Orlando is becoming a leading global destination for gamers, investing heavily in a collegiate esports arena, specialized college degrees, the latest technologies and more.

Esports competition at Amway Center
Call of Duty world championship at Amway Center in downtown Orlando. Photo courtesy of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission.

When Mike Taramykin moved to Florida to work at video game maker Electronic Arts, the New York City native told his wife they wouldn’t stay longer than three years.

Taramykin, an executive, couldn’t imagine permanently leaving the frenetic energy and professional opportunities that exist in his hometown.

That was more than 13 years ago.

Smitten with a robust economy, an energized developer community, low taxes, better real estate options and second-to-none weather, Taramykin and his family started putting down roots. He eventually left positions within big corporate video game companies to start HypGames, a mobile game development studio.

“It’s the best of both worlds here,” he said. “We now live in a place where you normally go on vacation. And there are a lot of major companies and independent developers in the Orlando area that together create a full professional ecosystem.”

Orlando is known around the world as a city where people come to escape their busy lives, play games, experience virtual reality and be a child again. But unknown to many is the fact that Orlando’s playground extends beyond its theme parks and outdoor recreation options into the digital world.

With NASA and major defense contractors like Northrop Grumman calling Orlando home, the region has long been known as the nation’s epicenter of digital simulation and modeling. It’s a niche market winning less public attention than the nearby theme parks, but it draws an international talent pool of software engineers, data scientists, animators and digital designers.

With that industry offering a well-established foundation, an expanding enclave of creators and companies associated with the multibillion-dollar video game industry started calling the area home. At the same time, the rapidly growing world of competitive video game playing, called esports, is embracing Orlando because of its wealth of event venues, mature hospitality industry and ubiquitous high-tech infrastructure.

“The availability of talent, good weather and a low cost of living make your odds of success better in Orlando. If your idea is good, you can make it a reality here.”

Mike Taramykin, founder of HypGames, who moved to Orlando from New York City

This ecosystem of companies, university training centers and the developer community has created a self-sufficient local gaming industry. It’s one reason the region is poised to become the biggest destination for esports and video games, a global market estimated by industry analytics firm Newzoo to be worth nearly $138 billion. It also explains why the area has attracted an army of talented and ambitious professionals who are not afraid to dream big.

“All you need is a good idea,” Taramykin said. “The availability of talent, good weather and a low cost of living make your odds of success better in Orlando. If your idea is good, you can make it a reality here.”

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Game Design As College Curriculum

Finding digital gold is just what Taramykin and his company are trying to do. They saw an opportunity to engage sports fans beyond just watching their favorite teams and athletes, reasoning that the audience also wanted to participate and compete with each other. So a year and a half ago, the team released its first product, a mobile engagement platform for sports fans called HypSports. The app offers players a unique style of year-round fantasy sports, daily arcade game tournaments and live trivia challenges all in a single app. It has been downloaded more than 300,000 times, and the company is now using its technology to launch more exciting products in 2019.

HypGames employs a passionate team of veteran engineers, game designers and artists who are developing the studio’s digital products. Several of them graduated from area universities that offer specialized training.

The University of Central Florida offers a bachelor’s degree in game design and is home to the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, which provides graduate-level education in game development. Full Sail University, meanwhile, offers a number of undergraduate and graduate programs to prepare students for the industry. The Princeton Review places both programs at the top of its ranking for schools to study game design.

But smaller outfits like HypGames aren’t the only ones taking advantage of Orlando’s professional ecosystem. The area’s largest video game studio, Electronic Arts Tiburon, which employs 750 people around Orlando and is responsible for producing blockbuster EA SPORTS franchises, including Madden NFL and NBA Live, is fully invested in nurturing the local development ecosystem. In fact, the company is in the process of moving its Central Florida headquarters to downtown Orlando’s Creative Village, creating an anchor for the burgeoning innovation and digital media hub. Daryl Holt, vice president and group chief operating officer of EA SPORTS, said the community and academic programs have been a great talent pipeline.

Further, the diversity of industries working on similar technologies is helping to push innovation forward. Experts in modeling and simulation, virtual reality, analytics and other advanced tools are at work across the Orlando region to support fields from healthcare to aerospace and manufacturing. These specialties feed into each other and game development.

“We’ve hired animators from Disney when we needed that skill set, and we’ve had people recruited away from us to work in defense,” Holt said. “The door swings both ways, and we’re constantly having discussions with people in different industries to understand new ways to use technology to solve our problems.”

OEP1 B 3
Photo courtesy of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission.

Serious About Play

A sense of excitement isn’t reserved solely for market opportunities in Orlando’s game development community. It’s also palpable in the area’s push to become a top destination for esports events.

As just one example, Full Sail University officials announced in late 2018 that the school would build the largest collegiate on-campus esports arena in the country. They have earmarked over $6 million to launch the more than 11,000-square-foot facility, which will be called The Fortress.

Citing a desire to become the premier destination for students aiming for a career in gaming, Full Sail Chief Operating Officer Ken Goldstone said the university also wants to attract the world’s best players and fans.

“These efforts support our establishment as a leading global destination for students who want to participate in the esports lifestyle as part of their college experience,” he said.

Full Sail Fortress Arena
Full Sail University’s esports arena: The Fortress

But the university’s investment is about much more than creating another venue for students to take their minds off their studies. It’s the university’s contribution to helping Orlando win over gaming and esports consumers locally and globally. The Newzoo report found that there are more than 2.3 billion active gamers worldwide, and the market is expected to grow at more than 10 percent annually through 2021. The potential for growth is stirring excitement in the sports and hospitality industries.

“Our eyes opened to the opportunities inherent in esports over the last two years,” said Jason Siegel, CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. “Being the tourism capital of the U.S., we want to solicit, acquire and host esports conventions, festivals and championship matches just like we do for traditional major league and NCAA sports events. Esports is becoming mainstream now, and it’s the wave of the future, for sure.”

The region is so committed to becoming a video game-playing destination that it has already held four meetings of its esports task force, which is composed of representatives from city and county government, major venue managers, the Orlando Magic NBA team and corporate stakeholders like Disney, Universal and EA SPORTS.

Legacy Industries Provide Support

Efforts are already producing dividends. Orlando ranked as the second-best city for gamers, behind only Seattle, in a 2018 study by personal finance website WalletHub. The site looked at factors including industry job openings, college programs, companies, internet quality and coverage, smartphone ownership and arcades per capita.

Siegel points to the area’s history in tourism and hospitality as its biggest advantage over other localities vying to land big esports events. He said the Orlando area already has ample resources to host esports events — from venues that can hold 500 people to convention centers that span 2 million square feet.

“We haven’t seen an opportunity similar in size to esports since the development of youth travel teams,” Siegel said. “We’d be foolish not to pay attention to it and invest in it.”

That’s a sentiment echoed across Orlando’s governmental and commercial interests. And the synergy that sits at the intersection of game development and esports, and Orlando’s opportunity in it, is clear for all to see.

“When it comes to being internationally known for esports and game development, we say, ‘Why not us?’” said Holt of EA SPORTS. “These two things are coming together in Orlando. We have huge potential in the region as an emerging digital media cluster and entertainment destination. It’s exciting times around here.”

Originally published in Forbes BRANDVOICE.