I came to BlizzCon to learn more about investing in eSports and gaming, I left with something much more profound

I started angel investing a little over two years ago, and from day one I told myself I would focus on the entertainment and gaming space because it’s an incredibly high growth sector, and it centers around bringing people joy which felt like a win-win to me. While I’m not much of a gamer myself, I was as a kid (Civilization was the first game to really captivate me) and today I am absolutely fascinated by the gaming world, how quickly is is growing, and the communities it is creating.

What is accelerating the growth of gaming more than anything is eSports, a way for anyone to get excited about games, whether they play them or not. If you think about it, most NFL fans don’t play football or have dreams of “going pro,” they just love the game and the community around it. The same is true for gaming and thanks to eSports, it is one of the fastest growing industries in the world.

(Image source — Newzoo)

With a 14.4% CAGR from 2016–2021 and a viewership expected to top 250M people, it’s safe to say that companies in the entertainment and gaming space have strong growth potential, and ecosystem plays like Twitch and Discord will both drive and benefit from this growth. Couple this with the fact that video games are expected to be a $300B industry by 2025 (source) and there’s a reason why investors should start to think more and more about gaming.

Okay, now that we’re all on the same page when it comes to the numbers behind eSports and gaming, let’s get back to BlizzCon. I wasn’t planning on ever going to BlizzCon but the founder of a company I was looking at investing in last year (shot out to Broadcast.gg) was able to help me snag a ticket to see what one of the biggest conferences and communities in gaming was all about.

What I experienced over the last three days at BlizzCon was so far from what I expected, and in many ways it was one of the most inspiring things to see at a time where the world can feel like such a fragmented and tumultuous place. I came to BlizzCon to see what makes one of the biggest game studios tick, and what eSports is like in-person in an arena full of screaming fans. What I got was something different — I saw a community of people who truly love each other, they aren’t divided by politics, race, or gender, instead they are connected by a shared passion, and damn — it was powerful.

At first blush, Blizzard might look like a big blockbuster game studio (which in many respects they are) but what I didn’t see until now is that what they really excel at is building communities and in many ways, changing lives.

I’ve spent the last three days talking to as many people as I could about why they come to BlizzCon, what role Blizzard has played in their lives, and here’s what I learned:

  • So much of the Blizzard fanbase connected over WOW (World of Warcraft) which in many ways has functioned in the same way that Second Life did (and still does), a way for people to connect and make friends with people who have a similar interest, all in a virtual world.
  • For many people at the conference, the people they met while playing WOW have become lifelong friends.
  • Given how global the Blizzard gaming community is, WOW players have friends all over the world and BlizzCon has become their way of connecting in real life.
  • Many people shared with my some of the challenges they had faced making friends in High School or earlier, WOW was the first time they were able to truly connect with people and feel like they belonged.
  • Once a player became captivated by WOW, it would change their lives in many ways and make Blizzard, for them, become much more than a game studio. This lead to an absolute passion for everything Blizzard, from games to merchandize to BlizzCon itself, it became a core part of their identity.

I think the back of the BlizzCon badge really sums up what BlizzCon is for so many people, it’s home.

I talked to people who had met their husband/wife through Blizzard, others who said their closest friends are the people they play Blizzard games with, and last night I got pizza with a guy who proposed to his wife two days ago at the fountains in front of the BlizzCon entrance. To him — there was no place more special to propose than here, it’s where he had met his fiancé and, like so many others, he felt like he was surrounded by family.

The fanaticism for all things Blizzard far exceeds anything I’ve seen from any traditional sports fans. People will happily wait in line for 3–4 hours (yes, you heard that right) to get a small plastic statue that you can only get if you attend the conference. A plastic beer mug that might be in limited supply, waiting 1–2 hours is no problem. And to be in the main room where Blizzard’s CEO and team does their opening remarks, well, people start camping out at 3AM to make sure they can get a good seat.

Then there’s the pins, buttons, and collectables. This is like nothing I have ever seen before. So many Blizzard fans are not just fans of the games, they collect absolutely everything related to Blizzard, and I mean everything.

If you take a look at the table above, this is one person’s collection of pins, buttons, and other Blizzard memorabilia. He has been coming to BlizzCon for years and spends most of his time at a table trading with other fans who like him, want to make sure they have every last item related to Blizzard and BlizzCon. Some of these collectables aren’t even directly related to Blizzard, companies like HyperX and T-Mobile create custom pins and tote bags and most fans will stand in line for as long as it takes to get it.

The first day I saw a long line at a table with MSI branding on it. I asked people what they were standing in line for — a free velcro patch that says “MSI” on it. When I asked them, “what are you going to do with the patch” they looked at me like I was crazy - they wanted every single thing they could get from BlizzCon to add to their collection, duh.

One attendee showed me a video of a room in his house dedicated to Blizzard, the room was filled with display cases, walls covered with velcro boards with pins and patches on it, to him, being in a room surrounded by Blizzard collectibles was the best feeling in the world.

And then there’s the eSports arena. Like I said, I’m not much of a gamer myself but I do enjoy watching eSports, and seeing it in an arena surrounded by screaming fans was incredible. What makes eSports so unique is the global nature of the competitions — people from all over the world watch and compete in eSports and it really felt more like being at the Olympics than being at a sporting event in LA.

The stadium reached capacity and Blizzard staff had to start turning people away for the final Overwatch match, USA vs. China. Every single seat in the stadium was taken as screaming fans cheered for their team and watched them compete in one of the most fast-paced and strategically challenging competitive games on the market.

In my opinion, no other game studio has done what Blizzard has when it comes to not just creating a community, but truly changing lives. I saw groups of friends from all over the world, no thought of their race or gender, disabilities or style, there is nothing dividing people here, instead it’s one of the few places I’ve seen all barriers removed. In the real world you might experience the pain that comes with hate and prejudice, but at BlizzCon you are loved, you belong, you are home.

While people absolutely love games from studios like Nintendo, Electronic Arts, and more, I’d argue that none have built a community like Blizzard has. People love games like Mario andZelda, but they aren’t meeting in-game and developing lifelong friendships like they are in WOW. World of Warcraft was and is still more than a game, it’s a place for people to live a second life and enjoy a world where they can be themselves and be accepted.

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, and I felt like the only person at the conference who hadn’t, but what I saw was the impact that a game can have on people’s lives, and I can tell you it might be different, you might not understand it, but it’s a beautiful thing.

So as an investor, what did I get out of the conference? Well it’s not at all what I expected. On one hand it validated what I thought was true about eSports, you can (and people will more and more) watch eSports in a stadium just like any other sport and it feels just like being at any other sporting event. We’re only at the very beginning of something absolutely massive and I couldn’t be more excited to be investing in the space. I’m more certain than ever now that 5–10 years from now there will be eSports bars and eSports stadiums all over the world. This is big, and I think you’d have a hard time finding a higher-growth market to invest in.

But I feel like I already knew (or believed) that before coming here. What I learned at BlizzCon is that Blizzard isn’t just a game studio, and the people that attend the conference aren’t just gamers. This is a community of some of the most accepting and caring people I have ever met, it was refreshing, touching in many ways, and truly inspiring. For three days I lived in a world where everyone loves you, no matter who you are, what you believe in, or where you come from, and that is more powerful than I can possibly put into words. I can now emphatically say that eSports and gaming is changing the world, and in a very positive way that makes me so excited about what’s ahead.

co-founder at Bold Metrics| previously at Sonos | I write a lot and take way too many photos