Vindex has acquired the hometown esports Belong Gaming Arenas brand and all associated IP from European game retail giant GAME Digital.
Vindex plans to open more than 500 Belong locations in hometowns across America, and another 1,000 locations outside of the U.S. through its licensed operating partners —including GAME — over the next five years.
Esports Insider sat down with Vindex CEO and Co-founder Mike Sepso, who explained why localisation has become so vital to the esports ecosystem.
Go big by going small
“I think that overall, the industry acknowledges that localization is an important part of the growth of esports,” said Sepso, using the Overwatch League as an example. “Everything can’t happen just online or in big city arenas. What we’re trying to do is bring the esports experience through the Belong system to home towns across America. That’s key for us.”
Andbox, the ownership group behind New York Excelsior and New York Subliners, has already partnered with Belong to erect gaming centres in multiple locations throughout New York City. A similar agreement has also been made with Dallas-based organisation Envy Gaming.
Sepso likened hometown esports to his experience of playing tee-ball as a kid. He had aspirations of playing for the New York Yankees and, had he possessed the skills, climbed an established career path to get there. The career path for esports, however, is far more fragmented.
“[Establishing a career] in esports really started with companies like MLG in the early days as a grassroots movement we organized ourselves,” he recalled. “Then a few years ago, with the roll out OWL, it skipped ahead to ironing out how pro leagues were going to work, which is an enormous step for the industry and esports fans. But what we have to do know is kind of fill in that middle segment.”
Belong arenas will be like local baseball diamonds, he hopes, where gamers can go to play and find resources for finding local teams.
“It’s a big vision for us that GAME has been able to do really effectively,” he added.
Building the ‘home team’
GAME Digital CEO Martyn Gibbs has joined Vindex as CEO of Belong Gaming to lead the US rollout and global expansion strategy. Further additions to the management team include Adam Apicella, CEO of Esports Engine as Vindex’s Chief Experience Officer and Rahul Jaiswal as Finance Director.
Sepso is confident that the team that Vindex has and continues to build will create the value and insights necessary to bring hometown esports to communities worldwide.
“Our management team [posesses] a tremendous amount of deep roots experience in the video game industry and in esports,” said Sepso. “We tried to design Belong Arenas to matter and be valuable to a wide variety of constituents. [That includes] our game publishing partners, streaming platforms, the shopping center and property owners, and most importantly, gamers. This is a system that we think is well suited for the industry overall and will help to expand and grow esports globally.”
Keeping hometown esports safe in a pandemic
Opening hubs in the local community will be a challenge during the COVID-19 crisis, but Sepso says they are not rushing things. Vindex will coordinate with local health authorities, property owners, etc. to make sure that arena openings will be safe. GAME has already started to reopen locations across the UK where possible.
In the meantime, Vindex is “working furiously” to build a digital product that will serve as a counterpart to the physical arena experience. The “magic” happens when the Belong network works together in-person and online for a seamless experience, said Sepso.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he admitted. “What we’re trying to do is take a big ambitious goal and solve for that missing component of the overall esports ecosystem, which is the casual and amateur player.
It has been a dream of mine for a long time to bring the gaming community and experience that you get at big esports events to hometowns across America,” he said. “That’s the next big thing that’s exciting for me.”