No one mold for esports venues as arenas continue to grow

The FACEIT ECS Season 6 semifinals play out at the Esports Stadium Arlington on Nov. 28 in Arlington, Texas. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The convoy of cars pulling into the parking lot at Esports Stadium Arlington and the line of fans waiting to enter the building on the Saturday after Thanksgiving have taken the parking attendants at the connected Arlington Convention Center by surprise.

"Are you here for the football game?" the attendant asks.

"What football game?" the young driver responds.

"Texas Tech and Baylor," the attendant says. "They're playing at AT&T Stadium."

"No," the driver says as he pays $10 for parking. "I don't like football."

The bewildered look on the attendant's face upon hearing that a young man from Texas doesn't like football was similar to the reaction of many of the older ushers inside the Esports Stadium Arlington watching 2,500 fans cheering while watching the best Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players and teams in the world compete in the Esports Championship Series Season 6 finals.

It was the first event held at the Esports Stadium Arlington, which is the newest and largest esports events center in North America. It's a $10 million, 100,000 square-foot facility built within the Arlington Convention Center that can seat anywhere from 250 fans to 2,500 fans depending on the event. It's the newest addition to a region that is the home of AT&T Stadium, the $1.5 billion home of the Dallas Cowboys, and in 2020 will be the home of Globe Life Field, the new $1.1 billion home of the Texas Rangers, which are all located within a walking mile of each other.

"The convention center was in need of some physical enhancements and improvements, particularly in the technology area, and as we started to look at that we also saw the rapid growth of the esports industry," said Jim Parajon, Arlington deputy city manager. "We are very thoughtful in the business decisions we make, and we do a significant amount of analysis, and once we complete that analysis, we're ready to move forward as fast as we can, especially with these emerging industries.

"We're not going to be in it in a little way. We're going to be in it in a big way. I think you can see that with the Esports Stadium, AT&T Stadium and the new Rangers ballpark."

The stadium isn't really a stadium in the traditional sense compared to the billion-dollar homes of Cowboys and Rangers. It's more of a remodeled convention center space complete with a built-in 85-foot long LED wall, eight team locker rooms, a player lounge and media room. There's also a state-of-the-art production facility equipped with a studio, data center and control room. The front of the stadium features retail space, concession stands and a gaming center that is open from noon to 2 a.m. seven days a week where anyone can hop on a PC, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch or Xbox One for one hour for $4 (or $100 for 100 hours).

"We looked at every need for esports from the community level to the player experience, and we took all of those needs and built it into one single footprint here in Arlington," said NGAGE Esports president Jonathan Oudthone, who will help book and manage the events at the stadium. "We not only want to host events for thousands of people, but we want the gaming center to be a local community hub every day. We want to create an ecosystem for esports in which all these different focuses are existing in one building."

Esports Stadium Arlington is just one of many esports-specific venues, big and small, popping up around the country. The rise of esports venues doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has been following it in recent years. The 2018 Global Esports Market Report estimates that global esports revenues will reach $1.4 billion by 2020 with the global esports audience reaching around 400 million.

In 2017, there were 588 major esports events that generated an estimated $59 million in ticket revenues, which was up from $32 million in 2016. The League of Legends World Championship alone generated $5.5 million in ticket revenues.

Populous, a global architectural firm that has worked on more than 50 venues for the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, helped bring Esports Stadium Arlington to life and is working on other esports venues around the country. While there is usually a set seating capacity for arenas and stadiums that floats around the average of professional sports leagues, Populous knows that's not exactly the case with esports. The venues need to be adaptable to small crowds of 25, small tournaments of 250 and larger events such as the ECS with 2,500.

"About five years ago we started doing a lot of research that I've been leading on how we can connect with the esports audience and connect venues around that," Populous senior principal and director Brian Mirakian said. "Esports is still very formational. There's a lot more structure that's happening with leagues such as the Overwatch League with their regional model, but it's still a formational sport in terms of the different leagues and competitions. So the goal is to create a place where fans can gather for these social experiences and be with other fans. The live experience is a big driver in what the future of the sport is going to hold."

