A casual glance at the front page of Twitch or MLG is all it takes to remind you of eSports' growing popularity. Whether you're interested in League of Legends, Dota 2 or Hearthstone, it doesn't take long to find a stream where talented players are competing in ranked cups and tournaments. The professional gaming scene has grown rapidly in the last few years, and that success is slowly being reflected in the UK. The number of players and spectators has risen dramatically, and that's created new business opportunities for league organisers, game publishers and sponsors. Just like traditional sports, there's money to be made if you can get people excited about watching and following their favourite stars.
The next 12 months will be a pivotal time for the UK, because a few well-funded companies are starting to increase their investment in the eSports movement. League organiser Gfinity, for instance, is gearing up to launch Britain's first dedicated stadium. Permanent venues are still quite rare, so it should elevate the UK's reputation as a place for high-level play. The company has struck a deal with Vue to convert part of its Fulham Broadway cinema complex into the 'Gfinity Arena,' which will include three stages, a dedicated ticketing hall and seating for 600 spectators. It's not a new building, but with its own entrance and branding, it should still feel like a special, standalone venue for eSports fans.
The doors haven't even opened yet, but already Gfinity is thinking about its next eSports stadium. When it first teamed up with Vue, the two companies revealed they would be exploring whether Gfinity's events could be expanded to other cinemas. Today, Gfinity's CEO hinted that the company is planning a second, larger arena for Britain: "Ideally we'd like to build a larger capacity dedicated arena in the UK, but during a period of such fast growth, it's hard to agree on arena capacity and scale," Neville Upton told PCR. "For now the UK's first dedicated eSports arena will help to establish the UK as a hub for eSports and a place for the community to meet and play outside of specific tournaments."
It's an ambitious vision. Tentpole tournaments such as The International, Evo and the League of Legends World Championship have proven they can draw huge crowds, but it's difficult to tell if gamers will flock to smaller events too. Viewership is increasing online, but will that translate to consistent attendances at physical venues? The hope is that a larger fan culture will emerge similar to English football, attracting a mix of casual and dedicated fans every weekend. Gfinity also has an advantage because it supports multiple games including Call of Duty, FIFA and Counter-Strike. They're different experiences with different fans, and while there will always be some crossover (I'll happily watch League of Legends and Halo, for instance) it means Gfinity won't always be targeting the same spectators.
Gfinity isn't the only company looking to capitalise on eSports' growing popularity in 2015. Video game retailer GAME purchased an events company called Multiplay last week for £20 million. The latter is best known for Insomnia, an eSports-centric gaming festival that currently takes place three times a year. GAME's strategy isn't clear just yet, but CEO Martyn Gibbs says he's wanted to pursue eSports and live events "for some time." GAME already has a ton of stores across the country, which gives it huge reach for hosting smaller, community-driven events that compliment Multiplay's larger tournaments.
eSports has taken off, in part, because of its global accessibility. Players often compete from home, especially in amateur tournaments, and virtually anyone can spectate by tuning in to a Twitch stream. It doesn't matter where you're from -- if you're interested, it's easy to start competing or follow your favourite players. Physical events have the potential to grow the eSports scene even further though, and that's where Britain hopes to play a role. By investing now, the UK could become eSports' Premier League, attracting the biggest crowds, players and advertisers, as well as the money that comes with them. eSports is already massive in the US and parts of Asia, attracting large crowds and larger paychecks, but if it can sustain this momentum, there's an outside chance Britain will catch up.
[Image Credit: Gfinity]