Rolling the hard six: Las Vegas bets on esports

LoL NA LCS Spring 2016 Finals: Counter Logic Gaming vs Team SoloMid (8:40)

Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid trade blows back and forth in their second straight Finals matchup. (8:40)

The loneliest place in Las Vegas is the concourse of the Mandalay Bay Events Center during the North American League of Legends Championship Series spring finals.

It is an empty stretch of vendors with no one to serve and confused security guards with nothing to monitor but the television screens above them, which are blasting images they aren't quite sure what to make of.

The nearby bartenders are equally perplexed, not at the action on the screens (they too have no idea what is happening, by the way) but the fact they have gone nearly 30 minutes without a single customer. They've served thousands of overpriced vodka Red Bulls over the years to thousands of spectators at hundreds of concerts and fights, and have never seen anything like this.

"Even during the final round of a championship fight you're going to have people in line for a drink," said one bartender, looking at his watch. "I've never gone this long without a single customer."

That's because the 6,000 fans inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Sunday were there to see Team SoloMid (TSM) face Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) for the NA LCS spring title, and they refused to leave their seats until one team emerged victorious (CLG raised the trophy after a classic five-game battle).

Of course, many of the fans banging glowing thunder sticks inside the arena weren't old enough to buy an adult beverage or sit at the blackjack tables lining the pathway to the arena. They do, however, represent the younger portion of the coveted 18-34-year-old demographic that has made esports one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Market tracking firm NewZoo recently predicted that the global esports business would cross the $1 billion mark by 2019.

As Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black, Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes, Choi "HuHi" Jae-hyun, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero and Darshan Upadhyaha held the NA LCS spring championship trophy, confetti rained on them while fans chanted, "CLG! CLG! CLG!" It had all the pomp and pageantry of the prize fights the Las Vegas arena is accustomed to hosting except for one major difference: A good number of people outside the arena didn't know what was happening.

The beauty of fight nights in Vegas is the spillover effect it has on the neon-lit Strip and in the casinos and sportsbooks; fans are able to place bets and watch the action on any one of the hundreds of televisions lining the casino floors. Not only was that not the case last weekend, multiple people working at various sportsbooks had no idea what League of Legends was.

"Is that a retirement league?" asked one teller.

It's understandable that someone taking bets on Race 8 from Gulfstream or working the Keno board may not know who "Reignover" (Kim Yeu-jin), "Bjergsen" (Soren Bjerg) and "Piglet" (Chae Gwang-jin) are, but if the NA LCS spring final was any indication, all of that could soon be changing.

Vegas, baby, Vegas

No city has embraced or endorsed emerging sports the way Las Vegas has over the years. From the World Series of Poker to the meteoric rise of UFC, Las Vegas has been at the epicenter. While Vegas hasn't been at the forefront of the rise of esports, the city would like to serve as one of its homes after hosting its first League of Legends tournament.

"We follow trends and we've been following esports for a little over a year now, and we've seen that it is the future for millennials and the younger generation," said Sid Greenfeig, vice president of entertainment and booking for MGM Resorts International. "We've seen it grow and we knew it was something we wanted to be a part of. When there was a big battle going on during the final game, that place erupted as if it was a fight night, a UFC event or a basketball game."

MGM Resorts International owns and operates 15 properties, including the MGM Grand Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay and Bellagio, and has been looking to get involved in esports recently. Mandalay Bay will next host the Evolution Championship Series (Evo), the largest fighting game tournament in the world, in July. Moving forward, they will look to host larger events such as the League of Legends World Championship in the newly opened T-Mobile Arena. The League of Legends finals sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2013 and will be at that venue again in October.

"I see Las Vegas becoming one of the major esports cities," Greenfeig said. "With the amount of international visitors we get to our city daily, there's no other place to be a better host for an international sporting event than Las Vegas. I'd like to see big esports events here similar to major boxing and UFC events, where this is the home where they do their large-scale events that draws the world to one city."

The possibility of esports having a larger presence in the casinos and sportsbooks, outside of billboards and signage promoting the event, is still a topic currently being discussed, not just by MGM properties, but other hotels and casinos across Las Vegas.

"Just like any other event that is new to Las Vegas, as we host more events, we can better assess the impact it has on the city and the venue and the business," said Scott Ghertner, director of public relations, entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International. "We're still gathering that information."

Hometown hotel

There is one hotel in Las Vegas that isn't taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to esports. The Downtown Grand opened less than three years ago on the site of the former Lady Luck Hotel & Casino and has made the unprecedented move of trying to become the home of esports in Vegas.