The key from a cost and usage perspective is that none of the esports venues that are popping up around the country have been built from the ground up. They've been constructed within preexisting structures that have been previously used as convention halls, nightclubs, sound stages or movie theaters.

"Looking at it from an adaptive re-use perspective allows you to go into a building and frankly not have to invest as much as you would with a new build," Mirakian said. "And because of that, in Arlington, they were able to really focus their investment on the fan experience and technology and do it in a fast-paced project that was over in six months from start to finish. It was quick and economical and I see that as a great template for people to get involved in this space. It will evolve and I think in the very near future you will see purpose-built venues developed from the ground up, but it takes time. This is really the start of things to come."

The birthplace of esports venues in North America began at the corner of 5th Street and Sycamore Street in Santa Ana, California, which is one of the more interesting intersections in the country. On one corner is the historic brick-laced Ramona Building that has been the home of the Esports Arena for three years, and across the street is the Church of Scientology of Orange County.

"There's not a lot of crossover," Frank Kelley, the director of operations at the Esports Arena, said with a smile. "I don't think we have the same demo."

Longtime friends Tyler Endres and Paul Ward, who would set up their computers at a friend's house and play Halo 2 for hours in high school, founded the arena in the 15,000 square-foot warehouse that once housed quinceañera and wedding shops and now is home to more than 120 PCs and other game consoles. The idea was to give gamers like them a place to gather and play outside of apartments, garages and internet cafes where LAN parties had predominantly been held and to give leagues and organizers a dedicated esports venue to host their events.

"It's cool to see what I've started is expanding," Endres said. "I hope all these new esports venues succeed. It validates the industry and validates what I've done and helps create more of a demand. The success heavily relies on foot traffic and the events, which cost a lot of money to put on, and you're not going to have a big event every week."

With that in mind, Kelly, who used to be the general manager at the Improv comedy club in Irvine and later booked shows at The Observatory in San Diego and Orange County, is trying to book non-esports events such as comedy shows, podcasts and concerts at the Esports Arena on nights where the main stage isn't scheduled to be used.

"With esports, you don't have tournaments every night," Kelley said, "so your main stage is not utilized on a nightly basis, and there's all these dark periods where you could utilize it. And with my background, I want to fill the arena with top-notch entertainment on off nights with hard ticket sales and bring in a different demo than we normally get. In the future I'd like to merge entertainers with gamers to increase the popularity of esports, like we saw happen with Drake and Ninja."

The biggest weekly event at the Esports Arena is "Wednesday Night Fights." It's a night dedicated to the fighting game community with open tournaments ranging from Street Fighter V to Marvel vs. Capcom. The weekly event is open to anyone willing to pay a $10 tournament entry free and was started by Alex Valle, who is the founder of Level Up, a production company that produces live streaming broadcasts at esports events.

"I think in the very near future you will see purpose-built venues developed from the ground-up, but it takes time. This is really the start of things to come." Brian Mirakian, Populous senior principal and director

"We used to play in the arcades, but there's not that many arcades anymore, so I decided to host some events. And the very first event I hosted was in my apartment, and only two people came," Valle said. "We then went to a friend's house and got 20 people and then to a friend's garage and got 50, and the next thing we knew Wednesday Night Fights was born. When Esports Arena first opened, I knew this was going to be the future. We had over 400 people come out to our first event."

Earlier this year Esports Arena opened in Oakland's famed Jack London Square, and Allied Esports International worked with Endres to open an Esports Arena inside the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. While the Oakland venue is similar in feel and size to the original in Santa Ana, the Las Vegas arena is unlike anything else in the space right now. They took over a 30,000-square-foot corner of the casino that once housed a popular nightclub and put in a 50-foot LED video wall, a broadcast center and production studio, luxury VIP lounges, private gaming suites, a vintage video game cocktail bar and a gamer-inspired menu created by renowned chef (and occasional gamer) Jose Andres.

