Winning Strategy | Sports Destination Management

Winning Strategy

With Surging Interest in Esports, Destinations Are Scoring Big
Dec 19, 2021 | By: Judy Leand
ARLINGTON, TX | Photo courtesy of Arlington CVB

Esports participation  is not only growing but broadening. There are presently more than 2.5 billion gamers around the world. In the U.S., 21 percent of participants are under age 

18, and 26 percent are aged between 34 and 54. About 41 percent of U.S. gamers are women. 

In an even more interesting trend, the 55 and over set is also becoming  interested in esports. 

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Japan’s seniors are engaging in competitive video gaming as a way to keep their minds sharp and a Swedish team, the Silver Snipers, was a 

pioneer of the idea of seniors playing esports professionally. 

The upshot is that esports have gained universal, mainstream appeal and destinations now have more opportunities than ever to serve this expanding market. Here’s a look at eight destinations that are rising to the top of the leader boards.

Albany, New York

The Capital Region has a robust talent pipeline fed by numerous local high schools and colleges with esports programming, plus a strong gaming hub with numerous developers in the area, including Activision-owned Vicarious Visions. The main venue for competition is the Albany Capital Center that provides dedicated Internet infrastructure for tournament play. The facility is home to the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championships as well as Hudson Valley Gamer Con, the largest intercollegiate esports event in the Northeast. ACC can accommodate small and large esports events, and can customize staging, lighting and broadcast options. 

“From small competitions to major tournaments, our scalable solutions can provide stress-free events and make participants feel like all-stars,” says Shannon Licygiewicz, general manager of Albany Capital Center. “We are open to attracting any demographic and welcoming them to our facility.” She notes that the esports events held at ACC have drawn participants from all over New York state and across the Northeast region, and the destination wants to add more esports events to its roster.

“Our key goals include [increasing] attendance at esports tradeshows, and the Center for Economic Growth has an initiative to support the egaming software industry locally,” says Jay Cloutier, Director of Sales at Discover Albany. “The region has supported collegiate competition with grants and other dollars, and there will eventually be a need for corporate involvement to support the future growth of the events that give this industry a profile.” 

Arlington, Texas

It’s always Game On in Arlington, which boasts the Esports Stadium Arlington + EXPO, the largest dedicated esports venue in North America. The 100,000-square-foot facility offers 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 35,000-square-foot arena, team areas, warm-up space, production studios, and can seat 2,500 spectators. 

Arlington hosted the 2021 Esports Awards in November, and has also held the Rocket League Championships, Counter-Strike Championships, and many other major esports tournaments. Pre-COVID, ESA hosted 20 to 25 major events annually, and is on track to host 25 to 30 by the end of 2022. While the events can vary drastically, the destination appeals to all levels, from hardcore fans and professional players to novices.

“Esports are universally appealing and we can offer diverse events citywide,” says Matt Wilson, executive director of the Arlington Sports Commission. “Our motto is, ‘We Crown Champions,’ and we look for the biggest and most prestigious events. We created a stadium that’s purpose-built. Depending on the event, we’ve had teams come from as far away as Brazil, Argentina, the U.K., Korea and Japan. We’ve built a reputation as the gold standard for esports and we don’t have to outsource anything. If you’re looking for a place with great authenticity and are serious about competing at the highest level, this is the place to do it.”

Atlantic City, New Jersey

Although best known for its boardwalk and casinos, Atlantic City is also an esports hub with a diverse range of venues. The 486,000-square-foot Atlantic City Convention Center and the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall with a 14,000-seat arena are both ideal for large tournaments, and nine casino resorts can provide hybrid meeting spaces suitable for smaller events. Previous premier esports events held in the city have included the 2019 Esports Travel Summit (resulting in $216,302 in economic impact), the 2019 Ultimate Gaming Championship Halo Classic ($254,170 in economic impact), and the 2019 Collegiate StarLeague (CSL) Grand Finals ($206,360 in economic impact). 

“While the esports demographic is dominated by the teenage-young adult range, Atlantic City has the amenities to lend itself to a wide array of participants and spectators,” says Daniel Gallagher, Director of Sports Sales, Atlantic City Sports Commission. “Our geographical location supports regional events, however we have also been fortunate to have the opportunity to host events on the national level.” She points out that venues throughout the city are continuing to invest in the digital space via sports betting and esports, and the destination sees great value in creating new, immersive experiences.

Hershey Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

In Central Pennsylvania, esports continues to flourish, due in large part to Harrisburg University and its Storm varsity esports program that fields highly successful teams in Overwatch, League of Legends and Hearthstone. The premier venue is the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, which includes a turnkey esports tournament facility. Harrisburg University also offers a variety of smaller gaming spaces. 

The region’s marquee esports event is the annual HUE Invitational hosted by Harrisburg University at Whitaker Center. The Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority estimates that the 2019 iteration of the tournament had a local economic impact of more than $1.2 million and attendance upwards of 2,500. HU also hosts the PA Cup, which crowns the best collegiate esports squad in the state.  

“While our connection to a proven leader in the collegiate esports industry (Harrisburg University) and a state-of-the-art event facility like Whitaker Center allow us to successfully host advanced skill levels, we also look to be a leader and facilitator when it comes to encouraging younger players into esports activities,” says Allison Rohrbaugh, marketing & communications director for Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority. “Organizations such as the PA ESports Coalition and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Esports Association are continually driving the conversation for how to promote and advance esports in our region.”

