Cincinnati Edges into the Esports Arena

From a new esports lounge in Newport to an upcoming festival at Kings Island and FC Cincinnati adding their first eMLS player, the global phenomenon is finding its niche here

Apr 22, 2019 at 5:15 pm
click to enlarge Gordon "Fiddle" Thornsberry - Paige Deglow
Paige Deglow
Gordon "Fiddle" Thornsberry

Across the globe, esports — aka electronic sports — have been on the rise. Comcast announced plans last month for a $50 million gaming arena in Philadelphia, prize pools for tournaments break records year after year (in 2018, a single-event prize pool for multiplayer battle game Dota 2 was $25.5 million) and in 2019, professional esports are predicted to generate over $1 billion in revenue, according to gaming research agency Newzoo. 

And Cincinnati is following suit. 

Esports function much like their real-life counterparts, with video game competitions taking place in the professional, collegiate and amateur spheres. 

But at one time, attending a major esports event meant you had to drive to the coasts, says Nick Tsirlis, the owner of Cincinnati-based esports event organizer AllMid. Tsirlis recognized this geographical imbalance and began running regional tournaments through AllMid in 2015, starting with a collegiate invitational, which drew players from 16 schools across 15 states. 

Since 2016, AllMid has hosted events at Newport’s GameWorks, which unveiled a new fully-stocked esports lounge this March — a move that will provide a space for the local scene to host more tournaments and events. 

In January of this year, AllMid ran multiple tournaments at Columbus’ Ohayocon anime convention and, come May, they’ll run competitions at Kings Island’s inaugural PiviP, the first esports tournament and gaming conference of its kind in Greater Cincinnati. 

Tsirlis calls PiviP “a very fresh idea” and something that’s not being done elsewhere. “I think that’s how Ohio and the Midwest, in general, is able to shine,” he says. 

Co-founded by Bill Donabedian, founder of the Bunbury Music Festival and co-founder of the MidPoint Music Festival, PiviP will be held May 18 at Kings Island. It’s free with the cost of park admission and will feature Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Fortnite, League of Legends and Overwatch tournaments in addition to cosplay and keynote speakers, including gaming YouTuber “Markiplier,” who has 23 million followers on the platform. 

Donabedian says he noticed that though there are a few similar festivals elsewhere, there were none locally. 

“I kept researching (esports) and looking at the numbers and I was like, ‘Wow, this is the biggest underground thing ever,’ ” he says. “(The market) is massive, but it’s amazing how the mainstream doesn’t know about it.

“I got to the point where I was like if I don’t do this, someone else will and they’ll do it quickly.”

Donabedian says this year’s event is a one-day preview with bigger plans coming in 2020.

“Our event is unique because it’s in such a public place that you can experience it without necessarily being a participant, initially. And if you like it, then hopefully you do more next time,” he says. “If you decide it’s not for you, you can ride roller coasters all day.” 

Since the first PiviP is a preview event, qualifying tournaments were already held in March and early April. The finalists from those tournaments will compete to win a total share of $20,000. Each game will take place in Kings Island’s Festhaus and be streamed live on the video platform Twitch. 

Next year, Donabedian says the goal is to hold all the competitions at Kings Island and to take over a larger section of the park. 

The next step for Cincinnati’s overall esports scene? Donabedian says one of Cincinnati’s professional sports teams needs to recruit their own pro esports players. 

But FC Cincinnati has already taken that leap: They signed Cincinnati-native Gordon Thornsberry, better known as “Fiddle,” in FIFA — a soccer simulation game created by EA Sports — to compete for them as part of the eMLS.

With 2019 being FCC’s first season in the MLS, it also marks their first opportunity to have an eMLS presence.

Fiddle previously had a contract with French soccer juggernauts Paris Saint-Germain FC (PSG) to play FIFA.

“It’s pretty surreal to be honest. It happened so fast, with FC Cincinnati becoming a USL team and then an MLS and then me joining them,” Fiddle says. “It just all seemed like a dream, because I was signed to a big team. But it wasn’t the same because I’m not from France.” 

Fiddle snatched the PSG contract after winning a FIFA tournament in 2017 in Miami, Florida where the contract was the prize.

“I always knew that I was good enough, but that solidified it. You can’t call yourself a pro until you sign to a team or you win a tournament,” he says.

Fiddle says he anticipated FC Cincinnati would join the eMLS; when they made the announcement that they were moving to the MLS, he reached out to a contact to further that conversation. 

“It was perfect from the beginning,” he says. “We had the same expectation; we had the same ideas going forward.” 

On a collegiate level, Miami University boasts an accomplished esports résumé and they are also the nation’s first Division 1 esports teams. In 2017, their team won the National Association of College Esports Overwatch tournament and reached the finals in League of Legends. Miami also hosts an esports summer camp, clubs and a “Games + Simulation” minor (and soon, a major). Later this year, Ohio State University is projected to unveil a 4,000-square-foot arena and academic classes dedicated to esports. 

“It amazes me when you think about how many people play video games, have consoles and have yet to get into this,” Donabedian says. “When they do — and it will happen — it’s going to be massive.”

The PiviP tournament and video game conference will take place May 18 at Kings Island. More info: