Las Vegas is looking forward to welcoming its first major league sports team later this year. The Vegas Golden Knights will take to the ice at the T-Mobile Arena as the latest NHL expansion franchise, satisfying a desire for a big time sports team the city can call its own. However, some here in town have focused their attention on other competitive endeavors, including some activities you never knew were actually sports.
The Ultimate Form of Frisbee
Tossing a Frisbee around used to be a fun way to kill time at the beach. However, this old form of casual recreation is now quietly becoming an international competitive sport. Ultimate Frisbee (or “Ultimate” as most players now call it) is growing fast with a passionate pool of participants. Among them is Greg Woods, the CEO of Cirrus Aviation Services, a private jet charter company based in Las Vegas.
“I originally got into it because I was very fast,” he says. “Whether it’s soccer, rugby, or football, people want fast athletes. So I got invited a lot.”
With a long, thin, athletic frame, Wood used that speed to his advantage when he started playing Ultimate years ago. At the time, the native Canadian was employed as an engineer in Vancouver, a city where Ultimate is especially popular. It took him some time to learn the mechanics of throwing a Frisbee properly, but Woods worked his way up to competitive teams, eventually taking part in the Canadian nationals and world championship games.
“It kind of became an obsession of mine,” he says.
Ultimate is much more than a simple game of catch. It’s actually a lot like football. It starts when one team throws the disc across the field, like a kickoff, to the other team. “You want the disc to hover in the air as long as you can, so you can run down and set up defense,” explains Woods. “As soon as somebody catches it, they can pivot, but they can’t run. They have 10 seconds to throw the Frisbee.” The teammates are like wide receivers, trying to catch the disc and passing it along until someone reaches the end zone. No contact is allowed.
The governing body for the sport in the United States is USA Ultimate, which overseas national teams and championship games (which climax in the Fall Finals). Similar organizations from around the world will send their best players to the World Flying Disc Championship every two years.
Woods considers himself very competitive, but also enjoys the casual nature of weekend pickup games at local spots like Sunset Park and Desert Breeze Park.
“It’s a self-reffed game and it teaches the true meaning of sportsmanship, which is ‘don’t cheat’,” he says. “Try your hardest, and win if you can, but don’t cheat. It’s a great lesson for kids everywhere.”
As drone use becomes more widespread among the public, it only makes sense that people are going to start racing them.
“We want Las Vegas to become the drone racing capital of the world,” says Chris Cernuto, founder of the Las Vegas Drone Club. “So we’re here on the ground-floor, trying to make that happen.”
The most popular competitions feature mini-quad drones (think four propellers) racing at 55-65 miles per hour on a track with gates and obstacles. “The pilots actually build these drones from scratch and race six to ten times in one day,” says Cernuto. The club has software and a lap timing system that keeps track of each vehicle and determines who is actually winning the race. “If we have 15 pilots, five pilots will race head-to-head each time. The winner will move on (based on) points and at the end of the day, whoever is left will be in a final race.”
The pilots are wearing goggles that give them a first-person view (or in drone enthusiast lingo, “FPV”) from a camera on their drone. And yes, along the way, some do collide and crash. “Just like NASCAR racing, everyone is sitting there, waiting for the next crash,” says Cernuto. “It’s part of the action and fun.”
There’s a $10 entry fee, with a half-price discount for club members. Other than one big race each month, locations are usually kept quiet but tend to be in parks and desert locations. Prizes can be worth a few hundred dollars and, in a possible sign of national support to come, Chick-fil-A has joined the fun and contributed some of its products for winners as well.
The club is actively seeking to expand its collection of sponsors as it looks to further livestream the races on Facebook, YouTube and other websites. “We have a lot of followers and people who want to see what’s going on,” says Cernuto.
He’s come a long way since forming the Las Vegas Drone Club back in 2014. It started with just two people who wanted to fly their aerial devices at the Eldorado Dry Lake Bed near Boulder City. “It was a safer place for us to fly because drones were very new, very different and very strange,” Cernuto explains. “We weren’t good at flying them either, so we were constantly crashing.”
