The Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility is one of the largest and most expensive in the NBA—an $82 million, 125,000-square-foot behemoth that boasts a hydrotherapy room, a recording studio and a full-service restaurant. It’s the morning of a home game versus the Miami Heat, and the 76ers have just finished a light practice on one of two regulation-size basketball courts.
Meanwhile, in the strength and conditioning center next door, five women ages 22 to 27 are stretching their wrists. If not for their team-sponsor Buffalo Wild Wings jackets, they could be mistaken for 76ers interns, who run frantically around the facility. But these women are professional athletes for Team Dignitas, an esports franchise owned by the parent company of the 76ers. They’re one of the top teams in the world at a game called “Counterstrike: Global Offensive.”
Esports—aka competitive video-gaming—is the world’s fastest-growing spectator sport. Last year, esports tournaments and live streams drew 258 million unique viewers. Put another way, more people watched other people play videogames in 2017 than all NFL regular-season games combined. Esports tournaments have sold out Madison Square Garden and World Cup stadiums. Competitive gamers like those on Team Dignitas can earn over $2 million in annual salary, plus more from endorsements and prize money. The 76ers became the first American sports franchise to own an esports team when they purchased Dignitas in 2016. Other franchises, from the Golden State Warriors to the New England Patriots, have followed their lead.
Four years ago, the members of Dignitas were competing without a sponsor, paying their own travel expenses and sometimes cramming into one hotel room on the road. Their training regimen consisted of 12-hour gaming sessions, fueled by “Doritos and Mountain Dew,” says captain Emmalee Garrido. The women of Team Dignitas practice remotely most of the year but convened at the 76ers training facility in Camden, N.J., for a weeklong boot camp designed by David Martin, the director of performance research and development for the 76ers, and run by the team’s coaches, trainers, sports psychologists and chefs. It’s 13 days before the Intel-sponsored Extreme Masters tournament in Poland, the world championship of esports. Over two weekends, a record-breaking 173,000 people packed Spodek Arena for the 2017 Extreme Masters; 46 million tuned in online. Dignitas lost in the finals to Team RES from Dubai. “We’re second right now, and beating Team RES will get us the title of best