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Charlotte-based esports team continues to see rapid growth



CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — The burgeoning esports world continues to shape the way people play sports virtually and live their lives.

Some professional players are raking in millions of dollars. In the Carolinas, Charlotte is home to an esports team that is paying salaries to players across the country.

The Queen City is home to Charlotte Phoenix, which formed in 2019 with a game called Rocket League. Rocket League is a soccer video game, but it’s played with vehicles. Just like a professional soccer team, a professional eSports team has players, coaches and managers.

“Five years ago, I would have never seen my role involved in an esports organization, and then being a manager of a team,” said team manager, James Bickford.

Bickford oversees the sim racing side of Charlotte Phoenix. The esports team established a large following on Rocket League when it started and Bickford says he was a fan.

Some esports players can do well enough to earn $100,000 salaries or more in this professional atmosphere.

He helped create the racing side of the team during a meeting at the Coca-Cola 600.

“From there we built a relationship and I said, you’re in Charlotte we should absolutely start a sim racing team,” said Bickford.

Charlotte Phoenix competes with two drivers in the E-NASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. The league is the premiere series on iRacing where 40 of the best sim racers in the world compete for $300,000

“Everybody thinks it’s really cool. The question is, what do you do for the team, and I said I drive virtual racecars and then the question is how did that happen,” said driver, Femi Olatunbosun.

What starts as a hobby for some drivers, turns into a real racing season featuring a salary. Before drivers are even considered for a salary they have to be drafted onto an e-racing team.

Once on a team, drivers compete weekly at real NASCAR tracks with all the races streamed online.

“All my friends and family they love it. I know my mom watches all my races. I don’t really live close to her so it’s pretty cool to hear that,” said driver, Graham Bowlin.

With a six-figure payday on the line at the end of the season, Charlotte Phoenix takes advantage of the excitement by flying in its two drivers for in-person events at the Carolina Esports Hub. The events are even attended by a live audience.

“When we won last year with Graham at Gateway. It was probably one of the best moments besides me personally winning. It was so awesome it was fantastic, we had champagne here. It was a good time with all the watch parties we did,” said Bickford.

The two drivers on Charlotte Phoenix live busy lives outside of being on an esports team. Graham Bowlin is 20 years old and making plans to attend trade school for welding. Femi Olatunbosun graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst last year and works at the Massachusetts State House as a fiscal policy analyst.

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