Video gamers compete as X Games athletes for second year in a row

Nicholas “Classic” DiCostanzo, 23, is one of the more stationary athletes at this year’s X Games, the annual ESPN-sponsored extreme sports competition, which kicks off Thursday in Austin. While there will be everything from skateboarders, to BMX bikers, to off-road truckers at the three-day event, DiCostanzo will be playing “Call of Duty” with eLevate, his electronic sports (eSports) team. This is only the second year that eSports has had a presence at the competition, and players like DiCostanzo and his teammates are working hard to quiet the skeptics who question whether they are athletes.

“Hopefully in ten years, it (eSports) is really up there — a huge fan base,” DiCostanzo, who is an undergraduate at Long Island University, told

This will be DiCostanzo’s second year at the X Games, and he said that, initially, some of the other X Games athletes were apprehensive about having gamers competing alongside athletes traditionally known for taking on sometimes risky, injury-prone sports.

“Some of the other athletes didn’t like us being there, or didn’t accept it (eSports),” DiCostanzo said. “It was new, but maybe this year will be a little different, so hopefully we will have more recognition. People will realize the value in what we do.”

eLevate at UMG California 2015

eLevate at UMG California 2015 (eLevate)

What are some of the skeptics’ reservations about DiCostanzo’s sport?

“It’s probably because we are not doing ‘athletic’ activities – that’s probably the biggest reason. At the same time it’s very similar to any other sport. You have people watching us, there is a lot of concentration and preparation involved,” he added.

Those who play eSports are able to easily quell these criticisms once they let people see how intensely they prepare, said Nathan Wilson, the chief marketing officer for eLevate.

Wilson told that having a prominent presence at the X Games – what he called a “big breakout platform” for the team – goes a long way in bringing more visibility to eSports.

Those who hear the term eSports and just assume it involves casual video game play would be surprised to hear that the sport is gaining momentum very quickly. The eSports industry generates about $143 million in North American revenue. More than 80 percent of this revenue comes from sponsorship deals with tech companies like Twitch, YouTube ads, and other forms of advertising.

As with other top flight athletic competitions, sponsorship is key. eLevate, the team with the  youngest average age in the tournament , has been fortunate to have a sponsor in Razer, which specializes in connected devices and gaming software. The team has been playing a role in the company’s research and product development, in that they use the brand’s keyboards, mice, and positionally calibrated headsets.

Razer has a long history with eSports. The company got its footing in the eSports world by sponsoring the first professional gamer back in 2000. Flash forward to 2015, and the company’s reach in the gaming world is global – Razer now sponsors 27 teams and 270 players who hail from 33 countries.

DiCostanzo, the only team member who was at the X Games last year, has only been playing competitively for about a year. His first exposure to “Call of Duty,” came in 2007 when a friend introduced him to the game. What started out as a hobby became a serious passion. DiCostanzo will prepare for tournaments by setting up scrimmages with other teams, going through each “team mode” of the game, playing with the other members of eLevate from about 4 p.m. to midnight. For DiCostanzo, who has one more year of college left, juggling the rigors of school and gaming can be grueling. He often has classes in the mornings in addition to one night class, but generally the rest of his time is occupied by gaming.

For Wilson, an entrepreneur who has developed a vested interest in eSports, the most impressive part of observing eLevate is witnessing each team member’s intense focus.

“I’ve played sports my entire life, but the physical dedication that it takes to play soccer, for instance, doesn’t require nearly the mental strength, the amount of focus and hand-eye coordination that gaming does,” Wilson said. “I don’t play soccer eight or nine hours a day. That’s how long these guys dedicate themselves to the game. “They have to sacrifice certain things to achieve these dreams, as well as stay in healthy mind in order to compete at this kind of level. The focus has to be in milliseconds.”

The stakes are high as well. DiCostanzo is using his earnings from winning tournaments to pay for his accounting degree.

DiCostanzo said that last year’s X Games “was awesome” and the “coolest event I’ve ever been to.” He didn’t place well, but said he expects that to be different this year.

“I’m expecting us to win,” he said. “Our team is good, I’m expecting nothing less than that.”