Game On! Cinemas are exploring the wide world of eSports

Cinemas Features

According to Wikipedia, at its most basic level eSports is defined as a form of videogame competition. Most commonly, eSports take the form of organized, multiplayer competitions, particularly between professional players. The most popular videogame genres associated with eSports are real-time strategy, fighting, first-person shooter(FPS) and multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA).

There’s no denying it…no matter whether you choose to spell it with a lowercase or an uppercase “e,” eSports is hot and getting hotter. Estimated 2017 worldwide revenues were $655 million, a five-fold increase compared to 2012 eSports levels (source: Statista). This same organization currently projects eSports to reach approximately $1.5 billion of annual revenue by 2020, more than double the present run rate.

To put some additional perspective around its growing global popularity, an estimated 360 million viewers watched the “League of Legends” Mid-Season Invitational. This compares to the 111 million that tuned in for Super Bowl LI in 2017 and 30 million viewers watching last season’s NBA Finals.

Film Journal International recently spoke to a wide array of cinema-related participants and beneficiaries of the hockey-stick-like eSports growth trajectory. We checked in with a Wall Street analyst and an industry consultant (a former eSports founder) who closely follow the sector. We also received in-the-trenches feedback from a young gamer who frequents MediaMation’s new L.A.-based eSports venue with his friends.

In connecting eSports to traditional movie theatres, many of the individuals we spoke with are primarily focusing on attracting grassroots, amateur-level players via hosted local events and leagues. But many of these avid gamers are also more likely to be paying audience members when the pros play in major competitions for large prize money. These professional events, many of which are held in large arenas around the world, are increasingly being broadcast via live streams onto cinema screens.

Cineplex (Wim Stocks, General Manager/CEO at WorldGaming & Collegiate Starleague, divisions of Cineplex)

One of the most forward-thinking theatrical exhibitors is undoubtedly Cineplex, our neighbor to the north. They have been proactively pushing the envelope to become a diversified entertainment company, not content to merely rest on their laurels as Canada’s leading cinema chain. It should therefore come as no surprise that their organization was on the leading edge of bringing the eSports revolution to the cinema, and beyond.

Back in 2015, Cineplex acquired a majority 80% interest in WorldGaming for $15 million and then invested a further $5 million to create an eSports league to operate out of its theatres. They have also been opening The Rec Room-branded locations across the country, which are ideal hubs where gamers congregate to meet and compete with family, friends and fans that turn out in droves to watch and cheer them on.

In addition to eSports and traditional physical games like ping pong and pool, Rec Rooms feature a wide array of food and beverage service as well as live entertainment, including comedians and concerts. They even show movies on occasion, but that’s far from their main attraction.

“WorldGaming provides us with the unique opportunity to engage a new customer base as well as expand the concept in markets outside of Canada,” points out Stocks. “We have created a community that connects live online gaming with unique in-theatre tournament experiences held in Cineplex theatres across the country. We see huge opportunities for growth both in Canada and in the United States for WorldGaming.”

According to Stocks, Cineplex and WorldGaming are not focusing much on pro eSports leagues and competitions. Instead, they are taking a more developmental approach by targeting grassroots gamers. They host tips and tricks sessions and clinics, which help develop more skilled eSports players and raise overall interest.

A recent example is WorldGaming’s “Call of Duty: WW II” tournament that began with over 500 teams of four players each. Online competition winnowed the competition down to eight quarterfinalists, who were invited to compete for total prize money of $60K in a live event held at Cineplex’s Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. In addition to the cash, the winning foursome earned a slot to vie for the World Championship title later in 2018.

Cineplex’s Collegiate Starleague (CSL) is addressing the university-age gamer market. CSL is the largest organized North American college gaming organization, with 1500+ schools presently participating. Based on this success to date, they are also expanding CSL across the pond into the U.K.

Cinemeccanica (Andrea Riva, Account Manager of eSports)

The Cinemeccanica organization, founded in Milan, Italy, dates all the way back to 1920. It was originally launched as a motion picture projector manufacturer. Although the company is still very involved in the projection and cinema equipment manufacturing business, including Lux-branded laser systems, we were interested in exploring their expanding role in the global eSports ecosystem.

