Best-laid plans: Esports arena ideas were put on hold by COVID, but there’s still hope for future venues

The pandemic almost faceplant-tripped regional e-sports venues and the promise of large, corporate-sponsored events. Esports business experts believe the business concept is still trying to find its footing.

Although there are examples of that across the region, there’s one project in particular that stands out for Joe Heyer, who served as director of esports partnerships for the once-Comcast-affiliated venue management and partnerships company Spectra.

A rendering of the once-planned Fusion Arena. (Courtesy image)

In 2019, it was announced that the Philadelphia-based entertainment business Comcast Spectacor was going to construct a $50 million gaming arena, called Fusion Arena.

“At the time, my son was 11, and just seeing how he and his friends have incorporated gaming into their whole social life, their daily vernacular and their behavior patterns — I just felt like esports gaming was coming on like a tidal wave,” Heyer said.

There was tremendous reception and a host of corporate partners lined up, he added. In February 2020, bulldozers were breaking concrete at the site of the future 3,500-seat esports arena and construction fences were erected.

“And then a little thing called COVID-19 hit,” Heyer said.

Heyer, who teaches a course on esports revenue production at Temple University, said that project, which was initially slated to open in 2021, was reconsidered in light of the pandemic.

There’s still belief that the mainstream appeal of esports would be bolstered by dedicated arenas, especially those hosted by a team with star status in that scene.

“The whole idea was to have esports model some of the characteristics of traditional sports,” Heyer said. “Namely, you’d have a team in-person playing at a home arena, with other teams having their own home arenas.”

There’s also agreement that the pandemic has blown that plan up for now.

“To build a more-than-2,000-person arena dedicated just to esports right now just doesn’t make sense, in my opinion,” Heyer said.

Bryan Collins. (Complete Game Media)

Bryan Collins, CEO of Complete Game Media in Moorestown, worked alongside Heyer in the broadcast sports sector. Heyer acts as a consultant for Collins.

His view is that the long-term benefit of having an arena built just for esports is that it’s expensive to host these events otherwise. Costly infrastructure is part of the nature of these video game competitions.

“Those arenas holding lots of people have every single line already hard-wired, they’re just ready to go with a plug-and-play approach,” Collins said, “Versus in these more generalized venues, they have to bring in everything they need.”

In New Jersey and elsewhere, smaller facilities, such as N3rd Street Gamers‘ LocalHost arenas, have proven that these venues can comprise a growing business model.

Partially because of that, Heyer thinks there’s potential to get back to the bigger arenas that were being envisioned pre-pandemic — considering that grand finals of popular esports titles are still posting spectator numbers comparable to Super Bowls.

“I just think it’s going to happen organically,” he said. “So, for instance, places like LocalHost, they’re going to have to keep holding events and grow. They’ll have to host 500-person events that lead to 1,000, then to 2,000. They’re going to have to outgrow their space, and show investors a need for a bigger space. And I believe it will happen that way.”

The test for esports can be whether it can repeat the eye-popping spectator totals of one-off competition finales during more regular events.

One feature that hasn’t faded is the interest from corporate sponsors evaluating the advertising potential of these in-person events. Collins and Heyer both said it’s hard for companies to pass on opportunities to reach a near-impossible-to-reach Gen Z demographic.

“In fact, one of the companies we brought in locally was Dietz & Watson, a deli meats and cheeses company,” Heyer said. “Their marketing largely has been promoting their history: Mama Dietz and the family tradition, which is a great story. But they saw esports freshen up their image — be a little more hip, current and cutting edge with their messaging.”

When planning for more esports arenas does start to come back online, corporate sponsors are expected to pick up where they left off.

“You have to think about it: Basically, 99% of those watching esports matches are gamers themselves,” Heyer said. “How many people when you go to a football game are playing football themselves? Not a lot.

“So, the level of interest and engagement from the audience is unlike anything else. And corporate sponsors are really growing to appreciate that passion.”

School’s in session

Professor Noel Criscione-Naylor is awed by it: The way gaming, although it might be considered to transpire mostly in a digital realm, still draws such high demand for an in-person component today.

Noel Criscione-Naylor. (Stockton University)

There are regular tournaments that have posted high attendance even in the post-pandemic environment. There’s an undeniable community. There’s also an undeniable potential for jobs.

Criscione-Naylor, associate professor of hospitality management at Stockton University, emphasized that in explaining why her South Jersey college has taken such an interest in expanding the reach of its esports event management-focused curriculum.

Stockton University takes a hospitality spin on esports education, announcing at the beginning of the year that the school would be offering college credits to Middle Township High School students through its School of Business.

Criscione-Naylor said her institution has been searching for local educational organizations that it can partner with as it shapes the operational aspects of live esports into an academic pursuit.

“We’ll absolutely be pursuing this more,” she said. “We’re meeting with the Atlantic County Institute of Technology to help them develop esports curriculum, and also with Ocean City High School. We’re also engaging with (statewide) organizations such as Garden State Esports on this.”

She added that students are “very excited” about the growth of this discipline, which goes beyond learning to be an esports competitor (something that nearly 800 students already do today through the university’s esports team).

College students, as well as the high school students participating in the new dual credit program, are learning about all the different facets connected to esports events: the technical, the logistical and the financial.

“It’s so important for us to ensure we have students learning foundational business skills that are transferable, and that they aren’t being prepared only for the esports ecosystem,” Criscione-Naylor said. “We want students to be in a position with multiple opportunities to look forward to.”