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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

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Sports

Gonzaga University revokes NBA great John Stockton's tickets over mask stance

Former Utah Jazz player John Stockton during a 2017 press conference in Salt Lake City. Photo: Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonzaga University suspended the season tickets of notable alumni John Stockton after the NBA Hall of Famer failed to comply with the school's basketball games mask mandate, the Spokesman-Review first reported.

Driving the news: "Basically, it came down to, they were asking me to wear a mask to the games and being a public figure, someone a little bit more visible, I stuck out in the crowd a little bit," the former Utah Jazz point guard told the outlet in an interview Saturday.

Updated 4 hours ago - World

State Department orders evacuation of U.S. diplomats' families from Ukraine

From left, undersecretary for political affairs Victoria Nuland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. chargés d'affaires in Ukraine Kristina Kvien during a meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Kyiv. Photo: Yevhen Liubimov/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The State Department will begin evacuating families and nonessential staff from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv this week, according to a travel advisory published Sunday evening.

Why it matters: The move underscores U.S. fears that a Russian invasion could destabilize Ukraine and threaten the embassy's ability to assist Americans.

Perfect storm brewing for extreme politicians

Data: Axios research; Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Redistricting and a flood of departing incumbents are paving the way for more extreme candidates in this year's midterm elections.

Driving the news: At least 19 House districts in 12 states are primed to attract such candidates — hard partisans running in strongly partisan districts — according to an Axios analysis of districts as measured by the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index (PVI).