"We have very ambitious expansion plans over the next two years, and when we realized that a location at Luxor was possible, we jumped at the opportunity to develop our flagship here," CEO of Allied Esports International Jud Hannigan said. "Just as Yankees Stadium, Lambeau Field and The Staples Center are considered their sports' most aspirational venues by players and fans alike, Esports Arena Las Vegas will be the iconic destination in esports."

Johnny Carson and Jay Leno's pictures and old NBC logos are still plastered on the walls of Studio 1 at what was the old home of NBC Studios and "The Tonight Show" in Burbank, California. The building is now called Burbank Studios; Studio 1 is now called Blizzard Arena, and the old pictures and logos are the the last vestiges of "The Tonight Show" in Los Angeles before Jimmy Fallon moved it to New York in 2014.

Blizzard Arena, which opened last year, is the home of the Overwatch League with all competitions outside of the grand final taking place on the old sound stage Carson and Leno used to call home. The 11,000 square-foot sound stage has been transformed into one of the most visually impressive esports venues in the country with a 13,000-pixel-wide 4 milllimeter LED wall and an LED halo hanging above the 450 seats. It's just part of the 74,000 square-foot, five-level facility Blizzard Entertainment took over and transformed into their new home last year.

"I was giving a tour one day, and I told some players this is where Johnny Carson used to do 'The Tonight Show,'" said Frank LaSpina, senior producer of Overwatch League and Blizzard Arena. "They just looked at me confused. So I said, 'He did 'The Tonight Show' before Jay Leno.' And I got the same look. They were so young so I said, 'before Jimmy Fallon' and they said, 'Oh, that's cool.' There's a lot of history here, and there's this interesting dichotomy where the future of sports and entertainment is happening in a facility that has been around since the 1950s. It's totally up to date, but 'Days of Our Lives' still films down the hallway, so that cool dichotomy still exists."

The Overwatch League currently has 20 teams affiliated with cities all over the world, but those teams currently play all their regular season games in Burbank. The tentative plan is for the teams to play in their home cities as early as 2020, which would be the league's third season. The Los Angeles Valient has already announced they will play their home games at the Microsoft Theater across the street from Staples Center. It is believed that the Los Angeles Gladiators would play their home games in the amphitheater being built next to the future home stadium of the Los Angeles Rams, which will be completed in 2020. Stan Kroenke owns both the Rams and Gladiators.

For now, however, the hub of esports is still in Los Angeles, and the epicenter of some of the biggest events planned around the world is at Riot Games, which is the developer and publisher of League of Legends. The home venue for the League Championship Series, the LCS Arena, is conveniently located across the street from the company's campus.

"When we started the LCS in 2013, we had no live audience, and we were literally separating the teams with curtains," said Chris Hopper, head of Esports for North America for Riot Games. "We moved to a soundstage in Manhattan Beach in 2014, but by 2015 we had the opportunity to set up shop on campus, and it was a great solution for all of our needs. We wanted to create a home base where our teams, talent and staff could build their presence and hone in on their craft."

The LCS Arena seats about 400 fans, and like the Blizzard Arena stages all the competitions during the regular season before they go on the road for the finals. While the LCS Spring and Summer finals are held at NBA arenas such as Oracle Arena in Oakland or TD Garden in Boston, the League of Legends World Championship finals are often held in stadiums such at the Bird's Nest in Beijing in 2017 and Incheon Munhak Stadium in South Korea in November.

When people talk about the popularity of esports and bring up a picture or video of a stadium filled for an esports competition, chances are they're looking at a League of Legends event.

"There's always something incredible about going to these massive venues like the Bird's Nest," Hopper said. "As a former soccer player, there was something special about going to the Seoul World Cup Stadium and standing on a field where World Cup games took place. We've been lucky to have so many of our events take place in such iconic venues."

The goal for esports teams and leagues now is to build their own iconic venues that future fans and players can look forward to visiting and playing in.

"That day is coming," Mirakian said. "It's going to happen sooner than people think."