Bill Thomas has been on the inside before. He has helped bills become law while serving as a leadership legislative staffer in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for more than a decade. He knows the landscape. Moreover, he sees which direction the PA gaming industry is trending.
Thomas grew up playing video games himself. He has watched his nephews and sons get into it recently. He recognizes the evolution of competitive gaming, how it can actually be a gateway to a college education.
Because of that experience and knowledge, and with seasoned gaming veterans by his side, Thomas has launched the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition. The group aims to advocate for electronic sports as the next wave of gaming in the Keystone State and the nation.
“Even the folks that I talk to inside and outside the state legislature, there are so many people that don’t understand, really, what’s going on,” said Thomas, chairman of the coalition and also president of a government affairs and political advocacy firm in PA. “There’s a lot of people that don’t understand that there’s college scholarships being awarded to play competitive video gaming. They don’t understand the amount of money being invested in companies. People are shocked to know that people are paying monthly subscriptions to watch somebody else play video games. It’s difficult for them to wrap their head around it.
“There’s so many aspects that I’m learning about every day. It’s critical to get this coalition together to talk about it, and talk about it not only to those who are interested in it but to those who will be making decisions about it. That way we can advocate for what’s best for the industry and what’s best for the commonwealth.”
Seeing the future of esports
Before leaving the House last November, Thomas was part of the lawmaking team that wrote the gaming expansion bill last fall to legalize online casino games, daily fantasy sports, and sports betting.
During that time, Thomas recalled, he noticed esports “in the peripheral” of the gaming industry.
“When I went to the private sector, I always had it in my mind to want to bring Pennsylvania ahead of where other states were, knowing that this was the next big thing happening in gaming.”
It was not that lawmakers “rebuffed” the idea of regulating esports, Thomas said. It was more a matter of lack of information. Even now, he says legislators are uncertain what exactly esports entails.
“We want government to be a partner in this, to understand its value,” Thomas said. “When they don’t understand something, they tend not to engage in that particular venture. We want them to engage and be supporters. We think the opportunities are there, and they just need to be educated.”
After leaving the House last fall, Thomas struck out on his own. He worked at a subsidiary of McNees Wallace & Nurick law firm. While there, the group gave Thomas freedom to explore esports. He formed the coalition in November 2017 and began searching for board members who were savvy and knowledgeable in the esports industry.
Thomas brought in John Fazio, who runs N3rd Street Gamers in Philadelphia. Fazio also opens a facility for gamers to compete in tournaments and participate in camps and training sessions. Thomas also welcomed:
- Rob Ambrose, a TV gaming analyst and commentators
- Thomas Yantis, who was recruited to play esports by Lebanon Valley College
- James O’Connor, who owns the professional gaming franchise Pittsburgh Knights
“We’re getting that expertise that’s needed for us to make the right decisions,” Thomas said.
Group will serve as esports trade association
Those board members hopefully lend creditibility to Pennsylvania Esports Coalition. Thomas said it is “like a trade association,” like the American Gaming Association.
It was the second esports coalition in the country, the other being Nevada. Thomas has seen that this facet of the gaming industry is quickly rising in popularity though. And with that rise comes a potential need for government support.
“This is going to hit a critical mass at some point. Government is going to have to get involved, whether they want to or not, especially now that you see high school leagues being formed and you see college scholarships being awarded. The college scholarship aspect is what really drove me to think that government is really going to play a role. Because once you start investing institutional resources and it’s an access or pathway to college, you start talking about access to computers and technology, it definitely becomes, at least at the grass roots level, a government thing.
“They can do really good things and help the industry grow, or they can get in the way or make it difficult. We want to make it as easy as possible for government to understand, as easy for government to have a role, whatever that role may be, get the industry to participate in that role to help government come along, so we don’t stifle something that really is extremely promising in all aspects of the industry. There’s tremendous upside.”
Could esports be part of the betting landscape?
After the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act last month, some states have been rushing to enact sports betting legislation. Pennsylvania has been among them.
Thomas said esports betting could easily be a part of that growth. He cited a neighboring state, New Jersey. The Garden State initially banned esports betting in the state’s bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed Monday. Since, however, the NJ Department of Gaming Enforcement already modified the verbiage:
“‘Sports event’ means any sport, athletic contest or athletic event not prohibited by the Director, including all professional electronic sports and competitive video game events that are not sponsored by high schools, do not include high school teams, and do not include any participant under the age of 18 years.”
“I think that, good or bad, if I put on my casino hat, it has to be there,” Thomas said of esports betting. “I think that esports betting is something that will help to keep the casino industry intact moving forward for some of these younger generations. I think it’s a complement to what we’re going to be doing on sports betting. But I think they need to be careful. There needs to be strong, unified standards for these competitions, regardless of whether they’re on the sportsbook or not, these integrity standards need to be there when you’re talking about thousands of dollars in prizes or thousands of dollars in college scholarships, like Harrsiburg University is doing.”
Hope is to work on regulations with PGCB
Thomas emphasized how iron-clad those regulations need to be in order to move forward. Thomas hopes to be working with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board soon to possibly hash them out.
“We’re looking to get buy-in from members of the legislature and the governor’s office,” Thomas said. “We’re looking at getting buy-in from folks who might make some policy decisions and economic development opportunities. We want it to be more broad than just the casino side of it. We want to bring it in to development, colleges and universities and high schools. … For me, it was more about the mainstream implications of esports and bringing in the casinos, as well, as an additive to that and not as the sole focus.
“One of the things we’ve been talking about with some of our board members is, where do casinos fit in outside of sports betting? Are they venues? Are they viewing parties? Are we able to look at competitive esports as something like boxing or MMA? Is that something they can bring in to attract (people) 21 and over to watch and participate in? I think the casinos understand that. But it shouldn’t be the sole focus. It’s a component of that.”
Shedding the gaming stigma
If anything, Thomas said, his coalition aims to educate the masses about the new era of competitive video gaming. The group has cast a wide net for inclusion.Competitive video gaming dates back to the early 1970s. Nonetheless, regulations for esports are still in their infancy.
“There is a talent aspect to this,” Thomas said. “These aren’t kids in the basement of their parents’ house not wanting to go outside. It’s a social aspect now … to where kids are working together and learning and they each have roles as part of the game. But it’s often demonized, which is another reason we need to start talking about it because I don’t think people understand that this isn’t the stigma that computer gaming has had in the past. It’s a whole new thing.”