The rise in popularity of competitive gaming — the most recent evidence being the international phenomena that is “Fortnite” — may not only alter how we play but also where we play.
At least that’s the bet being taken by WePlay, a Venice-based marketing agency that next year will expand to downtown’s Arts District with the opening of WePlay Live, a game-focused event space that will target the burgeoning esport and competitive game communities. Construction is set to begin next month for the space, which will contain modular, shipping container-like pods to give it a versatile, warehouse feel.
Think of WePlay Live as a modern-day arcade, one built around connecting in person and online via live streaming. The space, once completed, will mark another step forward for a community that is increasingly influencing pop-culture — Epic Games has reported that more than 125 million have played “Fortnite,” and this month sees the “Overwatch” playoffs airing across Disney-owned channels such as ESPN, Disney XD and ABC.
While publishers such as Activision Blizzard and Riot Games have been aggressive in creating esport studios, the architects of WePlay Live — veterans of marketing in the game space — believe what has long been an online-focused community has been underserved in the physical world.
“If you pick a game, any game, really, it’s a digital community,” says WePlay’s Rich Williams, who co-founded the firm with Margot Rodde.
“They have very few opportunities to get together and physically connect. We’re seeing a bigger consumer behavior shift as well, which correlates to what we’re seeing in games. Millennials and Gen Z, specifically, love, love, love live experiences, and we’re seeing that more and more — way more than previous generations.”
As evidence, Williams cites the popularity of fandom-related conventions as well as the shift last year by the L.A.-based Electronic Entertainment Expo, known colloquially as E3, to open its doors to paying customers. E3, which drew nearly 70,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center in June, was previously an industry-only affair.
To some in the field, it’s baffling that such spaces aren’t far more prevalent already.
“If we talk about esport live events, they’re really quite similar to your traditional sport events or a concert,” said Ramon Hermann, director of esports for Tencent, home of “Arena of Valor.” The company is hosting an “Arena of Valor” competition at the Chinese Theatre the weekend of July 27.
“Why do people go to live events?” Hermann asked. “In many cases, you can enjoy the match or the music from the comfort of your home. There is a very strong underlying social and emotional experience that goes with it, and that translates to esports one-to-one.”
Williams and Rodde believe WePlay Live’s appeal will rest in its adaptability. The 35,470-square-foot building at 667 Santa Fe Ave. will contain about 29,000 square feet of open floor space. WePlay Live can accommodate as many as 4,000 people, and for more-structured televised or seated events, bleachers can hold 500.
The use of shipping containers — each will house 10 game stations with video capture capabilities — means the pods can be wheeled in and out depending on the game. That’s key for an industry with ever-evolving trends. While many an esport title has been built around teams of five or six playing one another, the most popular mode of “Fortnite” requires 100 players.
“That’s a completely different broadcast setup,” said Williams. “Venues that have set themselves based on the known market are already a little out of position. Maybe the next trend is 300-player games. We don’t know, but for us, with our modular design, we’re ready for that.”
Rodde said downtown was chosen in part for its proximity to where E3 is held, but also added that many of WePlay’s current clients — the company has worked with Epic, Electronic Arts, Riot and more — request the neighborhood for its events.
“It’s the most up-and-coming area of L.A.,” said Rodde.
Rodde added that WePlay Live will alternate between client and community events. Admission will be free, she said, as their revenue model will be be based largely on game publishers renting out the spot.
Community events can be focused on a singular game — for example, a Thursday night gathering for a popular mobile title or a Friday night showcase for a hot console game. Or fans can simply come to play to some old-fashioned coin-operated arcade games.
Then, of course, there is the coffee shop and bar. The latter will be closed off from the rest of the venue to allow for all-ages events, and there’s a possibility, said Rodde, of hosting live music, gaming talks, meet-ups for popular YouTube personalities or award shows, as needed.