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Iron Games brings 1,500 high tech gamers to town
SINCE IRON GAMING WON THE $10,000 WARNER BROTHERS Digital Media Prize at the first Gig Tank in the summer of 2012, the Chattanooga-based company has mostly been flying under the radar in its hometown. That’s about to change.
This weekend, the company’s Iron Games event brings 1,500 attendees to the Chattanooga Convention Center to compete in a tournament of 10 video games. Though the company has been hosting smaller events at other gaming events around the country, this one is the first of many standalone Iron Games competitions it plans to host in Chattanooga, taking advantage of the city’s gigabit-per-second bandwidth to build itself into the SEC of eSports.
In the 18 months since its Gig Tank win, Iron Gaming reworked its business model based on what founders have seen at gaming events around the country and in the overall gaming industry.
“We’ve bounced around the country quite a bit attending, participating and then hosting gaming events,” says Iron Gaming president and CEO Aaron Welch. “Essentially, we were looking at the holes in what we call eSports. What we found—which was contrary to our previous belief that the main focus of our business needs to be online—is that online businesses are failing in our industry.”
At the same time, he saw that live gaming events remain extremely popular, with commercial ones selling out rapidly and informal ones increasing in size until they become commercial. And there continues to be a lack of opportunities for amateur gamers to reach for professional status. So Welch is pivoting the business to focus on live events for amateurs.
“We’re going to pick a space in the market where nobody else exists and where there’s the most pain, which is the amateur space,” says Welch. “We’re going to start bringing events closer to them.”
He plans to create an amateur feeder system to the professional video gaming circuit. He will hold qualifying events in Chattanooga and other cities, organized into four seasons that each culminate in an event called the Iron Games. His company will organize the venue, manage the competition and create the standards for gaming events.
This weekend’s event—which may serve as a model for others—opens with a day devoted to younger children.
“Friday is Kids Play, where we engage parents, educators and children, then show the adults how to use video games to provide incentives for children to do better at home, in school and in life in general,” says Welch.
Saturday and Sunday are devoted to competitive play, which will be televised live on Sunday, a Gig-enabled first that is only possible in Chattanooga.
“This is the first time video games will be televised live while playing,” says Welch. “Nobody has done it live. They’ve prerecorded it and put it on Spike TV, but this is the first time broadcasting live from the event.”
Welch is working with select Hamilton County schools to create a system of school-based teams, with opportunities for student motivation, fundraising and equipment donations. Engaging schools—middle, high and college—is a major component of Iron Gaming’s plans, partly because that’s where the next generation of competitors will emerge.
When the company participated in Career Crunch event with Hamilton County middle schools, Welch says employees met 3,000 eighth graders, 70 percent of whom, both male and female, play video games. Given the opportunity to compete, some of those will become competitors.
It also makes broader economic sense to grow the pool of tech talent for his industry and others.
“We fall very far behind some of the other countries around the world when it comes to bringing up geeks,” he says. “We’re losing those kids, and it starts in middle school.”
For Welch, there’s also a personal side to the economic argument for growing more geeks.
“I have two daughters, a 5-year old and a 2-year old, and I don’t want prima donnas graduating middle school—I want two girls who are just as skilled at math and science as they are at being girls,” he says. “In today’s culture and society, they’re growing up to be more like the Miley Cyruses of the world instead of like these amazing women scientists and researchers that are out there.”
He wants girls—his own and others—to know that being geeky is more than wearing a geeky t-shirt or doing cute pictures wearing glasses.
“They don’t understand that the makeup they wear, the cars they drive, the things they hold most dear like iPhones—those were created by geeks and engineers who spent years and years in school learning how to do things, designers who spent just as much time in engineering school as they spent in art school to be able to design a beautiful electronic object they covet so much,” he says. “We’ve got a generation that is about consuming but not producing, and we want to stem that tide as best we can.”