ESPORTS WEEK: From the vault - the rise of the purpose-built esports arena

Part three of SportsPro's Esports Week feature series sees us delve (not too deep) into the archive to dig out our look at the increasingly sophisticated, purpose-built esports live arena experience.

ESPORTS WEEK: From the vault - the rise of the purpose-built esports arena

When it comes to staging live esports events, the possibilities of what can be achieved are only beginning to be realised. Though the notion of eSports as an arena experience is hardly a new one, the specialisation of venues to accommodate the demands of live competitive video gaming remains in its formative stages. But as tournaments have expanded and consolidated into fully fledged circuits, and as eSports in general ventures increasingly into the mainstream, it appears only a matter of time before purpose-built eSports arenas become familiar fixtures of our physical landscape.

As integral as online video platforms like Twitch and YouTube have been for the growth of esports, the next phase in the development of the sector is in the creation of permanent arenas. To date, competitions have largely been held in temporary settings like movie theatres, college campuses and internet cafes, or at existing sports and entertainment venues that have been adapted and transformed to meet the specific demands of esports events. Over the past several years, however, dedicated facilities have started cropping up around the world in major urban centres such as London, Beijing, Taipei, New York, Las Vegas, and Seattle. 

In 2015, the Esports Arena, the first venue dedicated to competitive gaming in North America, opened its doors in Santa Ana, California. Allied Esports, the Chinese-backed owner of the venue, is preparing to announce between ten and 15 new Esports Arena locations in North America over the next few years, including new buildings planned in Oakland and Las Vegas’ Luxor Hotel & Casino.

The development of permanent esports destinations is fuelled not only by the widely held notion that competitive gaming is now mainstream enough to make purpose-built arenas financially sustainable but also from within the professional ranks of the industry, too. The belief being that permanent sites will lead to a higher level of tournament quality and production, and yield greater revenues in an ever-maturing market.

Spurred by the concept of an esports arena with the hosting capabilities of a full-size sports and entertainment venue, one company that sees an opportunity to gain a foothold in the development of esports arenas is Populous, the leading architectural design firm. The Kansas City-based company has jumped aboard the esports bandwagon, drawn by increasing investment in a multi-million dollar industry and the promise of a new breed of sports venue.

“This is an important exercise for us and it will continue to be moving forward because it’s a fundamental aspect of our practice and the way that we think about solving problems, the way that we always have,” says Brian Mirakian, principal and director of Populous Activate, the company’s sponsorship and brand activation division. “The time is now to do this because 25 years from now the landscape is going to look entirely different.”

Architecutre and design company Populous is hoping to lead the way in the development of purpose-built esports arenas.

Knowing your audience

Knowing how and by whom a facility might be used is a good place to start for any would-be esports arena developer. Though it is early days, it is already clear that the purpose-built esports venue is more than just a setting for regular competitions. It might also serve as a hi-tech hub for amateur gamers, game developers, and a space for professional teams to scout new talent that can be used on a daily basis. 

Audience profiling is therefore required to understand the target attendee, what they want and how they behave. Generally speaking, says Mirakian, the young, engaged, tech-savvy digital natives who make up the global esports audience have arrived at esports through an online environment. However, that does not make them any less of a social creature. 

“Not only do fans want to consume this thing in a virtual format, but they want to do it in a really social way,” says Mirakian. “One of the things that makes Twitch very fascinating is seeing, for instance, the way chats occur right there on screen. It’s a broad social network of people who are coming together for these things, and what we see is that there is also the desire for the physical aspect of the event for these fans to come together in a social manner as well.”

That communal element is one of the primary drivers for the sell-out events that have been held in arenas around the world. In North America, currently esports’ largest market, major venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden and Seattle’s KeyArena have hosted competitions attended by crowds numbering in their tens of thousands. Creating a permanent, year-round venue is, however, a different proposition. While esports’ vast online audience appears to be translating into sizeable live attendances for occasional events, it remains to be seen whether consistent crowds can be attracted in a world where fans tend not to be as geographically rooted as those of traditional sports.

“Right now, is there the demand to support 80 events in these venues in North America, where you’re going to have 17, 18,000 people?” asks Mirikian. “No. Right now, it’s a little bit more sporadic. But when you begin to forecast out the next two, three, five, seven, ten years from now, we’ll continue to see this arc occur.

