Digital Dominance | Sports Destination Management

Digital Dominance

From Purpose-Built Arenas to Hotel Ballrooms, Connections for Owners of Esports Events
Jan 04, 2024 | By: Michael Popke

Youth, high school, collegiate and professional players and teams are seemingly everywhere these days. Nationwide, sports tourism professionals recognize the lure of esports and the potential economic impact tournaments of all sizes can have on their communities. As a result, destinations continue to prioritize gaming and its related events by building or upgrading facilities.


DuPage County, Illinois

DuPage County, IL | Photo Courtesy of DuPage County, IL
DuPage County, IL | Photo Courtesy of DuPage County, IL

Here’s a fun fact: The Esports Trade Association (which exists to promote business expertise and sustainable growth of the esports industry) was founded, and still is based, in Chicago. It’s no big surprise, therefore, that one of the collar counties of the Chicagoland area, DuPage County, is home to a burgeoning esports scene.


The Scrims Esports Gaming Center in the Village of Lisle provides 6,000 square feet of space for gamers to compete in exclusive leagues and live tournaments. The facility, which also includes a private training room for school teams and clubs, offers 60 full PC stations with HyperX peripherals, 240Hz monitors, a broadcast room and space for spectators, vendors and sponsors. Scrims hosts several mid-size tournaments across various game titles such as Call of Duty, Counter Strike Offensive, Halo, Super Mario Smash, Valorant, Rocket League and Dota 2.


Other facilities in DuPage County that can accommodate esports events are the 25,000-square-foot Compass Arena, the 12,000-square-foot grand ballroom at the Waterford Banquet and Conference Center, and the Westin Chicago Lombard, DuPage County’s largest hotel, which hosted the renowned Frost Faustings XV fighting game tournament in February 2023.


“Unlike traditional sports tournaments, which can require very specific facilities, esports is unique in that we can generally turn a meeting space into a perfect space for gaming,” says Igor Bakovic, director of sports for the DuPage Sports Commission. “We have the right people in place to support growth in this market, and there is a need in the Midwest for more tournaments at every level.”


Frosty Faustings XV generated $2.81 million in economic impact and almost 2,500 total room nights, garnering the DuPage Sports Commission a 2023 Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism Award from Sports Destination Management. More than 3,500 people from throughout the U.S. competed across 25 game titles, and the four-day event also was an official qualifier for the Arc World Tour, a global fighting game tournament.


Hundreds of spots for Frosty Faustings XVI, slated for January 25-28, 2024 at the Westin Chicago Lombard, filled within minutes of registration opening, according to Bakovic, who expects another 3,500 participants this year.


“I think that speaks to the excellence of the event and the community that has been built over the past 15 years,” he says. “These loyal followers and fans come from across the United States, many attending every year. Like every other sport, people want community, connection and competition. When you watch an esports tournament, the excitement in the room is palpable. Esports are approachable and easily embraced, and that translates to a very positive trajectory.”


That trajectory is sky-high right now. According to research firm, Insider Intelligence, an estimated 31.6 million people watched esports in 2023, and esports ad revenues were expected to increase 10 percent to more than $264 million last year.


Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas, NV | Photo courtesy of HyperX Arena
Las Vegas, NV  |  Photo courtesy of HyperX Arena

“Esports has undergone a seismic shift, rapidly evolving from a subculture to a global spectacle,” says Yingua Chen, chief executive officer of Allied Esports and Allied Gaming & Entertainment, whose global flagship property, HyperX Arena Las Vegas at Luxor Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, boasts a 30,000-square-foot multi-level arena. “The unprecedented synergy of technology, connectivity, community and a fervent Gen Z audience are the catalysts.”


In addition to the HyperX Arena, Las Vegas also offers at least two other esports venues (Re:Match at The Linq and PokerGO Studio). And in 2018, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority helped bring the first standalone esports travel summit to the city.


“Along with our hotel partners, we have seen increased opportunities for esports in Las Vegas, ranging from tournaments of all sizes to B2B conferences such as the Esports Business Summit, which was held at MGM Grand in October, and the XLIVE Annual Conference held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in November,” says Lisa Motley, senior director of sports and special events for the LVCVA.


Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh, NC | Photo Courtesy of Subnation
Raleigh, NC | Photo Courtesy of Subnation

Since 2019, venues in North Carolina’s capital city have hosted award-winning global esports events. Each of these has dedicated time and resources to enhancing capabilities, educating staff and service providers, and to exceeding expectations, all to earn the trust of professional players, gaming communities, game publishers and event producers, according to Loren Gold, executive vice president of Visit Raleigh.


All of this behind-the-scenes work has helped earn Raleigh a top-five ranking as a U.S. esports host destination for three years running in a study conducted by gaming studio Subnation Media and the Greater Raleigh Esports Local Organizing Committee.


“We were the only U.S. city to activate at [the video games trade fair] gamescom 2023 held in Köln, Germany, resulting in many exclusive conversations around future event hosting opportunities,” Gold says. “This clearly demonstrates two important philosophies: Our proactive approach to engage with the industry and do business where they are, and not just wait to react to opportunities that arrive in our inbox, and our commitment to developing partnerships instead of pure transactional relationships.”


