The global rise of organized electronic gaming events and tournaments is providing a wealth of branding and revenue-producing opportunities for host cities and event owners. Although esports is digitally based, physical spaces are needed to house in-person events, prompting a growing number of destinations to build competitive gaming infrastructure such as dedicated esports stadiums, and to refurbish existing facilities.
“Competitive gaming is largely misunderstood. To many observers, players are just playing a video game and are not participating in a sport, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Christopher Hower, Head Coach, Edinboro University Esports. “Many of these games require players to calculate how to hit targets on the fly, such as bullet drop, which is much like what a quarterback does in football. Other games require fancy footwork and interpreting psychological mind games.”
The esports market is on track to exceed $1.48 billion in worldwide revenues in 2020, according to research firm Statista. With that in mind, here are eight destinations ready to take esports events to the next level.
Besides being a major league sports city, Arlington is also home to Esports Stadium Arlington, a $10.5 million, 100,000-square-foot venue billed as the largest dedicated esports venue in North America. The facility opened in 2018 and is dedicated to live competitive gaming, with events held almost every week.
ESA can hold 2,500 spectators and among its many amenities are a permanent stage, state-of-the-art lighting and sound, locker rooms, team rooms, plus production and broadcast facilities. A Gamers Gallery is open to the public as well.
“People assume that the core of the market is comprised of males ages 18 to 28, but esports is without demographics,” says Matt Wilson, vice president of sports and events, Arlington Sports Commission. “We have women, youth 16 and under, and older people in their 50s — all ages, races and backgrounds. We’re providing opportunities for everyone in the community.”
ESA hosts a wide variety of events that have recently included amateur competitions, the Fall 2019 Collegiate Rocket League Championships, high-level pro tournaments, and the 2019 eSports Awards in which viewership registered in the millions.
“Here, organizers can come in and everything will be turnkey—just plug in and go. We have something very special; we were one of the first to do it, and now we want to get the word out,” says Wilson. “We’re all in with esports, and we’ve pushed our chips to the middle of the table.”
Atlantic City, New Jersey
While many associate Atlantic City with its boardwalk and casinos, the locale has also become an esports powerhouse. Explains Daniel Gallagher, director of sports sales for the Atlantic City Sports Commission, “Esports is a primary initiative for Atlantic City. We pull from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore and D.C., and we’re within one tank of gas for one-third of the country, making us a premier destination for esports players.”
Marquee esports events hosted in 2019 included the Esports Travel Summit, the Collegiate Starleague (CSL) Grand Finals held in the historic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, and the Ultimate Gaming Championship Halo Classic held at the Showboat Atlantic City. CSL attracted the 100 top collegiate players in the U.S. and Canada, drew 1,300 people, and offered $50,000 in prize money. It also generated just under $500,000 in economic impact. The Halo tournament provided $50,000 in prize money and featured 64 teams.
In April 2020, the Heart of a Champion Super Smash Brothers Ultimate Tournament will offer $50,000 in prize money, is expected to draw 2,000 players and spectators, and could attract online viewership of more than 250,000. “We’ve partnered with a company called End Game which is tasked with bringing esports events to Atlantic City,” says Gallagher. “There will be three big tournaments annually and we’ll also hold smaller events throughout the year via other sponsors.” He adds, “We’ve invested heavily in esports and have an incentive program in place to help draw sponsors and new events. The incentives can be used for sponsorships, purse prizes or to offset building costs.”
The esports landscape in Birmingham just became more exciting with the opening of the Magic City ePlex in November. The 18,000-square-foot venue in the Crestwood Festival Center is designed to conduct esports training, host competitions and development, and provide general space for video game play.
The facility boasts a purpose-built event stage for esports competitions, 12 TVs and stadium seating surrounding the stage. Each of the 10 stage PCs have dedicated live streaming channels that will operate every time the venue is open. Additionally, eight virtual reality pods from VR Studios in Atlanta will provide wireless free-roam headsets for VR games with up to four players. Other amenities include modern consoles, old-school pinball and arcade machines, a restaurant, and event space for parties and meetings.
“We’re still exploring different events for the Magic City ePlex, but we hope that it becomes the designated Alabama High School Athletic Association’s State Championship site,” says David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham CVB. “We are also researching opportunities to host a regional League of Legends/LCS Final, The Player Omega, UGC events and Esports Amateur Competitors League Regionals.”
He adds that Birmingham is aiming to attract participants and spectators from outside the Greater Birmingham area: “We want all esports event organizers to know that we are ready to work with them to bring their events to Birmingham.”
Tucked away between New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, Coastal Mississippi is ready to embrace the burgeoning esports market. The Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center is a beachfront facility offering 400,000 square feet of meeting space including an arena with seating capacity for 11,500.
Other venues across the tri-county region can accommodate smaller competitions, notably the Biloxi Civic Center (15,214 square feet) and D’Iberville Community Center (12,000 square feet).
The area also has 12 casino properties plus an array of non-casino venues that cater to esports gamers. “As an already well-established gaming destination, Coastal Mississippi has the potential to expand the sports betting side of esports by attracting a more mature gamer, targeting an age range of 21 to 35,” says Janice Jefferson, Coastal Mississippi’s director of sales.
“While Coastal Mississippi is new to the esports market, our strategy is to observe current trends to identify key events that fit in our destination. As we delve deeper into the world of esports, [we want to attract] small regional events within a 500-mile radius, focusing on our drive market.”
