Why esports is a game changer

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Oliver Nichols

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Competitive computer gaming, known as esports, is predicted to become the world’s biggest spectator sport, surpassing American Football, by 2025. The esports phenomenon is challenging our venues and driving us to create flexible spaces, says RLB’s Director Oliver Nichols.

The state of play for sporting and entertainment venues

The first computer game competition was held in 1972 at Stanford University. But it wasn’t until the development and accessibility of faster broadband internet speeds, along with better connectivity, that the global competitive tournament play and live video streaming took off.

Today the popularity of esports has grown exponentially year on year along with sponsorship and prize money. Professional players compete in esports leagues, and esports teams are increasingly a part of pro-sport leagues and franchises.

With the largest growing fanbase of any sports, there are estimated to be over 495 million esports viewers worldwide, with 223 million of these devout esports enthusiasts. In 2019 we saw teenage gaming sensations pocket millions of dollars watched by millions of fans across the world.

‘For a sport that happens largely in the virtual world, the opportunity to connect in the real world is critical to building a community. Finding the right venue to host esports can be a challenge, but there are huge opportunities ahead for designers that think out of the box,’ says RLB in Sydney Director Oliver Nichols.

Space invaders demand fresh perspectives

For a sport that happens largely in the virtual world, the opportunity to connect in the real world is critical to building a community. In esports terms, connectivity is both physical and psychological. While esports generate a mass of online spectators, events are increasingly popular as players and fans get the chance to engage with each other.

When stability and connectivity are priorities for an esports tournament, finding a suitable venue to host esports events can be a challenge. There are varying types of game platforms and competitions, meaning that no one layout suits all. Venues can require dramatic transformations to accommodate gamer and fan engagement.

Currently esports are played in a variety of sport and entertainment spaces: cinemas, convention centres, arenas and stadia. All have pros and cons.

The large open space of a convention centre – which enables the venue to be adapted to suit the specific competition requirements – means tournaments with multiple matches can take place at any one time. However, overlay costs can be higher due as hi-tech infrastructure equipment, stages for competitors and seating for spectators are temporarily installed.

Stadia and arenas have the advantage of existing infrastructure and can easily be adapted with a variety of stage styles. Many esports tournaments use an end-stage setup where a ringed spectator seating is required. Arenas can be configured with a centre staging and centrally hung jumbotrons. Stadia and arenas can accommodate large crowds, however upper seating bowls are generally empty due to poor spectator viewing of players, commentators and most importantly screens. In addition, there is often a requirement for additional temporary mechanical and electrical services due to the IT load and cooling requirements.

Design responds to the call of duty

Venues are starting to explore what their purpose-built facilities will look like in the future and how they can attract the next generation of fans while satisfying the diverse needs of competitors. The challenge is to design adaptive entertainment venues, not an easy feat when traditional bowl designs can compromise the experience of the esports players, fans or both.

Lead designers are working with stakeholders to create appropriate venues and solutions to these issues. Detroit-based architect firm Rossetti argues that an inverted bowl arena has several benefits for esports. The inverted bowl concept brings spectators closer to the action by eliminating the upper bowl and projecting tiered balconies forward. With large ceiling hung videoboards, this arrangement provides fans with optimal views of screens and players on-stage. Compared to a traditional bowl, an inverted bowl generates a smaller footprint which can provide a more scalable solution for dedicated esports venues.

Global architecture firm HOK has also been exploring the scalability and adaptiveness of venues to meet specific gaming needs, with player infrastructure being easily transferrable around an arena to create different atmospheres and experiences. HOK has designed a circular system consisting of large, movable, petal-shaped screens with the ability to display content, for lighting and effects. These huge surfaces hang above the seating bowl and double as team screens for a players’ hub located centrally in the arena.

Populous, specialists in arenas, convention centres and other sporting facilities, applied new technology to design a ceiling transformation system that shape-shifts into a variety of configurations and sizes dependent on an events scale. The ceiling acts as an immersive projection canvas and can be adapted from full arena mode into a half-house or quarter house mode to create a more intimate and atmospheric venue.

Competition for esports hots up

While many larger esports events will continue to be held in existing large-scale stadia and arenas, there is an increasing demand from organisations and companies to create dedicated esports arenas.

In 2018, part of the Arlington Convention Centre was transformed into the largest dedicated gaming and esports facility in North America with a capacity of 2,500. The arena is open to the public seven days a week and features over 50 gaming stations. In addition, the arena houses broadcast studios, team training facilities and social and retail spaces for spectators and fans. It has become the source of valuable data and insight into the expectations of fans and engagement from a social and cultural perspective.

In 2021 we should see the completion of Fusion Arena, the first ground-up purpose-built esports arena in the western hemisphere. The 3,500-capacity venue located in Philadelphia will accommodate team offices and training facility along with a broadcast studio. Spectators will be treated to a variety of viewing experiences including two balcony bars, seats with USB ports, boxes and suites.

On a smaller scale, the Fortress Melbourne Esports Arena is the largest esports arena in the southern hemisphere. Located within the Emporium Melbourne shopping complex the venue includes a 200-seat purpose-built esports arena, gaming suites, restaurant, two bars and a professional esports boot camp room and training facilities.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hangzhou, is home to the first esports town. Opened in late 2018 and operated by the Hangzhou government, the esports town covers an area of 17,000 sqm. There are plans to build 14 esports facilities before 2022 including a theme park, esports academy, esports themed hotel and even a hospital specialising in treating players.

Hangzhou’s esports town is the first of its kind in China, however it is unlikely to be the last, due to the huge popularity of esports and previous announcements of plans for similar esports towns in the East China cities of Wuhu and Taicang.

As global brands increase sponsorship and marketing, the esports community will continue to grow. Based on the revenue and fanbase growth in esports over recent years, the forecast future for the esports industry is bright. This will inevitably lead to advancements in technology and changing requirements of the industry.

The built environment will need to ensure venue renovations and purpose-built facilities keep pace with these progressions. With the emergence of purpose-built venues across the world there will be a need for existing stadia and arena venues to experiment and innovate if they wish to compete for esports events and a piece of the market.

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