ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Atlantic City's new Call Of Duty is this: To become the East Coast center of competitive video game tournaments, also known as esports.
The activity is rapidly growing in popularity across the country and around the world, and the New Jersey gambling resort wants to become a major player in the nearly $1 billion global market.
Proponents see it as a way for Atlantic City's nine casinos to add revenue and help endure the slow winter months. And in the hyper-competitive East Coast casino market, they also believe it can attract tourists whose interest in gambling is marginal or non-existent.
Isle of Man-based Continent 8 is building a $5 million data center at the Atlantic City Convention Center to serve not only the data-intensive esports industry, but internet gambling and sports betting technologies as well. It should be ready in April.
Two Atlantic City casinos held tournaments last year, and another will host an industry convention this weekend. And Stockton University is joining the Eastern College Athletic Conference's intercollegiate esports competition, building a room at its Galloway campus, near Atlantic City.
Gambling and technology companies believe esports is a natural progression in Atlantic City's ongoing diversification of its gambling market.
"The sky is the limit on this," said Barbara DeMarco, a spokeswoman for Continent 8. "Sports wagering is bringing in millennials, and this group likes to work off a mobile device. Do we catch that before someone else does?"
Esports is already well-established in the United States, and growing rapidly. In 2016, the Downtown Grand in Las Vegas built an esports lounge, hosted tournaments and, with bookmaker William Hill, took the first sports wager placed in Nevada on an esports tournament.
Major gambling companies including Casesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International have invested in esports tournaments and facilities.
The market research firm Newzoo puts esports at a $905 million global market this year, predicting it will hit $1.4 billion by 2020. About 380 million people will watch at least one esports tournament this year, the company estimates.
"The first time I noticed esports was in the streets of Seoul, South Korea," said L. Anthony Gaud, president of Atlantic City-based INGAMEesports. "There was a giant crowd, and I asked someone, 'Is that a movie star or a rock star?' They said, 'No, it's a game player.' I had never seen anything like it in my life."
Internet gambling has been a steadily growing industry since Nov. 2013, and New Jersey launched sports betting in June after winning a U.S. Supreme Court case allowing it and other states to do so.
This weekend, the Ocean Resort Casino will host Gameacon, a convention with video game tournaments, networking sessions for game creators and artists, and sessions for fans to interact with developers.
The industry is also examining whether any laws or regulations can be changed to help spur the growth of esports in Atlantic City.