On the local youth and collegiate esports front, Columbia is thriving. “A lot of cities are investing in esports. For our market size, we have a lot going on,” remarks Zach Franklin, sports sales supervisor, City of Columbia CVB.
The 3,600-square-foot Ukatsu eSports Arena, which opened in September 2019, fits 50 spectators and provides a gaming hall, café, and streaming room for esports and broadcasting. (Ukatsu is a Columbia-based esports youth development program that teaches physical, mental and social health as well as game play.) On the collegiate front, the city is home to three esports powerhouses. Columbia College fields the nation’s No. 2 ranked esports team and is planning to open its own esports arena in the near future. The University of Missouri also has a strong esports program and will soon have its own arena. And Stephens College is home to the first varsity all-women’s Overwatch esports team.
“There’s not a lot of international competition here, but Ukatsu will be hosting as many esports events as possible, and those will attract people from the community and neighboring states,” says Joe Chee, Ukatsu’s co-founder and CEO. Ukatsu sponsored the Como Game Expo in February 2019, which drew players ranging in age from 7 to 35. In 2020 there will be at least three larger-scale events added to the roster.
This destination is steadily boosting its esports cred, particularly among local high school and collegiate players. To date, most of the tournaments hosted in Erie have been held at the Bel-Aire Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, but a dedicated esports venue, the Fighting Scots eSports Lab at Edinboro University, opened in fall 2019. The space is primarily used by the school’s esports team (the first collegiate esports team in Western Pennsylvania). Erie’s other major venues — the Erie Insurance Arena and Bayfront Convention Center — have not yet hosted esports events but could easily accommodate larger competitions.
“SmashErie is a local esports organization that has hosted a monthly tournament since January 2019. Most of the participants have been local players, but the Erie Sports Commission provided support for SmashErie to expand its prize pool in June 2019 so that they might host a larger regional tournament. It was called ‘Brawl on the Bay.’ They expect to host a second regional in December 2019,” says Mark Jeanneret, executive director of the Erie Sports Commission.
He also notes that several local high schools have esports clubs, and Edinboro will host collegiate tournaments in its esports space in 2019-20. “There were 10 to 15 esports tournaments hosted in Erie at varying levels in 2019. As SmashErie continues to strengthen and expand, and the high school and collegiate esports scene grows, we expect that the number of tournaments will increase as well,” he says.
A key driver of this central Pennsylvania locale’s growing esports prowess is Harrisburg University and its Storm varsity esports program that fields highly successful teams in Overwatch, League of Legends and Hearthstone. The school offers several gaming areas perfectly suited for multiple teams in pool play and exhibitions.
“The Sunoco Theatre at Whitaker Center is an incredible venue for live semifinals and finals with seating for 700 spectators,” says Allison Rohrbaugh, marketing & communications manager for the Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority. “It provides a wide-screen format that’s 38 feet high and 70 feet wide, with a 300-watt, five-channel digital surround sound system.”
Harrisburg University’s annual HUE Invitational — the region’s signature esports event — is staged at both the school and the Whitaker Center, and 64 collegiate teams participated in 2019. Rohrbaugh indicates that the Hue Invitational and National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) Convention combined to draw more than 3,000 people to Harrisburg and yielded an economic impact of more than $2 million.
“Because of the proximity and involvement of Harrisburg University, collegiate events are a natural draw for the region,” explains Rohrbaugh. “However, our destination also boasts the world-class destination of Hershey which is known for its family-friendly atmosphere. Youth gaming events would certainly thrive here, as well as national and international professional events due to our convenient location and the wide reach of Harrisburg University’s expertise.”
South Bend, Indiana
South Bend has a number of world-class sports venues and come July 2020, there will be one more: the 500-seat Bendix Arena. Located in South Bend’s Century Center, Bendix Arena will be the region’s only dedicated esports facility and will host local, collegiate and professional events. It will include dedicated team rooms, separate production facilities, and will also provide gaming all day for local amateur enthusiasts.
“We anticipate holding three national level events in the first year, along with local or regional events every month,” says Nick Kleva, sports market development manager at Visit South Bend Mishawaka.
The destination also wants to attract local high school and college esports teams. “We’ll try to activate six to seven local high schools. There are also five colleges in South Bend, one of which already has an esports team, and some of the others have expressed an interest in having competitions at Bendix as well,” Kleva comments.
The fact that South Bend isn’t a huge city should help esports gain attention and media exposure because the events won’t get lost. Says Kleva, “We’re creating a venue for esports. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports globally and is a big trend now, and we want to be a part of it.” SDM
At Bloomington-Normal, We Know Esports
The Sixty Six Games Expo presented by State Farm brings gamers, industry leaders and personalities together in a gaming celebration featuring High School and Open Divisions in League of League esports tournaments with a $6,000 prize pool. The 3rd annual Bloomington-Normal Video Game Convention is joining forces with the Sixty Six Games and will feature a retro gaming lounge, cosplay contest and over 50 vendors selling vintage games, gaming art, etc.
Additionally, industry experts from across the U.S. will present on various topics at the Esports Clinic, and amateur game developers will test their skills at the Game Jam. The Sixty Six Games Expo presented by State Farm is owned and operated by the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau/Sports Commission, a full service DMO with the experience and skills to successfully host your next esports event. More information can be found at VisitBN.org and SixtySixGames.com.