SXSW 2017 Recap: The Future of Esports Arenas

March 21, 2017

Here at Populous, we’ve joined the conversation around of the rise of esports. Given its projected global revenue of $1 billion by 2019 and 2.1 billion people gaming across the globe, the esports specific venue is not far from reality. A purpose-built arena will play an important role in the sport’s trajectory.

At SXSW last week, we collaborated with a selection of esports insiders and experts to explore the future potential of esports. Our own Brian Mirakian was joined by Wim Stocks, executive vice president of World Gaming, Stan Press, former professional esports player and Managing Director of Digital and Gaming for Magid Associates, and Bonnie Bernstein, renowned broadcast journalist and vice president of content and on-air host of Campus Insiders.

From their young, global and increasingly diverse fan base to which every traditional sporting league aspires to their sponsorship-friendly live events, esports’ prospective growth and direction is unlimited. Here’s a brief recap of what we discussed and unveiled at SXSW on Sunday.

“With growth pegged at nearly 20 percent globally each year, esports competitions attract a young, digitally-savvy audience around the world, draw sponsors, and most importantly for stadium owners, can help fill seats,” said Populous Director of Brand Activation Brian Mirakian. “Next generation audiences want something different, but they also want something inherently the same to traditional sports; to be together to share memorable experiences. We see the purpose-built esports venue to be an enormous opportunity.”

There are numerous ways for the esports industry to make a splash in the world of traditional sports. Current arenas can adapt with a modular, programmable arena ceiling system to help give events a more tailored and intimate experience for wide-ranging crowd sizes and event types. New building and developments can create a multi-level esports experience.

Before the first esports arena breaks ground, current arenas can elevate the quality of live esports events by rethinking the way in which the seating bowl environment can physically transform to meet the wide-ranging attendance demands. Utilizing the technology of today, Populous imagines innovative new arena ceilings which can adapt and shape-shift into various configurations and sizes based on the various event needs to actually become a part of the event itself.  The transformable arena ceiling could close off unused sections to create a more intimate experience for competitors and spectators alike, useful for events which only command half or even a quarter of the arena’s space.  In addition, the flexible and tailored environment this system would provide could play an important role in the venue’s ability to attract more events, generating more revenue for the venue.

Taking cues from the traditional sports model on expanding outside the confines of their venue, the creation of an esports neighborhood could transform a square city block into an international destination. Complete with high-performance training buildings, developer labs, competition spaces, custom retail and food and beverage options and even a drone racing course, the integrated esports village offers something for everyone, and most importantly 365 day a year activation. A village-type development has the potential to provide what all next-generation sports and entertainment developments are seeking: highly concentrated critical mass, bringing fans in early and keeping them all day and night though deeply connected experiences and areas of interest driving brand engagement and revenue opportunities.

By designing a place specifically for maximizing the experience of a single sporting event, such as a ballpark or MLS stadium, esports can see benefits across the board. From a greater sensory experience for the fans to more immersive gameplay between competitors, the esports arena has the potential to revolutionize the live sporting event model.

To translate the energy and excitement of the competition to entering fans, the arena would feature an entrance tunnel with overhead video content tied to the event. These immersive sensory portals set the tone for the event and welcome fans in a powerful way.  Once inside, the circular seating bowl could feature a centralized stage for augmented reality and holographic content in the center to bring the on-screen gameplay to life. On the premium seating side, spectators could purchase tickets for “pods” or circular seating around a central holographic display to place fans up close and personal with the action. Augmented and virtual reality installments would be featured as another layer in premium experience ticketing, putting spectators in the middle of the game.

Esports and traditional sports franchises are exploring ways to bring fans closer to the gameplay and competitors, whether via wearable technology to translate the energy and intensity felt by the players or technology to monitor movement for capturing reaction times. A new approach for putting spectators in touch with the sport is through a reactive seating model. The heightened sense of connectivity a fan could experience through a custom chair that translates heartbeat, tunes you into the team chatter and can share other biometric data would be unforgettable.

Right now, esports are still in their formative stages as an industry, being shaped by pioneers who are innovating, envisioning its future and making big investments into the sport. Many of these pioneers are coming from traditional sports sectors, like ownership groups in various professional sport leagues such as the NBA. This is an essential role for Populous, in-line with our history of innovation by design within the sports and entertainment world.

As a result, the question has evolved from “Should we tune in?” to “Where do we go from here?” By researching the esports landscape, we can see that esports have a fan culture looking for a deep-dive experience which wants a venue that’s both personal and communal. Will the purpose build eSport arena happen?  Its clearly not a matter of “if”, but simply “when?”

For more on the future of esports and the ways a purpose-built venue can positively impact the event-going experience, contact Brian Mirakian.


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