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From shopping malls to purpose-built arenas, a cascade of new venues are under construction or in development to meet the rise of esports in the U.S., becoming the real-life battlegrounds for competitive gaming.
Esports is a hot sector not only in the sheer number of investors but also in the new leagues, teams, and related ventures that have been founded in recent years. While esports is digitally based, the industry increasingly needs a variety of physical spaces to house its in-person events, so a boom period is starting around building competitive gaming infrastructure.
Even well-known sports architects and design firms are getting in on the trend, as gaming properties build their own homes and some destinations refurbish their confines to become alluring to tournament organizers.
In addition to training centers that several teams are building, projects currently underway in the U.S. include:
Customized for Esports
“We’re building this from the ground up with esports as the main component; it’s not a retrofit [but rather] something we’re customizing for the esports enthusiast,” said Brian Esposito, vice president of partnerships for Spectra, which is the exclusive sales agent of Fusion Arena.
For example, Esposito noted that all seats are being built facing the main stage. That often isn’t the case when esports events are held in traditional sports venues that are bigger and require a portion of seats behind a stage not to be used. The arena, developed with The Cordish Cos., is being built in the Philadelphia Sports Complex, which also houses Lincoln Financial Field, Wells Fargo Center, and Xfinity Live, giving it close proximity to a hive of sports passion in the city.
The exterior of the venue will have a sleek metallic look comparable to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and it will include a 6,000-square-foot public entryway plus premium loge boxes, exclusive seats and a training facility. Populous is the architect of the arena, which will have numerous LED screens around the concourses and other areas. The Fusion will host at least a handful of Overwatch League homestands a year once it opens.
The $50M home of the Overwatch League’s Philadelphia Fusion will feature a 6,000-square-foot public entryway.
Esposito and his team are selling naming rights to the venue and talking to brands about buying founder-level sponsorships — similar to what is seen with new traditional sports venues. While Esposito wouldn’t reveal the exact stage of talks Spectra is in with prospective naming-rights buyers, he confirmed that the agency expects to unveil a deal either late this year or early next year.
The venue will open in 2021, but Spectra wants to get a partner in early so it can help design the venue, according to Joe Marsh, who formerly was chief business officer of the Fusion before taking on a different esports-related role for Comcast Spectacor.
The arena is being touted as the largest new purpose-built esports arena in the Western Hemisphere. Other esports arenas in the U.S. include Allied Esports’ HyperX Esports Arena in Las Vegas; Full Sail University’s Fortress Esports Arena near Orlando; and Esports Stadium Arlington in Texas.
Leading digital streaming platform Twitch is taking another venue route by sponsoring the Raiders’ new Allegiant Stadium, which will include a branded lounge in the lower level of the venue.
Doug Scott, CMO of Twitch, said that this deal is the first of its kind for the streaming giant, which is planning both esports competitions and non-esports events at the lounge. Terms of the deal were not disclosed; Legends Global Partnerships secured the pact on behalf of Allegiant Stadium. Twitch declined to share the square footage or capacity of the lounge.
Twitch’s esports lounge at the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium under construction in Las Vegas will feature streaming stations and viewer screens.
In an email, Scott indicated that the lounge will have streamer stations and viewing screens, and Twitch will leverage the space to bring out its community of streamers to various events. Twitch is also trying to expand beyond just being known for streaming gaming, as Scott noted that there are Twitch streams on topics including cooking, music, and painting that his company could do events around at the lounge.
Scott declined to say if Twitch will be looking to build out similar physical spaces in other sports stadiums.
“Everything we do is in service of our community, and our audience has made their love of sports loud and clear. We’ve seen a lot of success with ‘Thursday Night Football’ on Twitch where top personalities host streams of the game and comment in real-time with it,” Scott wrote. “The opportunity to be a founding partner at Allegiant Stadium was a perfect way to build on this. Additionally, the audience crossover between esports and traditional sports is massive.”
Reimagining the Mall Experience
One of the country’s biggest real estate owners is turning to competitive gaming as a way to reinvent its properties.
Simon Property Group, the largest mall operator in the U.S., invested $5M in esports infrastructure company Allied Esports in a deal announced in June. As part of the investment, Simon will work with Allied to build esports facilities in several malls that will host gaming competitions among other events.
Simon and Allied Esports have not yet announced which mall locations will get the esports facilities, but Allied CEO Frank Ng said that the locations will be more like community centers than full-blown arenas.
For Simon, this is a way to help turn its malls into more experience-driven hubs that will continue to give people a reason to come out in person at a time when e-commerce is leading to more people shopping at home.
“Esports is a giant baby as an industry — it’s still very young … but one very important factor is we must bring the viewing experience offline like you have with concerts for music and theaters for movies,” Ng said. “You have to have the physical touchpoints to create authenticity so real hardcore players in the community will become the influencers to spread the gospel around, so that’s why we believe creating these physical touchpoints is extremely important for the industry.”
Adams Stern is a staff writer for Sports Business Journal, where this article first appeared.