Ready Player One: The Dish on eSports

When the Sacramento Kings unveiled Golden 1 Center in 2016, it had all the bells and whistles expected in today’s modern arenas, including luxury suites, exclusive clubs and upscale dining options. But there’s one attraction that makes the stadium truly stand out: the world’s first dedicated esports training facility inside a pro sports venue. Already touted as the country’s most high-tech stadium, the state-of-the-art venue-within-a-venue esports training center, at about 2,000 square feet, has a spacious lounge complete with an oxygen bar and trendy drinks like kombucha and nitrogen coffee. There’s also a studio and green-screen room with 4K cameras, where players can live stream video, blog and create content to share with fans. While the Kings’ esports arena is the first of its kind, it’s going to have plenty of competition. A growing number of cities and organizations are developing esports arenas to take advantage of the skyrocketing popularity of video gaming, a market that’s valued at approximately $612 million, according to SuperData, which provides data on the gaming industry. The Kings’ esports facility is home to the team’s NBA 2K League team, which will compete against 16 other teams, says Ryan Montoya, the Kings’ chief technology officer, who oversees the esports group. The Kings recruited the six-player team, comprised of mostly 20-somethings, from all over the country. The NBA will pay each player between $32,000 and $34,000 for the six-month season. The Kings provide housing and transportation, along with training and coaching. “We’re treating them just like professional NBA athletes,” Montoya says. The NBA 2K League has a prize pool of $1 million for the entire season, which started in May. Montoya says most tournaments will likely be played in New York. [inlinead align="left"][/inlinead] While the esports venue currently serves as a training facility, it’s designed to eventually integrate with the entire Golden 1 Center. “Technology is in our DNA,” says Montoya. “We created the esports facility to serve as a place for our 2K team to practice and to host smaller events, but our goal is to eventually expand into the rest of the arena and host much larger events. Golden 1 was built specifically for that purpose.” For example, the arena has a 200-gigabit-per-second internet connection. “That’s usually what you would have for a town of 17,000 homes; we have it for 17,000 fans,” Montoya says. The arena also has a 4K high-definition videoboard with a four-screen Panasonic display. In addition, there are more than 100 Wi-Fi access points. “It’s the most connected facility in the world and designed to scale to bigger events in the future.”

Developing a Template

Also looking to host big esports events is Arlington, Texas, which recently announced plans for a state-of-the-art esports stadium designed to draw competitive players from around the world. The 100,000-sq.-ft. space, which would be the largest and most flexible esports stadium in the country, is set to open this fall. Arlington is working with Esports Venues LLC on the venture, and together they are investing $10 million into Arlington Convention Center to transform it into an esports stadium to host live events. Plans for the stadium include dedicated spaces for gaming and retail, along with VIP hospitality, a broadcast studio and team training areas. Ron Price, Arlington CVB’s president and CEO, says the city’s ability and readiness to invest in the emerging esports entertainment market reflects Arlington’s drive to remain a thriving tourism destination. Frisco, Texas-based NGAGE Esports, an event management and entertainment marketing company, will manage the stadium. President Jonathon Oudthone founded NGAGE, a division of Infinite Esports & Entertainment, in January. Oudthone has a 10-year career in esports, including organizing and streaming local-level fighting game events and working as a freelance broadcast director for companies like Capcom, Evolution Championship Series and KIT Gaming. He calls the planned Arlington esports arena a “milestone” for the industry. Oudthone explains that NGAGE works with third-party organizations that run esports events, and he believes the Arlington venue will be well positioned to attract some of the biggest esports events in the world that are interested in coming to the Dallas/ Fort Worth area. “Organizers are looking for venues with lots of power,” he says. “There are huge power load requirements with all the audio and video effects and theatrical lightning, not to mention the gaming consoles. One esports team could have four to six players, and each one needs his own PC, monitor and set of peripherals.” Oudthone says that to land high-profile esports events, a venue has to be able to facilitate that kind of major power infrastructure and have the right network capability and bandwidth to support not only the gaming, but also to broadcast the events on platforms like Twitch and YouTube “to viewers across the planet.” While Oudthone is currently working only on the Arlington venue, he believes they’re creating a multifaceted industry template that NGAGE can hopefully replicate in cities all over the country. “The vision with a space like this is the venue isn’t built just for esports, but other events as well,” says Oudthone. “When you’re coming into a blank box and setting up for an esports event it can require three or four days’ worth of technical setup. We want to prove that we can build a facility that can house all of the needed technology and cut down on the costs, labor and logistics of the setup. We predict other cities will also want to do this, especially with the economic impact of the sport.”

An Esports Ecosystem

One venue hoping to capitalize on esport’s economic impact is the new Esports Arena Las Vegas, which opened in March. Located at Luxor, the new 30,000-sq.-ft. venue is the first permanent esports venue on the Strip. It’s also the flagship of Allied Esports, which manages and operates six esports venues, including locations in China and Europe, as well as two 18-wheelers that serve as mobile esports touring arenas. “We’re about properties, brands and content,” says Allied Esports CEO Jud Hannigan. “We utilize properties to create exciting event brands. These arenas are designed to be content-generation hubs and give us a market-based ecosystem that didn’t exist before esports.” Hannigan says Esports Arena Las Vegas is unique in that it combines interactive entertainment and Vegas nightlife, and is designed to attract both newcomers as well as competitive professionals. “All our venues are dedicated community hubs for professional gamers to compete in, but the Vegas location has an added layer to appeal to a broader audience,” he says. “It’s a great entry to the curious passerby who has never played esports.” The multilevel arena has a competition stage, a 1,000-sq.-ft. LED video wall, telescopic seating, daily gaming stations, VIP rooms (it is Vegas, after all), and state-of-the-art streaming and television-quality production studios. There’s even a history of gaming exhibit that features eight generations of consoles, from Pong and Atari to Super Mario. Hannigan says the venue, which can accommodate about 1,500 people, will provide a ready-to-go destination for themed weekly events as well as high-profile weekend tournaments, many of which will be broadcast on TV and the internet. “The space is like nothing else out there,” he says. “From a live-event experience standpoint, plus content capability, not much can offer the same thing. It’s flexible and purpose-built, and can accommodate different requirements for each game, including space, data and power. That’s impactful for people looking to host an event.” Hannigan says Allied Esports is planning to announce other esports arena locations over the next few years and hopes to address some of the challenges that exist in esports today, including creating a professional path for aspiring amateurs and limiting barriers of entry for sponsors. “Gaming has been popular for a long time, but due to livestreaming, suddenly you found people being entertained by watching other people play a game,” he says. “The numbers and online traffic surrounding these competitive events are amazing. This industry has no limits."