According to Riva, the organization organizes gaming competitions inside theatres in Italy as well as in other parts of the world. Their ESPARENA™ platform facilitates the transformation of a standard movie theatre auditorium into an arena for gaming competitions.

ESPARENA includes the requisite hardware and software necessary to play games in-theatre, providing promotion services and technical support. It also organizes the competitions and manages the contacts between the gamers and their respective communities. It is available worldwide with different and customizable technical and marketing solutions, so it can properly be adapted to each country where the platform resides.

“We would like to increase the number of events and find brands willing to sponsor these initiatives that can be an excellent opportunity for visibility for companies interested in being involved,” states Riva.

Cinemeccanica is also launching a home version of its gaming station, which was presented in cinemas last year. “Our goal is to link the videogame world more and more closely to the cinema, as it is an excellent opportunity to diversify the offer of cinema and attract new audiences. We are working on the implementation of tournaments that will directly involve the cinemas as a meeting point for gamers.”

MediaMation (Dan Jamele, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer)

MediaMation is one of the leading suppliers of full 4D (motion and effects) theatres to the cinema market, with installs in almost 300 theatres worldwide. ESports has seemingly been a perfect fit for its MX4D® Motion EFX Theaters, as well as the company’s exhibitor partners and their cinema-going customers.

The company has developed a “tournament style” in-cinema experience utilizing its patent-pending Gaming Stations, adding and adapting technology to create an enticing experience for both players and spectators.

“As we push into the growing eSports marketplace, we are looking to leverage our worldwide footprint and years of experience in the attraction and cinema markets to create a network of immersive live eSports event venues around the world,” says Jamele. “This concept really melds our passion in both markets to create something that taps into the expanding eSports market as well as bringing new customers to the cinemas, especially on the ‘off days’ of Monday to Thursday.”

Each of MediaMation’s “hybrid” theatres convert from movie to eSports mode in about an hour, providing a full broadcast setup for streaming including cameras, lights, equipment and announcer desks, making them the most convenient eSport venue available, according to Jamele.

MediaMation opened its pilot MX4D® eSports EFX Theatre at the world-famous TCL Chinese Theatre last November and this site has already hosted a steady flow of eSports tournaments since its debut. Importantly, the auditorium offers the dual use and revenue streams of movies and eSports.

“We believe adding competitive gaming [eSports] tournaments in the MX4D room is a fantastic way to utilize the screen during slow and off-peak times,” Jamele asserts. “We created Hollywood Esports, which is a combination of MediaMation, the TCL Chinese Theatre and high-end entertainment management partners, in order to be able to offer not only the technology but the content and organization needed to run eSports within each theatre we install.”

Running eSports activities within a cinema is clearly a different marketing model than simply selling movie tickets. “This is an active and engaged community that is growing, especially amongst Millennials,” Jamele observes. Serving those interests and retaining those customers is something that the exhibitor will have to work on and adapt to.  

MediaMation is working closely with game publishers and organizers to make its rollout as smooth as possible, but that cannot happen without support from the cinema chains as well. “The upside is, of course, increased revenue and profits,” according to Jamele, “but those that are more forward-looking will be the ones that benefit the most as this takes off. There is little doubt that eSports is huge and growing and requires compelling venues such as our MX4D® Esports EFX Theatres, as well as a steady flow of content, to draw in the players and competitors.”   

Super League Gaming (Ann Hand, Chairman & CEO)

Super League Gaming works with theatrical exhibitors to transform their auditoriums, on given nights, into gaming arenas to create amateur eSports experiences. The company has established 16 gaming clubs and local leagues across the U.S.

Clubs are based in New York, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and 12 other U.S. cities where players can compete in several games, including “Minecraft,” for younger audiences, and “League of Legends,” which attracts older players. There are also variations in skill level. Super League’s corporate partners include Riot Games and Microsoft.

“Super League is a local community connector for amateur gamers—we are all about creating ways for players to unite around the games they love,” says Hand. “Think of us as a local for gamers and an alternative content provider to exhibitors.” 

