as long as those costs exceed $250,000. Currently, the state government is prepared to dish out up to $5 million per year on esports events.

“Hopefully there’s three or four [major tournaments] that come and gobble up those dollars and we’ll look at the next iteration of it,” Saine said. “What I hope to show is that we exhaust it fairly quickly because we’ve brought in these productions. Then, I’m going to go back to my colleagues and say, ‘See? We’ve tripled, quadrupled, multiplied that investment.’”

Saine said a major tournament organization team has already come to visit Raleigh since governor Roy Cooper signed the Esports Industry Grant Fund into law in November of 2021.

“They already thought about Raleigh because of the previous tournaments,” Saine said. “But now they say, ‘Well, we know you can host them. What’s in it for us?’ This grant will make that more attractive. When these facilities are built, we’ll be that much more attractive.”

After on day, HCS Raleigh Kickoff Major is the most-watched Halo event of all time.
The main stage at the HCS Kickoff Major in Raleigh | Provided by Halo Esports

The North Carolina esports ecosystem

Saine said he believes the benefits of North Carolina’s recent esports investments will extend beyond the immediate economic impact of individual tournaments. If North Carolina can establish itself as a premier esports destination, Saine said the state will be better able to recruit workers looking for careers in the industry.

“You end up recruiting residents into the state who, by definition, in the work that they’re doing, are of higher income,” Saine said. “It’s kind of a rising tide raising all boats. When you have that qualified workforce with that disposable income, they’re re-investing in the community.”

Saine also said he believes North Carolina’s low corporate income tax rate will make it more appealing to esports production companies than higher-tax states like California. North Carolina’s corporate tax rate is currently 2.5%, the lowest of any state that levies such a tax, and it intends to phase the tax out by 2030.

Hoit’s 10-year vision for the N.C. State esports arena is that it will be only one part of a larger ecosystem. He said he expects venues like the PNC Arena and the Raleigh Convention Center to house larger tournaments, while additional venues pop up for smaller events.

“You have pee-wee football,” Hoit said. “Well, why don’t we have middle school esports and the appropriate venues?”

As the esports ecosystem begins to develop, starting with N.C. State’s arena, Saine said it will only continue to draw more people to North Carolina’s budding gaming and technology industries.

“I think as we use that to attract more communities that haven’t been involved prior to esports, but more importantly STEM, we start developing that very diverse workforce,” Saine said. “I always want to be a state where a company looks at moving and says, ‘You’ve got the workforce we need. They’re well-educated, they’re adaptable on the fly.’”

Author
Image of Dylan Tate
Dylan Tate
Dylan Tate is an alumnus of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a gaming journalist with a love for Nintendo esports, particularly Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon.