As competitive video game tournaments draw eyes around the globe, what will it mean for designers working on venues that facilitate a new genre of audience space?

Competitive e-sports have been on the rise for some years, but following a global pandemic that saw a 39 per cent rise in time spent gaming, and Microsoft’s gaming revenue soar by 50 per cent, both medium and market have significantly matured. According to new figures from Juniper Research, the global e-sports audience will grow to 474 million this year and reach a total market value of just under €1 billion, then €1.4 billion by 2024. For comparison, basketball and American football both draw average yearly attendances of 400 million, while baseball sits just ahead with 500 million. 

As this shift becomes more apparent, it will see the next generation of sports stars grow into a mix of physical and digital disciplines. In October, a portion of the largest international e-sports prize pool – a record €35 million for a Dota 2 tournament in Bucharest in October – was claimed by 18-year-old player Ilya Mulyarchuk and his 21-year-old teammate Miroslav Kolpakov. Meanwhile, talk of a $1 billion IPO valuation for Gen Z streaming giant FaZe Clan shines a light on the valuable dynamism inherent to e-sports brands – not only do these groups leverage revenue through tournament winnings, but so too influence marketing, streaming sponsorships and content creation ventures. 

This is perhaps the definitive territory for brands seeking to engage the next major class of consumers – one where media, sports and technology all intersect. In terms of built infrastructure, however, e-sport venues are in a period of relative infancy when held against the size and potential growth of the market. While this could be due to the underlying tension between physical and digital event hosting that pervades the sector, it is nonetheless a trend that will give rise to a new type of hospitality space, and will require a new school of thought from designers and operators alike.  

Cover and above: A hotel and entertainment venue plan by Populous for OverActive Media in Toronto showcases an approach that straddles both digital and physical event facilitation.

The rules of the game

The prospect of designing stadiums, lounges or even single rooms to host competitive gaming sessions poses a set of quandaries near-unique to this genre of space. Consider the infraction of so-called ‘screenwatching’ wherein one player is able to see his or her opponent’s in-game movements and ascertain strategic advantages. While this might be taboo for players, for spectators the ability to watch both sides simultaneously constitutes the bulk of the entertainment value, forcing some venues to enclose players within sound and sight-proof booths to negate any cheating. Likewise, where a traditional sports venue might deploy screens to display highlights or branding elements, here they are the defining feature – their use more akin to a cinema than a stadium. It is no coincidence that many screening complexes turned to e-sports following COVID downturns. 

Requirements might vary from game to game, necessitating a degree of in-built flexibility and modularity, though like every competitive field there is a pressing need for a parallel degree of continuity to ensure a fair fight. As such, bodies tasked with regulating this sector have turned to designers and architects for help. Most recently, the IESF (International Esports Federation) teamed up with Pittsburgh-based DLA+ Architecture & Interior Design to lay out a series of technical and spatial standardization guidelines. 'The DLA+ IESF partnership will explore the unique characteristics of Esports activities and environments, both technical and physical, and leverage those qualities to promote this fast-growing sport,’ says DLA+ Associate Sung Jung. ‘Our goal is to ensure that all Esports venues provide the conditions necessary for high-quality competition, production, and presentation of e-sports games and events, both in-venue and through various forms of media.’

Whilst some uniformity is established, however, a wider range of aesthetic values can be applied to the sector. As one of the earliest major designers of e-sports venues, Kansas- and London-based studio Populous have visually defined the medium’s formative years, with a recently revealed project for developer OverActive Media showcasing an approach that straddles both digital and physical event facilitation. ‘The design of the theatre was neither conceived as a sports arena nor an opera house, rather, a new typology that straddles the two – a state-of-the-art performance venue,’ explains Populous senior principal Jonathan Mallie. ‘The theatre architecture creates a merger of the old and the new’.

In addition to an e-sports mode, the future Populous-designed venue will also host concerts.

New modes of play

With most major western tournaments taking place in existing convention centres, there are still few standalone venues designed to serve this market. The planned 16,000-sq-m regional e-sports hub at Mall of America will still rely on its host’s audience for day-to-day footfall, while the Luxor’s HyperX Esport Arena is backed up by the casino floor and themed F&B. As Juniper predicts that one in nine people will be an e-sport viewer or player by the end of the year, a number of hospitality operators have been seeking to bridge the gap between casual guests and the popularity of the professional strand. Not least in the dominant Asia Pacific region, where e-sports is set to debut as an in-competition event at the 2022 Asian Games. 

Osakas e-Zone incorporates capsule beds and three floors of high spec PC set ups and Taiwans iHotel offers high-end DXRacer seats and in-room console systems for overnight stays or quick-fix two-hour sessions alike. These new experiences have anticipated dedicated infrastructure like the 80,000-sq-m Xiacheng District Esports Venue, which joins Chongqings 6,000-seat Three Gorges Harbour eSports stadium to give China two of the largest gaming venues in the world. Designed by Hong Kong architect Barrie Ho, the latter features an exterior clad in screens that combines the spectacle of the game with the design itself. ‘Everybody thinks e-sports is about two people playing a game online,’ says Ho. ‘But Its not like that; its a carnival’.

Recent video gaming restrictions enacted by the Chinese government could momentarily stifle the sector’s growth, however, and Dell’s early involvement over in the burgeoning Latin American scene with projects like Esports Arena Borregos hints that hospitality brands and spatial designers are not the only players exploring this space. The prominence and accessibility of streaming technology throughout this sector could see an emerging spatial typology increasingly defined as digital, just as its spectacle begins to move beyond the screen.