Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Video games were once considered a distraction. Now, they are the soil upon which a thriving esports industry has been built.

By the numbers: Esports generated nearly $1 billion in revenue last year, according to research firm Newzoo. As for eyeballs, Goldman Sachs projects viewership to reach 300 million by 2022, putting it on par with the NFL. As a result of this explosion, investors, media partners, sponsors and (insert pretty much any industry here) have been scrambling to capitalize on what should be an extremely lucrative new industry.

Here's the crazy part: All of this — from the endless buzz, to the lucrative sponsorship deals, to the industry's first crossover star — has taken place within an ecosystem that has very little infrastructure.

  • Put it this way: Think about what the NFL would look like if virtually no high school or college students played football in an official setting. Yeah, maybe they'd toss the pigskin around on the weekends, but there was no "pipeline" leading to the pros.
  • That's basically esports at the moment. The professional leagues are succeeding despite the fact that there is no overarching amateur system to bring young people in and churn out talent.
  • In other words, a massive hole still remains: competitions to engage the millions upon millions of American high school and college students who already play video games (let's not even get started on youth leagues). If that hole is filled, just imagine what it could do for an already burgeoning industry.

Driving the news: That hole is being filled.

  • High school: PlayVS (pronounced play versus) is an esports platform that lets high schools create official esports leagues. Thanks to an exclusive partnership with the NFHS (basically the NCAA of high school sports), the company is set to kick off its inaugural season next month in high schools across 12 states.
  • College: Marquette University just announced that it will launch a varsity esports team in the fall, the first in the nation run by a major conference D-I athletics program. The team "will be run like any other varsity sport: there will be tryouts, a coach will be hired, regular practices will be held and the team will represent Marquette at esports tournaments."

The big picture: If the NCAA eventually decides to include esports, it would change everything — from the infrastructure to the rules (Title IX, etc) to the mainstream appeal (would games be broadcast on conference networks?).

  • But don't count on that happening anytime soon. NCAA president Mark Emmert voiced strong concerns about esports recently, saying the content is "hugely misogynistic" and "violent."

Go deeper ... Pro Rata Podcast: The Future of eSports

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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Joe Biden at a campaign event in Wilmington, DE. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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