They reached out on Facebook and Craigslist and quickly realized there were others out there with the same interest in drones. “The first week we had two people, the second week we had four. The third week we had six or eight and it just grew from there.”
Cernuto says drone use really took off when GPS-integrated versions came into the picture, which were far easier to control. “GPS drones, if you’re in a panic mode, allow you to take your hands off the stick. The drone will stop flying where it’s at and hover. That allows you to take the time needed to regain composure.”
The Las Vegas Drone Club says between competitors and spectators, its largest event has drawn about 350 people. However, the goal is to grow carefully, bring new community partners into the fold, and demonstrate that unmanned aerial devices are beneficial - and not something for the general public to worry about.
“We’re making a big push for kids to join our club, and for parents to get involved, because drones are very technical,” says Cernuto. “Not only do you need to fly them, you need to fix them. It teaches soldering skills, mathematics, science and technology. We relate it to STEM activity.”
Playing Video Games
In mid-February, spectators flocked to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to watch a fierce competition. It wasn’t boxing, basketball or the latest UFC fight. It was actually a video game tournament held by Australian company DreamHack. The event, dubbed the DreamHack Masters, saw 16 teams square off, with a prize pool of $450,000 on the line, while playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a first-person shooting game.
“It’s something that gamers have been doing for over 20 years,” says Chris Laporte about underground video game events. “What you have now are young adults competing against each other in these large format tournaments, making large sums of money.”
The industry is known as eSports, a competitive form of video gaming that’s followed by millions of fans around the world, just like baseball, soccer or football. But you don’t have to pack an arena to see the phenomenon unfold before your eyes. Twitch, an online streaming platform that shows games being played in real time, says it has nearly 10 million active users each day.
LaPorte has been following the trend very closely. He was the owner of Insert Coin(s), a bar in downtown Las Vegas that was likely ahead of its time, offering video game consoles and arcade games in addition to beer and cocktails. It closed in 2015 after four years and now, LaPorte is planning his next gaming-related venture while consulting for others looking to take advantage of the growing eSports audience.
“Insert Coin(s) closed and a year later, my phone was exploding because Pokemon Go came out,” he says of the interactive mobile game that surged in popularity last summer. “No problem. Write me a check and I’ll show you what to do.”
The growth can also be seen in the Evo Championship Series, an annual tournament centered around Street Fighter and other fighting-themed games that first came to Las Vegas in 2005. It’s worked its way through conference rooms and a number of different casinos. Last year, the finals were held in an arena for the first time, filling up the Mandalay Bay Events Center. “My son and I were participants as cheering fans,” says LaPorte. “And there were 15,000 other people there as well.” On a smaller level, the Downtown Grand is making an effort to be the local home for eSports, with regular games on Friday and Saturday nights from late afternoon to midnight.
There have a few bumps in the road. LaPorte admits there’s a challenge to making money off eSports, an industry whose prime demographic doesn’t have the same disposable income as fans of golf or football, for example. The DreamHack event also struggled with reports of sparse attendance during quieter parts of the multi-day event.
The real money may lie in betting. LaPorte says billions in underground wagers are made around the world on video games. It may be one reason the Nevada Gaming Control Board granted William Hill the rare permission to take bets on DreamHack Masters.
“Unfortunately, the United States has been slow to accept this culture and see it for what it truly is,” says LaPorte, while noting South Korea was the first to embrace it, even showing video games on prime time television. Japan is also known for its love of video games, with an arcade on virtually every corner.
Despite the slow start, signs show the U.S. is finally following suit. LaPorte notes that top eSports teams are cashing in with sponsorship deals and a handful of colleges are even offering scholarships for star players. Perhaps sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day can turn you into a real athlete after all?
“There’s a level of skill and dedication, which is why the fans are so rabid,” he says. “These guys are just that good.”