“We have been at this for a few years and have run thousands of experiences,” she says. “Our theatre partners love to see their auditoriums full of players engaging with their locations in new and different ways. They [theatres] are our most important channel, so we are committed to bringing new audiences and more gaming experiences to them.”

Hoyts (Scott Russell, General Manager, Corporate Solutions, NSW & Regional)

Hoyts is the leading cinema exhibitor in Australia and New Zealand. Founded in 1909, the company has a combined 430 screens and 65,000 seats across its regional footprint.

Earlier this year, Hoyts announced a major partnership with Gfinity Esports Australia (a provider of both online and offline tournaments since 2012), with long-term plans to create a chain of dedicated eSports arenas across Australia, all within current Hoyts cinema locations. “This was a natural progression from the success of previous eSports viewing party screenings at Hoyts where sessions were completely sold out,” explains Russell.

The first dedicated arena is located at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter in Sydney’s Moore Park, but events taking place there will also be live-streamed to other Hoyts cinemas nationwide for fans in many other cities to enjoy. “Like any sport, fans do enjoy coming together in person to have the shared experience only live venues can deliver,” Russell says, “and Hoyts want to establish themselves as the cinema associated with eSports.”

How’s it going so far? “Hoyts were thrilled with the success of holding viewing parties and this really opened the door for us to get across eSports in more detail. The arena at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter boasts state-of-the-art gaming equipment alongside a full broadcast and production suite, all designed to attract the growing number of professional events that will be coming to Australia. This will also be the standout destination for eSports fans to enjoy top-class action all year round,” adds Russell.

The eSports genre continues to grow within the Australian market and Hoyts wants its guests to experience these events the best way possible, on the big screen and in an electrifying atmosphere. “The dedicated eSports arena will be unlike anything else in Australia and it’s exciting for Hoyts to bring the cinema of the future to our guests,” says Russell.

With more than a century of creating out-of-home entertainment experiences on their side, Russell and his colleagues believe eSports is a natural fit for the cinema environment, as it brings an entertainment experience that traditionally has been isolated to the home computer and Internet cafes to an environment that is in its essence truly social on a much larger scale. “We want to create an eSports community that provides the best experience for both viewers and gamers alike,” he concludes.

DCDC (Randy Blotky, CEO)

Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition (DCDC) was originally formed by AMC, Cinemark and Regal, the three largest domestic theatrical exhibitors, in partnership with two of Hollywood’s top movie studios, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros.

The mission is to provide the industry with theatrical digital delivery services across North America through a specially created network comprised of next-generation satellite and terrestrial distribution technologies. This network is capable of supporting feature, promotional, pre-show and live content distribution into theatres.

DCDC was designed to ensure audiences have the highest-quality entertainment experience, while exhibitors and content providers achieve a strategic, secure and cost-effective distribution model. As digital distribution has overwhelmingly replaced traditional physical media for content distribution in recent years, users of DCDC’s network are enjoying access to a whole host of delivery options and resources.

Blotky considers himself to be a major proponent of eSports as an important mainstay of the cinemas of the future. Over the past three years, DCDC has transmitted, live to U.S.-based theatres, gaming championships involving “League of Legends” and “SMITE.”

“On the DCDC end of things, I am very pleased with what we have accomplished so far,” Blotky states. “However, improvements are necessary in marketing eSports spectator events, and in understanding with greater specificity where the audiences reside that will readily attend such events.”

He is hoping to see more active involvement from the cinema chains themselves in promoting, producing and developing eSports competitions that can be a regular feature of their ongoing programming mix.

“As the DCDC Network evolves into the hybrid delivery mechanism of the future, there will be technologies that will allow much faster multi-way communications and exchanges of data among all users of the network. This will allow for the close-to-real-time Twitch times [referring to the popular live-streaming site] that will be required for game competitions between and among geographically dispersed venues.

“To the extent that we can be helpful to the exhibitors and the content providers—both game companies and studios—wanting to be part of this growing phenomenon, we are happy to do so. It is a logical step for DCDC to take in its continuing role as a true industry initiative,” Blotky concludes.

