Multiple sports, Global

Big game hunting: the rise of the purpose-built eSports arena

eSports has emerged from its online roots to become an increasingly sophisticated live arena experience. Purpose-built eSports facilities are the logical next step.

by Michael Long
Big game hunting: 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 then, is gathering momentum, fuelled by the widely held notion that competitive gaming, as a growing, community-driven form of entertainment, is now mainstream enough to garner the critical mass required to make purpose-built arenas financially sustainable. Within the professional ranks of the industry, too, it is widely anticipated that fixed sites will lead to a higher level of tournament quality and production, and yield greater revenues in an ever-maturing market. But while a handful of eSports-specific venues already exist, none of them has the live event hosting capabilities of a full-size sports and entertainment arena.

Spurred by this new frontier, one company that sees an opportunity to gain a foothold in the development of eSports arenas is Populous, the leading architectural design firm. Having conceived some of the world’s largest and best-known sports infrastructure projects, 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.”

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. As well as staging tournaments of all types and sizes, it might also serve as a daily hang-out spot for amateur gamers to compete and socialise, a platform for game developers to test, market and launch their products, a hi-tech hub for creating and editing video content, and a space for professional teams to scout new talent. 

Leading architecutre and design company Populous is hoping to lead the way in the development of purpose-built eSports arenas.

Audience profiling is therefore required to understand the target attendee, what they want and how they behave. Generally speaking, says Mirakian, the global eSports audience is comprised of young, engaged, tech-savvy digital natives. They tend to have arrived at eSports through an online environment – most likely by competing over the internet against fellow gamers on their home computers – and they aren’t necessarily accustomed to attending live sporting events. But neither of those things makes 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.

Not only do fans want to consume this thing in a virtual format, but they want to do it in a really social way.

“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 also notes the way in which the duration of a typical eSports event, which can be up to eight hours long – far longer than a traditional basketball or ice hockey game – is likely to have a bearing on things like ticketing and venue access. Should event organisers issue passes, for instance, that enable attendees to come and go as they please?

“Where you have to start to think about solving the problem is by looking at the visitor and looking at the fan,” says Mirakian. “What we do know is, again, it’s a young audience, it’s inherently a different audience to those who attend an NBA event or an NHL event in one of these venues. When you start to look at the profile – the psychographic profile, the demographic profile – of this audience, you begin to think about the venue behaving in a bit of a different way.”

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.

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.

“Fundamentally, one of the things that is very different at this point in time is that the premium product is just different,” he continues. “Again, due to the demographic make-up, 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, 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.”

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. “They had a tremendous amount of challenges and obstacles to overcome,” he argues. “When they finally determined and began to understand that making investment into purpose-built venues that are smaller, more intimate, all completely focused around the sport of soccer, tailored around building fan culture and creating amenities for fans and real investments platforms for brands to be involved, that’s when it really begun to take off.”

Mirakian adds that 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 would be that the venue works in tandem with other facilities in the development, creating “that 365 concentration of people and energy and critical mass” and removing 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”.

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

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 the real lure will involve a media-rich, thematic environment where emerging technologies are used to create a fully immersive, more personalised spectator experience.

“From my perspective, the fundamental truth is that people, when they’re in a venue, they want to be as close to the competitor as possible, whether that’s an eSports competitor or whether that’s an NFL quarterback on the field,” he says. “I think that that’s where technology becomes that bridge and that’s where the boundaries between the real world and the virtual world begin to converge.”

An obvious way in which an eSports event organiser might look to enhance the connection between spectator and competitor within the venue – and thereby create an enriched experience that is impossible to get at home – is through the utilisation of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), or a mixture of the two. Both VR and AR are revolutionising the way video games – and traditional sports, for that matter – are played, broadcasted and viewed, enabling the user to get a sense of what it’s like to attend an event or event take part in the action. This is achieved with the use of special VR cameras placed throughout the venue, yet those in the industry are only beginning to scratch the surface of what can be achieved.

At last year’s The International 6 tournament at Seattle’s KeyArena, organiser Valve Corporation showcased its nascent VR viewing technology and utilised AR to overlay character avatars on to the live streams. But it is ongoing advancements in hologram projection technologies like Microsoft’s Hololens that really excite Mirakian. He envisages creative combinations of on-stage holographs, lighting, wearable tech, and responsive seating embedded with consoles or devices that provide haptic and other sensory feedback. 

For an event promoter, it could be in that menagerie of connected and immersive tech that the premium offering begins to take shape. A piece of technology worn by the competitor that collects biometric data and transmits that data to the spectator through a device embedded in their smart seat or VR headset, for example, would surely take the live experience to next level.

“When you go beyond the screen and into a world of augmented reality, where you can begin to customise your experience by seeing things in a semi-virtual, holographic realm, that’s where, in my mind, it becomes extraordinarily powerful,” says Mirakian. “If there’s any sport that can do it in an amazingly rich environment, it’s eSports.”

This feature originally appeared in Issue 94 of SportsPro magazine.