Video games have become much more than a fun activity to pass the time. It can be a career choice—and not just on the production side, but on the player side, too. Explosive growth of video game conventions and tournaments, particularly in eSport games, could be good news for event planners.

According to Statista, an online market research firm, 162 million people frequently watch eSport events, while another 131 million are occasional viewers of the hundreds of games that rise and fall in popularity with many players achieving celebrity status with their following. And more are joining fan ranks each year. The number of at least occasional spectators is expected to rise to 303 million by 2020. South by Southwest added a whole convention on gaming for 2018.

“[ESports] already exceeds the audience of the NBA and NFL put together,” says Robert Rippee, director of eSports Lab at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He asks his audiences when they started using computers in classrooms. Most say around second grade. Then he asks what they used them for. After a bit of thought, they inevitably say they played video games. “We have an entire generation that grew up playing games. Now granted they are for learning, but they are still playing and there is still the idea that the more you play, the better you get,” he said. That can be a powerful instinct to leverage in delivering content.

Room for Play

A raft of new eSport facilities is opening across the country. Santa Ana-based Esports Arena built a 15,000-square-foot arena in Orange County in 2015. The company then partnered with Allied Esports—which operates a 14,000-square-foot tournament space in Beijing—to build a 30,000-square-foot facility inside Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas that opened in March. That was followed by a 16,000-square-foot facility in Oakland’s Jack London Square in April. The company also operates Esports Arena Drive, an 18-wheel, 35-ton semi that brings a mobile competition stage, arena and VIP lounge to your space. Other meeting venues are getting in on the act big time. In March, The City of Arlington announced that the $10 million renovation of Arlington Convention Center will include a 100,000-square-foot eSports stadium.

These theater-style auditoriums resemble the control room of Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon with bar areas, state-of-the-art gaming chairs with vibrating components, and screens everywhere for play.

Niklas Rytterstrom, general manager of Luxor, compares the gaming experience in the former nightclub space to the other entertainment offered on The Strip. “With this partnership, we will introduce a new experience to the market, once again elevating the city’s vast entertainment offerings,” he says.

Despite their growing popularity, Rippee doesn’t believe mega-stadiums will be the norm as many smaller facilities can serve a similar purpose leaving the mega stadiums for the bigger tournaments of the most popular games. It’s all relative according to Rippee, with so many games out there to play, ranging from one player to 100, not all tournaments will draw the same crowd. Unlike sports like football, where there is one game and fans have their favorite teams within that game, there’s many different games with many different players all falling under the eSports umbrella. “The ecosystem of eSports is very fragmented. There are so many, and each one is really different from another. Each is its own sport in itself. The growth of these arenas is driven by the fact that you have an array of fans.”

Millennial Appeal

Meeting planners have found that incorporating online gaming experiences into agendas helps engage a younger audience. “Think about a corporate event looking for entertainment. If it’s mostly 30-year-olds, then eSports may be a better form of entertainment over a concert,” Rippee suggests.

Whether it be renting out an arena, playing games at an event or bringing in a professional gamer to orchestrate mock competitions, gaming facilities make interactive experiences easier. “At the end of the day, esports are a form of entertainment, never mind all the professional gaming leagues. They are there to entertain people. You can make the assumption that if the majority of your attendees are under 35, they are probably going to be into eSports,” Rippee says.