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Esports Arenas Coming To A Campus, Or Cafe, Near You

If you’re a university administrator, chances are you’re thinking hard about adding an esports facility to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in competitive gaming, even among students who’ll never play professionally.

As it is, as the annual E3 video game convention opens in Los Angeles today, esports are popping up at campuses of all levels, an amenity for the student body and another way for universities to draw a broader array of students.

At Full Sail University, for instance, the school just opened The Fortress, an arena for its only interscholastic athletic team, in esports.

The 40-year-old private school in Winter Park, Fla., is building a significant portion of its campus life, curriculum and work opportunities around its esports arena, team and a club for the rest of the student body, said Full Sail’s esports strategist Bennett Newsome.

Full Sail’s curriculum includes a range of show-business-focused degree programs such as production of live events, audio and video, as well as game design, lighting, and motion graphics, said Newsome.

“All the degrees we offer all have a connection to esports,” said Newsome.

In turn, those jobs feed into nearby Orlando’s sprawling entertainment and resort industry. Esports, especially around live events and broadcasts, have become another compelling way to train students for real-world jobs while engaging them in a pastime many of them already play or watch.

The school has been involved in esports since 2012, when it first hosted a big event, said Newsome, who himself streams live regularly on Twitch. Full Sail alums have gone on to work in the esports business, further cementing its connections there. 

And now The Fortress is expected to become a campus center for all things esports, Newsome said. The Fortress had its grand opening in May as part of the school’s annual Hall of Fame event honoring notable alumni. 

Elsewhere, collegiate sports powerhouses such as the University of Washington and The Ohio State University – both among the 25 biggest athletics programs in the NCAA – have launched esports initiatives.

Ohio State will debut an 80-seat facility in the fall at about the time it debuts what it calls “a first-of-its-kind comprehensive esports program.” That program will include “undergraduate and graduate degrees; an elective course in esports content production; online certification programs for specialized credentials; and a gaming speaker series,” according to the school. 

Smaller schools such as the University of North Texas have been engaged in esports for even longer. UNT opened a $200,000 esports facility in 2017, open to any student or faculty member but designed specifically for competition training. 

NewZoo, which tracks the game industry, projects that esports will top $1.1 billion in revenue this year for the first time, riding the vast wave of spending on games in general that it said topped $134 billion worldwide in 2018. 

A big part of the sport’s future revenue opportunities will revolve around live events – with their opportunities to build fan engagement with specific teams and players. Esports live events can also generate typical sports-related revenues in merchandise, concessions and the rest.

But success will depend in part on having access to facilities that can accommodate both broadcasting and online streaming of matches. For all the energy behind creating new venues, esports presents challenges for newcomers. 

“Esports is a global phenomenon that is bringing world-class gaming experiences to local communities,” said Ed Tomasi, Managing Director esports at Big Block and its subsidiary Subnation. Tomasi’s companies are working with Raleigh, N.C., city officials and groups to help make the Research Triangle area a hub for future esports events.

“There is a big learning curve when it comes to actually hosting and producing these events,” Tomasi said. “It takes experience, relationships and collaboration on both global and local scales, evaluation of facilities to ensure it can scale with and power these massive tournaments, organizing committees, and the list goes on.”

Subnation has partnered with E3 to run the Esports Zone in a large space in the Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall, featuring top esports players and interviews with game industry notables. Subnation is also hosting an afterparty event at the nearby Mayan Theater, featuring performances by electronic music stars 3LAU and the Vicetones.

Subnation’s E3 events reflect growing momentum behind esports. But Tomasi cautioned that esports have evolved into a complex ecosystem. Leagues are substantially controlled by the publishers such as Activision and Riot that make the most popular games and own the copyrights. Brands that can sponsor these events have an important role too.

As well, players and fans can be fickle about which titles they play and want to watch. Not every title is well structured for esports game play, though publishers and developers are getting much smarter about how to design for the peculiar needs of tournament multiplayer matches. 

Given all the complexities, Tomasi cautioned property owners and developers from taking a “build it, and they will come” approach with esports venues. 

“What may seem simple and assumed to an engineer or architect may turn into an epic fail if you’re not being consulted by an experienced esports adviser,” said Tomasi. “It takes knowing the league, publisher and respecting the gaming communities, then knowing how to meet the demands before they’re demanded.”

And for those who want to start their own esports tournaments, there’s Super League Gaming, based a mile or so from Riot Games’ West Los Angeles offices and a few doors down from the training facilities of Team Liquid, one of the biggest multi-platform esports teams in the United States. 

Backers of Team Liquid and other big professional esports teams also have invested in Super League, seeing it as a way to build up the pipeline of future pros and spotlight promising up-and-comers, said Super League CEO and Chairman Ann Hand.

Not incidentally, the company is “cultivating the future esports fanbase,” Hand said. Last year, the company hosted 175,000 hours of game play, and is on pace for a far higher number this year as it expands the game titles and venues it hosts. 

Super League went public on NASDAQ earlier this year (symbol is SLGG). Other early investors include Cinemark, which hosts weekly SLGG intercity tournaments for Minecraft, Clash Royale, and other titles in 25 of its theaters around the United States. 

The tournaments are held at slow times for the theaters, including Saturday mornings and midweek nights, providing a boost to both foot traffic and concession sales to players and their friends and families, said Hand. The company has similar deals for tournaments at Top Golf venues, and a channel on Twitch live-streaming amateur matches. 

Super League Gaming also has announced a string of strategic partnerships and its first acquisition, Framerate, a fast-growing independent social video networks in esports and gaming, with over 100,000 followers.

The company’s tournaments are now popping up in lots of modestly sized venues, enabling amateur leagues nearly anywhere. Hand said the company is working toward creating a franchise model for local operators to further expand.

“Today, all a brick-and-mortar place needs is an internet connection and a flat-screen display” to show leaderboards and game play for spectators, Hand said. 

Super League Gaming software “has some intelligence built into it,” Hand said. The software automatically displays the hottest action during a match, giving onlookers a better experience on the big main screen. 

The company’s software also enables local leagues and matchmaking, allowing teams to play even against other venues. For businesses, it can be a compelling new way to get people in the door on slow nights, Hand said. 

“I found out in this business that even Dave & Buster’s has Tuesday nights,” Hand said.