Cloud9 eSports/Eldridge Industries (Dan Fiden, President of Cloud9, and Mark Genender, Managing Director of Eldridge)

According to Dan Fiden, Cloud9 owns and operates the largest multi-team eSports ownership structure in the Western world (and perhaps globally). Founded in 2012 and headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, Cloud9 boasts unmatched viewership hours and provides extensive benefits packages for its players and staff.

The company lists a wide range of corporate partners on its website, including Twitch, the world’s leading social video platform and community for gamers, videogame culture and the creative arts. On a typical day, close to 10 million visitors gather to watch and talk about videogames with more than two million streamers. Other industry alliances listed include HTC, iBUYPOWER, HyperX, Crunchyroll, MSI, NEEDForSEAT USA and LoLwiz.

Cloud9 currently fields and owns a dozen professional teams that participate in nine leading eSports games including “League of Legends,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Overwatch.” According to the October 2017 Nielsen Report, Cloud9 is the most followed eSports organization across top Western markets. One of its players, Shroud, boasts 3.8 million combined social-media followers.

“Our franchised teams participate in viewing parties at movie theatres as well as in-person competitions. We believe multiplexes have all the ingredients in place for hosting and promoting eSports. Cloud9 is emphasizing youth and grassroots investments, including eSports amateur leagues, and is also focusing on the developmental side of games as well.

(Disclosure: Eldridge Industries is the parent company of Film Expo Group, publisher of Film Journal Internationaland also an investor in Cloud9.)

Morris Strategic (Brett Morris, President)

In addition to managing his own eSports and consumer-related consulting practice that focuses on go-to market strategies for companies, Morris also previously served as president and COO of Super League Gaming and founded the country’s inaugural, city-based eSports league.

Morris has a very firm opinion on the interrelationship between theatrical exhibition and eSports, and the urgency to solidify this bond ASAP. “I hope it’s not a missed opportunity for cinema,” he says. “Some of them need to be more serious about hosting eSports, because the growth of new arenas geared especially for eSports is super-hot now. The strategy is to create spaces where people, primarily between ages 16 and 34, can play, socialize and learn together. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the eSports-specific stadiums decide to compete with theatres and start showing movies too.”

The Benchmark Company (Mike Hickey, Senior Research Analyst)

Benchmark is a New York City-based, full-service investment-banking firm with a 30+ year legacy. Hickey has been with the firm more than four and a half years, covering cinema, eSports, entertainment software and several other sectors.

Says Hickey, “Theatre companies are in an opportunistic position as it relates to the astonishing growth from Esports, as they can leverage core competencies over an event platform for competitions, effectively offsetting presumed secular attendance pressure over the exhibitor medium and creating an ancillary long-term growth opportunity.”

We conclude our update on the growing symbiosis between theatrical exhibition and eSports with thoughts from an avid gamer: Carsen Warner, a 16-year-old male from Los Angeles.

What appeals to you about playing and watching others play videogames in a movie theatre environment?

I like watching people play videogames for the same reason other people like to watch football, which is for the competitiveness. It's epic to play in the theatre, but really it's a stadium the way the TCL Chinese Theatre has it set up. The MX4D audience seats add to the experience. They move with the battles. I feel like I'm a part of it.

Do you have a favorite game?

Arma 3,” “Kerbal Space Program,” “Minecraft,” “Overwatch,” and “Legend of Zelda.” I have so many favorites and different consoles, it’s hard to pick just a few.

Any suggestions to make the in-theatre experience even better?

It would be awesome with VR for the audience.

Do you attend movies too, or just eSports?

I love movies too, just lately I've been going to eSports events. They are completely different things, even though it's in a theatre.

Other thoughts related to the above?

eSports is going to be bigger than soccer internationally. #PCMasterRace

FYI: The #PCMasterRace hashtag indicates that one prefers PC over console. The serious gamers use PC, according to Warner, and the TCL Theatre is outfitted with PCs that are stored in the floor, but they can also hold mobile videogame tournaments there too.