On a Friday morning a few weeks ago on the third floor of a pretty deserted mall in downtown Las Vegas we got to see a bit of the future; the future of scalable and engaged eSports, the future of how the distressed mall business in America may find a way to revamp as it loses stores and customers and the future of how mainstream casual fans will come to know and understand just a little better about what all the noise is for all forms of gaming for a younger and growing generation.
It was the opening of “thE Arena,” in what was an abandoned poker facility called PokerDome on the top floor of Neonopolis, a 250,000 sq ft. mall which has been in various forms of reinvention since it opened in 2006. Now it appears to have found its calling hosting small to mid-scale eSports events on site, with a large theater set up for streaming bigger events from around the world to a growing legion of fans, and families looking for entertainment.
The Friday opening event, free to the public (which will be rarer as the Arena gains footing) was the first day of the North American Halo World Championship Qualifier, a $50,000 weekend long competition, with the winner moving on to the $1 million Halo World Championship in Burbank, California, March 24-26. However for a qualifier, the intensity, the camaraderie, the brands and the fans were out in force.
A little bit about “thE Arena.” It’s not maybe what you would think, or what many have seen as the example of what eSports is. The Staples Center and Madison Square Garden it is not. What it is is a mid-sized, comfortable, tricked out movie theater, with a massive screen and sound system and a stage for commentary and primary team competition side by side. Then down the hall is another large room where most of the gaming will take place, replete with screens, another smaller stage, a bar stocked with snacks and Monster Energy, and some rest areas for players. Those not playing hang in the hall or outside or into the theater. It is very dark…black light posters would fit right in from a generation gone by; but the intensity and the level of engagement for all shows the potential of what could be coming to malls across the country.
Why malls? Pretty simple. Brick and mortar stores are disappearing; every major community has empty real estate that can be converted into the open space needed for an eArena. The cost to outfit is not massive and can be done in one design. The computing is portable and cloud based; there is a need for strong secure wireless internet and some clean transmission to receive streaming from elsewhere. The upside is you have young engaged people coming in as traffic to watch, potentially purchase ancillary goods, eat and drink (we are not talking expensive cuisine and no liquor license since you are playing to minors) and enjoy their sport of choice. Every weekend can bring in a different game competition (keep in mind that is one of the great challenges of eSports and the learning curve; each game has its own fans, the crossover from say, Halo to World of War Craft is very low) not just to play in arena, but to WATCH the live stream of any myriad of events at any time of day from around the world.
Another important aspect of eSports growth that smaller scale facilities can do on a consistent basis is to help congregate game supporters. There is a long standing feeling, like there used to be for fantasy sports, that eSports is an unhealthy loner activity. Players spend hours alone or with a select group of team members constantly playing a game staring at a screen. Interaction in gaming is largely through voice and text, no one ever actually sees anyone. An eSports Arena changes that. As one gamer in Vegas named Patrick Hogan said to a local news crew on site, “ This place gives us a chance to interact and meet people, and even hang out with, many who we have known online for a long time and never met. It is great to be able to get out and meet people who have a similar interest, but also who are great at playing something we love as well.” Sounds an awful lot like the same thing AAU basketball players, or someone attending Comic-con may say. Interpersonal relationships at a core meeting place build real, not virtual friendships, and that communal meeting place not just for players but even for parents of those involved in eSports, is really invaluable.
Then there are the brands. While there is tremendous value for brands activating online on the massive audiences watching on platforms like Twitch, the in-arena experience where people can sample, engage and embrace products, from headphones to energy drinks to soft drinks to pizza, is really invaluable. Yes that can be done in massive stadium events, but those events that draw thousands in the US are really one-offs at select times (and for the most part remain loss leaders for the gaming companies who spend huge amounts of dollars on the infrastructure for stadium shows. Smaller events in common gathering place like the eArena present a very cost effective and hyper local way to engage. The smaller events also can be tied to a massive streaming activation for brands as well, giving an in person activation tied to a much larger audience and almost delivering twice the bang for the buck.
The smaller venues also give you a chance to always feel the intensity of the gaming. While in smaller events there are still challenges to understand who the players are and perhaps the star power of elite gaming is not on hand, tight quarters and a few hundred filled seats gives an importance to everything that is going on. It feels big time, and creates demand for more. Walk into an empty stadium for any sport, and you lose intensity. Go into a band box gym that is filled, and you get the sense that something here is important. That’s what you get with smaller scale eSports arenas.
Now are there issues? For sure. What do you do with all the downtime when gamers are doing things like work or school? Can the ancillary startup costs led to bad debt? Can there be a flood into the market of such tricked out places that will exceed demand? There are also the skeptical that say eSports remains a fad.
It is not. What it is today is very similar to where MMA was about 10 years ago. It is the hot property looking to be understood. Ten years ago a wide group of MMA promotions rushed to do large scale events and pay per views, and almost all went the way of the dinosaur pretty quickly. The big events like the UFC and even Strikeforce thrived because they understood the business model. What was thriving were the small events in gyms, clubs and theaters that were cost controlled, intense and valuable to a core audience. Same with eSports.
Yes you will have the occasional big arena show to varying degrees of success, but they will be just that, elite events. The value is in smaller cost contained venues where rent is cheaper, the space is plentiful and the ability to congregate, market and engage with fans is both strategic and high.
Keep an eye out for more versions of thE Arena. Chances are they will be in your town soon. Great way to spend a Friday morning in Vegas.