Ward and Endres began raising money in 2012, but struggled to persuade possible landlords that they could generate enough revenue to pay the rent from something called esports. But after looking at potential sites across Southern California, the owner of the 95-year-old building saw their proposal and agreed to rent them his building.
The space they built — much of it by hand, laying carpet and running heavy-duty internet infrastructure themselves — is relatively spartan, with concrete floors and few fixed objects. “It needs to be modular,” Ward said, because the arena is constantly hosting events of different sizes with different needs.
For big events, the 15,000-square-foot space can seat 900 fans, but capacity was reduced to 500 for the Universal Open because of the elaborate set.
Soon, Ward and Endres will be running three esports arenas. A 16,000 square foot arena is scheduled to open in Oakland, Calif., this year, and a 30,000-square-foot arena is expected to open in the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas early next year.
This expansion is fueled by a multimillion-dollar investment in the Esports Arena by Allied ESports, a consortium of Chinese sports and entertainment companies that owns an esports arena in Beijing among other properties. The plan is to expand far beyond Oakland and Las Vegas in the next several years.
“We would like to partner with home arena-based teams,” Ward said. “We have no limitations in where we can invest.”
But in the meantime, they have just the single arena, and it played host to a big tournament.
The arena was closed all week to prepare for the Universal Open, which is significant because the Esports Arena is not just a professional venue. During the week, it hosts a variety of amateur competitions, as well as open play on its machines for members who pay $10 a month, much cheaper than paying by the hour at video game cafes. They start weeknight events late so people can navigate the notoriously bad traffic of the Los Angeles area.
The arena is undergoing a number of improvements to make it an even more attractive place to spend hours at a time. The arena will soon serve alcohol — they struggled to get an alcohol permit because city officials “didn’t believe people over 21 years old played video games,” Endres said — and are expanding the food offerings beyond snacks. They have also stepped up in-house production abilities to broadcast their tournaments.
“As you look at the proliferation of esports,” said Rob Simmelkjaer, the NBC Sports executive overseeing the tournament and broadcast, “you start to see a need for more venues.”
While players sit in front of fans, once the match begins, the audience spends most of its time staring up at the screens dotting the arena to watch the action taking place. It’s a cross between a live event and a studio production. Between matches you can hear the analysts breaking down what happened but you cannot see the replays being broadcast, and a producer is continually telling fans to get up and cheer.