"We want to create a 365-day-per-year esports destination," said Seth Schorr, CEO of Fifth Street Gaming and the chairman of the Downtown Grand. "We want our hotel to be known as a place all year round that embraces esports enthusiasts. For example, our in-room televisions will be streaming Twitch, our food and beverage menu will be catered toward the tastes of gamers. For example, they want their food on a stick, so their keyboards and joysticks don't get messy. We're going to have game consoles you can rent to your room, and we're going to have consoles at the cabanas by the pool. We're going to have esports at the hotel all year round."

In February, the Downtown Grand became the first casino in Las Vegas to open a dedicated esports lounge, Downtown Underground, which is a 1,140-square-foot space on the casino floor that had previously been used for high-limit blackjack. It is located near the entrance of the casino adjacent to the blackjack and roulette tables. It is used for five-on-five team competitions, with two rows of computers facing each other, as well as tournaments and casual gaming. There are plans, said Schorr, to remodel the lounge in the coming months and open a second lounge as the hotel doubles down on the popularity of esports.

" It adds to the energy. It has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of energy and has had an impact both in the top and bottom line economically."" Seth Schorr, CEO of Fifth Street Gaming and the chairman of the Downtown Grand

"I think the esports community appreciates that the lounge is right on the casino floor," Schorr said. "That shows a level of respect and they believe that our hotel genuinely embraces the community. We didn't just see this as a way of monetizing an opportunity and sticking them in a corner. We put them in a prime location, and that has been well received. We have really big plans for that space, and over the next two months you're going to see it completely redesigned."

Not only does Schorr want to house tournaments and cater to gamers; he also wants the Downtown Grand to be a home away from home for esports teams. Last year, the LA Renegades, a popular esports team, spent two months living and training at the hotel, which set them up with suites and a private practice room. When the team traveled to San Jose to play in the Intel Extreme Masters, a leg of ESL's competitions for a variety of esports, the Downtown Grand converted a restaurant on the casino floor into the "Summoner's Cafe," complete with cosplay hostesses.

After Saturday's third-place game in the NA LCS, Team Liquid held an after-party on the rooftop pool deck of the Downtown Grand, which was attended by about 1,200 fans and guests. The hotel also sponsors the Las Vegas Neons, a professional Counter-Strike team, and is looking for other sponsorship opportunities within the esports community.

"It's a growing sport, and I think a year from now esports will be on a whole other level," Schorr said. "It has been great for the hotel. There's nothing worse than an empty room, so when you bring in people and they're hooting and hollering at a League of Legends game, it's like a lively craps table. It adds to the energy. It has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of energy and has had an impact both in the top and bottom line economically."

A sure bet

The final major hurdle before esports can fully be accepted by Las Vegas is the ability for the city's sportsbooks to set lines and accept wagers on esports events. It's a topic that is currently being discussed and will be brought before the Nevada Gaming Control Board in May.

"We've been aware of esports for some time," said A.G. Burnett, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "And I think it's all starting to gain momentum publicly. We've got sports betting regulations that speak to what type of sporting events one could place a wager on, and those are your typical sporting events, but there is a carve-out for the possibility that wagers could be placed on other events outside of your typical sporting events, such as the Heisman Trophy, which are not decided on the field of play."

Schorr has already gotten the conversation started in terms of regulated esports gambling, and he's hopeful the Downtown Grand will be the first sportsbook in Las Vegas to take bets on it.

"I actually toured one of the gaming commissioners around the property on Saturday and we've already begun to write the rules and regulations for gambling on esports," Schorr said. "That's absolutely part of our plan and strategy, and we believe we're going to pave the way for the industry, and I'm sure others will follow and leverage what we do."

Settling lines and taking wagers on a sport that most current oddsmakers in Vegas know nothing about will be a challenge initially, but one they will adjust to as the sport grows. Many oddsmakers faced the same challenges during UFC's infancy, and still face those challenges when setting lines for soccer or cricket matches abroad.

"Developing lines would be new to most," said Jeff Sherman, oddsmaker and manager at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. "We don't have anyone here on staff that really follows it. In its gaming infancy, we would lean on others such as the European market, like we do for most soccer, for betting lines. If we were able to accept wagers in the near future, betting limits would be relatively low until more familiarity is gained. I would compare it to how UFC has recently evolved. It started on a small scale and has really taken off wagering wise. It has a specific following, as does esports. With more TV exposure, I think esports might follow a similar path as UFC wagering."

That would be a dream scenario for both Las Vegas and esports as they take their first steps down the aisle in what could be a profitable and beneficial marriage in the coming years.

"As esports grows in Las Vegas," Burnett said, "the ability for sportsbooks to take wagers on esports contests and athletes only lends to the sport's credibility and enhances its image."