“You’re just going to have more and more of these events occurring in these venues that currently exist, but that’s where we see these purpose-built venues begin to emerge as well. That’s a little bit of the thinking around why we believe that it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.”

On the face of it, there is plenty of crossover between esports and traditional sports. When it comes to staging a competition, whether it’s a small-scale community-focused league or a higher-spec professional contest, esports event organisers and arena operators must take into account many of the same considerations. Design aspects like the layout of the seating bowl and spectator sight lines, for example, are important components, while on-site production facilities, sponsor activation areas and VIP hospitality must also be factored into the equation.

Yet esports possesses its own unique set of requirements. Rules, competition formats and player equipment can all vary from one event – and indeed one game – to another.

Mirakian foresees the purpose-built esports venue becoming part of broader multi-use developments, removing some of the risk involved in building a standalone arena.

The non-traditional methods of monetesing an esports venue  

Not surprisingly, there are numerous ways of monetising an esports venue. Much like a traditional gym or health club, California’s Esports Arena offers monthly memberships, with recurring subscriptions starting at US$10 a month, as well as daily passes. A membership includes perks such as a rewards programme, member-only events and discounts on leagues and tournaments. Other revenue streams include rental fees from event organisers who use the space, sponsorship and advertising alongside online streams, not to mention the in-arena food and beverage offering.

“There is a different type of product being sold at the concession stands,” says Mirakian. “This audience is, at this point in time, not a heavy consumer of alcohol, so there’s not a lot of beer sales, things like that. The concessionaires need to think about how they can adapt to that. Should they have different products available? Absolutely they should, so instead of beer sales it may be more like energy drinks – Red Bull, etc.”

Another important consideration linked to the duration and unique nature of esports events is the way in which the arena functions outside of the main event space. Mirakian suggests that event organisers may look to utilise the venue concourses in different ways, perhaps by designating more space to enable sponsors to activate whilst the event takes place or by creating specific areas for game developers to beta-test new releases or operate R&D labs. A further consideration is whether attendees should have the ability to play games during intermissions.

“This is not going to be a crowd that is going to be heavily interested in conventional suite products and things like that. So when we think about the way we address premium [product], the way we address different ways to upsell products, it’s a very different type of approach because it’s a very different type of crowd.”

Where do sponsors fit in?

From a sponsorship standpoint, the esports market remains largely untapped. Though worldwide revenue from esports sponsorship is forecasted to grow considerably in the coming years along with ticket and merchandise sales, the current prevailing wisdom is that non-endemic brands face barriers to entry due to the Wild West nature of esports and its lack of a coherent global calendar. As the sector continues to consolidate and professionalise, however, Mirakian expects more companies, and a broader range of brands, to enter the fold – a process he believes will only gather pace as purpose-built arenas begin to bring about a sense of fan culture and better accommodate the needs of commercial partners. 

To support his point, he notes the way in which the development of soccer-specific stadiums has proved groundbreaking for Major League Soccer (MLS), whose teams, until recently, were playing in vastly oversized football stadiums before large swathes of empty seats. Now teams with soccer-specific stadiums have been able to develop fan culture and create investment platforms for brands to get onboard.

The purpose-built esports venue could equally find a home as part of broader multi-use developments, just as restaurants, hotels, retail, commercial and residential units and other public spaces have long been factored into large-scale construction projects. The idea being to remove some of the risk involved in building a standalone arena.

But whatever form they take, arenas hosting esports need to be equipped, first and foremost, with what Mirakian calls a robust “technological backbone”. High-density Wi-Fi, he says, is a must, as are TV and computer monitors by the dozen and the energy needed to power it all. At California’s Esports Arena, a power vault was embedded into a nearby street to handle the venue’s huge electricity demands – the combined result of scores of computer stations and a video production facility. In future, however, it is likely that a full array of technological hardware will be required in order to, as Mirakian says, “create something that is much more powerful, that becomes a draw that is going to pull the fan outside of their living room or away from their computer screen and bring them into the venue”.

At present, the majority of esports events rely on some variation of the stage and screen set-up that is now familiar to the competitive gamer, both amateur and professional. But rather than creating an in-venue experience that simply involves attendees watching their peers competing on a big screen, just as they might at home via their console or PC.

Mirakian believes reactive seating embedded with technology has the power to enhance the live esports experience.

This feature is an edited version of an original piece that appeared in Issue 94 of SportsPro magazine and forms part of SportsPro's Esports Week series. Click here for the rest of our esports coverage