Johnson City, Tennessee

The esports scene is quickly expanding in this locale, and there are two main sites that work well for a variety of events. The Freedom Hall Civic Center has a 102-foot by 130-foot arena floor, a 6,000-seat capacity, upgraded HD lighting, newly renovated concessions, videoboard, sound system and on-site staging. The 93,000-square-foot Martin Center for the Arts boasts three venues (with the largest having a 1,200-person capacity), additional breakout rooms, top-of-the-line sound and connectivity, and an adjacent hotel. Both facilities have full locker rooms, concessions and food prep areas, and free onsite parking.

“We currently hold two to three esports events annually and are looking for partners to build large-scale events,” says Gavin Andrews, director of sports development, Visit Johnson City, TN. He notes that The Battle at Buff Nation Esports Tournament is held on the Milligan University campus each April. “We welcome all player demographics, and we would prefer that there be amateur component events when attracting elite players.” He adds, “We are happy to look for any ways we can help support events, including offsetting venue costs.”

Raleigh, North Carolina

This destination is leveling up in the esports market, as evidenced by the formation of the Greater Raleigh Esports Local Organizing Committee. 

“We have a 10-year strategic plan that calls for the understanding, development and the strategic planning around our entire esports and gaming ecosystem in Greater Raleigh,” explains Loren Gold, executive vice president of Greater Raleigh CVB. “We are home to eight game publishers including Epic and Ubisoft; endemic companies like Lenovo, Cisco and Red Hat that are major players in the gaming space; and passionate, non-endemic companies that support esports through sponsorship or employee team building strategies. Add in our abundance of academic institutions and our public sector (local and state governments) understanding of esports as an academic and economic development driver, and we are primed to be not only a U.S. leader in esports, but to be highly recognized in the global market as well.” 

North Carolina has enacted the nation’s first global-reaching esports tax incentive program that will provide up to $5 million in funds annually through FY2024 to encourage esports productions and events to be hosted in the state.

Most esports events are held in public venues such as the Raleigh Convention Center, PNC Arena, Reynolds Coliseum and the Herb Young Center. There is also a private esports game center at Contender Esports that works with local and regional competitions. Raleigh hosts two to four events annually and wants to increase that number to eight to 10 events per year. 

“We have had local/regional events for 1,000 people, national events for 3,000-plus people, and are currently working on events for 10,000-25,000 people for our arena. Direct economic impact has run from $80,000 to $5.7 million,” reports Gold. “We are exploring more collegiate event opportunities that would allow us to partner with not only NC State University, but our two local Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Shaw University and St. Augustine’s University), as well as our all-female four-year institution at Meredith College. Additionally, our two-year junior college, Wake Tech Community College, and our local public high schools via Wake County Public Schools, bring another level of age and DEI opportunities through their curriculum, clubs and varsity athletic teams.” 

South Bend, Indiana

South Bend is firmly on the esports map, and boasts the 100,000-square-foot Century Center Convention Center, home to the Bendix Arena powered by Xfinity and the Xfinity Gaming Center. The 600-seat Bendix arena is the region’s only dedicated esports facility and it offers state-of-the-art lighting and sound; space for expos, vendors and panels; team rooms; and a production booth to control lights, sound and broadcasts. The Xfinity Gaming Center houses 36 gaming PC stations, two Xbox Series X, and two PlayStation 5 set-ups — everything needed for casual or competitive gaming.  

Bendix Arena opened in spring 2021 and the first event was held in October. High school teams, colleges and universities, and members of the local community have all expressed interest in hosting events at the arena. 

“When we were in the planning stages of Bendix Arena, our goal was to have one event each quarter. We quickly realized that we had something special and the planners were calling,” relates Nick Kleva, sports tourism manager, Visit South Bend Mishawaka. “We had four events on the calendar in the last quarter of 2021 and already have four events planned for the first half of 2022. Our expectations are to have these events on an annual basis but keep growing and expanding them over the years.” 

Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

Although esports is a newer target market for this locale, event planners are sure to appreciate the excellent facilities, easy accessibility (located just 40 minutes from Philadelphia International Airport), more than 80 hotels, and a plethora of activities to pursue when away from the gaming keyboards. 

The two main venues are the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks, and the Valley Forge Casino Resort. The Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks provides 250,000 square feet of flexible space along with recently upgraded Internet capabilities. The Valley Forge Casino Resort has two esports-ready spaces: The Venue, with a built-in stage and two levels for spectator viewing, and the Event Center that features 55,000 square feet of flexible space with built-in monitors scattered throughout. Additionally, Montgomery County Community College offers a 20,000-square-foot gym with built-in seating for 1,000, and has an active esports club on campus.

“Valley Forge and Montgomery County have a great base infrastructure in place for hosting esports, and we’re an attractive destination for both youth and adult events,” says Jon Scheuren, director of sports, Valley Forge Convention & Tourism Board. “[We] also have a funding program available for qualifying events coming to Montgomery County to assist with event-related expenses. We are looking forward to welcoming more esports events in the near future.”  SDM

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