Raleigh hosted the 2023 League of Legends League Championship Series Spring Finals at PNC Arena, complete with an annual Fan Fest, and is set to host the 2024 Esports Travel Summit in May.


Gold says the largest contributor to the evolution of esports was the introduction of free and accessible-anywhere content platforms like Twitch and YouTube, which accelerated gaming fandom and its culture into what it is today. The Visit Raleigh team aligned itself with industry experts to accelerate its own understanding of the ins and outs of hosting esports events, and Gold and her staff aren’t done yet.


“We believe there are a multitude of opportunities around livestream events to provide destination storytelling to the worldwide fans within the various game communities,” she says.


Daytona Beach, Florida

Daytona Beach, FL | Photo Courtesy of Ocean Center
Daytona Beach, FL | Photo Courtesy of Ocean Center

About eight hours due south from Raleigh is another esports haven. Both Daytona Beach’s Ocean Center and Daytona International Speedway have hosted esports events (mainly fighting games) for the past decade, according to Brandon Little, sports business development manager for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.


Ocean Center has welcomed the CEO Fighting Game Championships for the past several years, and the Florida-based event (“CEO” stands for “Community Effort Orlando”) will return again in 2024.


“With our area already hosting esports events prior to the boom [esports] had during the pandemic, we felt well positioned to have a stronger presence in the esports community,” Little says. “One of the reasons that CEO has been successful is the consistency of using the same venue for many years. This makes it easier for the event organizer, fans and competitors to plan for each year. The venue also has an arena, which gives the event a unique look and feel.”


Little notes that the esports market is “constantly evolving and gaining new fans every day,” adding that there are significant differences between esports and other events that drive sports tourism.


“Traditional sports have a ‘youth sports’ category, which is vast, but esports is almost entirely made up of youth,” he says. “On the event owner/organizer side, you also see a younger and more diverse demographic. In my experience, esports organizers are more focused on the venue and event, whereas traditional sports spend a lot of time on hotel selection and offsite venues to host activities.”


Fortunately, Daytona Beach offers the best of both worlds, with prime esports venues and plenty of other amenities that appeal to tourists.


Irvine, California

Irvine, CA | Photo Courtesy of Destination Irvine
Irvine, CA | Photo Courtesy of Destination Irvine

The University of California, Irvine, was the first public university to create an official esports program, according to UCI officials, and its Esports Arena offers 3,500 square feet of space with 36 computers and a broadcast station. The Contender Esports Gaming Center, meanwhile, opened in early 2023 and hosts a variety of esports events, including a League of Legends tournament in November.


“Irvine is one of the largest gaming cities in the United States and opened the first esports arena at a university, which brings attention to Irvine,” says Dave Lucey, director of sales for Destination Irvine. “It’s become one of the fastest-growing sports, and I think esports is going to become more popular in high school as a sport.”


Akron, Ohio

Akron, OH | Photos Courtesy of University of Akron
Akron, OH | Photos Courtesy of University of Akron

Greater Akron is the home of the University of Akron and its four-time national champion Rocket League team, and the university’s esports program is among the nation’s most elite, according to Cindy Coontz, senior sales manager for the Akron/Summit Convention & Visitors Bureau.


The university boasts multiple esports facilities, including the Zips Gaming Lounge, the Zips Esports Center and the Akron Esports Arena at InfoCision Stadium. Akron has hosted the Esports Ohio high school state championships since 2021, as well as the National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors Coaches Clinic & Student Leadership Recruiting Event in 2022 and 2023.


“Its rapidly increasing popularity, youthful fanbase and tremendous untapped growth potential make esports an exciting segment that will help shape the future,” Coontz says about esports. “It offers a range of opportunities for established industry players and other companies wanting to leverage the buzz and reach esports’ coveted audience. Plus, esports has remained and will remain incredibly accessible.”


Surrey, British Columbia, Canada

Surrey, BC | Photos Courtesy of City of Surrey
Surrey, BC | Photos Courtesy of City of Surrey

Accessibility in esports is a prime priority at Surrey City Hall in what is fast becoming the most populous city in British Columbia.


Built to achieve Gold Certification from the Rick Hansen Foundation, a Canadian organization focused on raising awareness, changing attitudes and funding spinal cord injury research and care, Surrey City Hall is conveniently located near one of the city’s SkyTrain stations. The council chambers offer 3,600 square feet that can be transformed into an esports tournament venue with more than 200 permanent seats, a stage, projectors, television screens and a state-of-the-art audio system, according to Nicholas Blaga, community services assistant for Sport Surrey. Another esports venue in Surrey is the 25,000-square-foot Agriplex, which is capable of hosting more than 1,000 people.


Additionally, Electronic Arts (EA), one of the world’s leading videogame developers that counts FIFA and Madden NFL among its titles, has an office near Surrey, which has spurred increased local interest in esports, Blaga notes.


“While many esports initiatives are community-driven, Surrey is acutely aware of the importance of offering the passionate gaming community access to larger, more high-profile events,” he says. “The city is excited to develop opportunities to host this untapped market.” SDM

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