The Journal Gazette
 
 
Thursday, May 12, 2022 1:00 am

Creating pro esports league

Engineering students see local potential

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

It may seem like Purdue University Fort Wayne students Isaac Wendel and Jaden Hullinger are chasing a pipe dream with their esports business plan.

But they figure somebody said the same things about Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sam Walton and Mark Zuckerberg as nobody gave their ideas much thought until they made them work.

Wendel and Hullinger have started 260Widow Gaming in an attempt to organize all the area's high school and college esports players and maybe push Fort Wayne gamers to a professional level.

And that's essentially the best definition of what the sophomores, who grew up in Ohio want to try, at least compared with a traditional business startup. It's a new idea that is hard for anyone over 25 to contemplate because it's so atypical.

“As soon as we started playing esports for PFW, it was one of those things where we started looking at the professional scene,” Wendel said. “What would it be like to do that for a living? Why can't we?”

But there were no professional organizations within 200 miles, even though PFW, the University of Saint Francis, Indiana Tech, Manchester University and several other Indiana colleges are building esports programs. Now, the high schools are the next big growth area.

Esports are organized leagues built around online gaming (traditional video games), which grew in popularity about five years ago. Now there are state high school championships, college conferences and national championships. There are scholarships available, and the professional money doubles or triples each year, led by YouTube channels and huge competitions that draw large crowds.

Hullinger and Wendel are both 20-year-old engineering majors who believe they have found an opportunity. They are basically starting an expansion franchise that requires little financial startup costs but plenty of hard work, inspiration and hope. In some ways, they aren't sure what it will take to make a successful organization because no one has tried something similar, at least not around northeast Indiana.

There's no physical location, no building or home office because all eight people involved are working out of their homes on laptops. The biggest costs so far are buying 500 stickers to promote awareness. Among the eventual goals is to host a major competition, possibly at Memorial Coliseum.

Hullinger and Wendel don't know if they can get this done, but they also don't know that they can't. They prefer to think positively.

“I don't think I've ever seen one like this,” Hullinger said. “The closest thing to a community with one like this is based out of Denver. It's hard for most people to see it, but with the esports scene growing and more kids wanting to do it, there are so many more opportunities for kids to do things with this. There is a lot of stuff we need to learn about how it works as a business.”

The crazy thing is that esports is not even close to peaking in terms of interest, schools sponsoring teams, social media growth or potential business opportunities. Hullinger and Wendel don't know what this could look like in a year or five years, but there is amazing potential, they said.

“Esports organizations are huge, and the biggest ones in North America are valued at like $500 million,” Snider High School esports director Joe Wilhelm said. “They are partnered with gigantic corporations and have sponsorship deals in this intersection of sports and business.

“They are being super ambitious. They have a long road ahead of them, but they seem like good guys and they are invested and super-active. What they are trying to do is approach it starting out from a content creation perspective like you would for any sort of marketing platform. It's very interesting and something that has been done on a bigger scale other places, but just not as much at a Fort Wayne-sized town in the Midwest.”

Hullinger and Wendel are building their brand, doing tons of research and reaching out to national organizations to see what is possible. Wendel says his organization is comparable to the TinCaps playing Single-A professional baseball. They believe 260Widow Gaming can help players move up a level or two to join professional teams in larger cities.

And as Wendel said, even if it fails, they still get to play video games with their friends. If it works, they get to start a business doing something they love.

“(NBA player) Aaron Gordon was quoted one time that, 'Potential is everywhere, but opportunity is not,'” Wendel said. “I heard that and said, 'Oh, my goodness, yes.' That is what I want to build this on.”

The best ways to follow 260Widow Gaming is on its YouTube channel, on Twitter at @260WidowGaming or by email at 260WidowGaming@gmail.com.

The next step is getting more people to play and join with them. They'll all figure out if this works together, brainstorming and building every day, but they won't know until they try. 

“The only thing we could ask is for people to have the courage to take a chance on us,” Hullinger said.


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