After Kevin Fair, a native of Chicago’s South Side and current East Garfield Park resident, graduated from college, he did what was expected of him — he got a steady job as an accountant for a company in the Loop. But he wasn’t happy.
“I started thinking about what I wanted to do in life, what would be fun to do, but would also be a career,” Fair recalled.
He knew he loved playing video games and, since nobody was going to pay him for it, he reasoned, he just had to create an opportunity that would.
So, in 2009, Fair launched I Play Games, a company that organizes video game tournaments for companies and public organizations. Although he is proud of his growing business, he said that the most rewarding part is getting a chance to talk to teens in low-income, majority-black neighborhoods. This gives him the opportunity to tell teens that they, too, can think outside the box and create their own opportunities.
Growing up, Fair said, he saw factories that provided jobs in his neighborhood for generations. Those factories, however, started closing — one by one. His family advised him that he might want to study computers, since no matter how many jobs cut by automation, there will always be a need for someone to maintain machines.
Fair said that he got the idea for I Play Games in 2009, when he organized a Street Fighter IV fighting video game tournament “for a very small group of people at a venue that wasn’t bigger than 1,000 square feet.”
He started to realize that there might be an opportunity for doing something like this on a larger scale. “Hobby conventions” such as Anime Central and the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo have been growing and attracting larger crowds.
Fair also noticed that many companies started organizing video game tournaments as part of their promotions. For example, breweries may hold tournaments at launch parties for new beers. Someone who had high-quality equipment, the professional experience running events and the knowledge of the ins and outs of video games would be in demand.
Fair started at fan conventions before branching out into corporate and charity events, such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository food drive. His business grew to the point where he does around 35 to 40 shows a year. Fair said he hires crews to help run events, but other than that, it’s largely a one-person operation.
“It is really important that I get to demonstrate the ability to think of a profession, think of the void, and exactly how I can fill that void with something that was a hobby of mine and I professionalized it,” Fair said. “I always try to impress upon the youth that I create businesses out of the box, something I can create for myself.”
Fair said that he was taught that, in order to make money, he should have a good job. Many millennials, however, weren’t taught how to be entrepreneurs and create their own opportunities, he said. He hopes that he will be able to encourage teens to think about that.
Fair also wants them to look at opportunities to find ways to make money by playing video games. E-sports, which allow gamers to make money in video game tournaments, are growing in popularity. More recently, many people have been able to make money by playing video games on online streaming services through viewer donations and sponsorships. But Fair said getting into those fields isn’t easy.
‘The access to good and quality equipment is very much a financial barrier for kids,” he said. “The more work I do with students of color and students within impoverished neighborhoods, the more I realize that they love playing games, but they don’t have access to good computers.”
Fair used to think that the growth of smartphone and tablets would remove those barriers, but it hasn’t been the case. In order to play professionally, he said, one needs to have access to computers that can process high-quality video gaming graphics without lag. Good processing power and good connections are also important for streaming.
That said, Fair said he hopes that, by showing what video game tournaments could be like and what kind of equipment is out there, he can encourage teens to at least think about the possibilities that are out there, to let them know that this is something they can pursue.
Fair has done events all over the city, and the West Side is no exception. He took part in comedian and West Side native Hannibal Burres’s Melvina Masterminds pop-up event last month and he has visited Michelle Clark High School several times.
He said that he decided to move to East Garfield Park, because it would make it easier for him to travel all over Chicago. And he was conscious of the fact that West Side in general hasn’t seen much investment in recent decades.
“I felt I had an opportunity in a space of Chicago where most people just go, ‘Oh well, the West Side has bad parts,'” Fair said. “I felt I had an opportunity to grow and do something that’s kind of cool. I’m pretty close to the Illinois Medical District, and it provides me great access, so that I’m able to do events at schools. It’s also near venues where I host events. So, I really enjoy being here.”