After the COVID-19 pandemic caused esports competitors to play individually from home, Belong Gaming Arenas is looking to bring people together again, in a physical space.
Belong, a subsidiary of global esports and tech company Vindex, announced it will begin opening hundreds of experimental gaming centers across the U.S. to establish a connected framework for esports at the local and amateur level. The idea is to make esports facilities more accessible, akin to ballfields or gymnasiums.
The first location will be in Houston, with venues to be added in Dallas, Chicago, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio. Its plan is to establish 500 gaming centers in the U.S. over the next five years.
“We’re going pretty big here, and we have a very ambitious plan,” said Mike Sepso, CEO and co-founder of Vindex. “So you can imagine it’s many millions of dollars that we’re pumping into making this work. This is the baseball diamond that you see at every high school or the parks and rec locations at every town across the U.S. This is the gaming version of that. It’s a place for gamers to go and hang out, to learn new skills, to talk to other players and be connected to the larger minor and major gaming systems.”
As more facilities are opened, Belong anticipates hiring “thousands” of employees in positions to run the locations and teach gamers how to play.
“The concept that gaming is purely an online activity is not true,” Sepso said. “When you add coaching, training and connectivity created here in the U.S. to the pro teams in those markets, you have a whole different level of what you’re going to build. And I think it won’t be the same, but it’ll replicate and be better than the recreational departments and scholastic systems we have for traditional sports here.”
In the U.K., where Belong is based, the company has already tested its model at 25 locations across the country. Facilities can range from 4,000 to 14,000 square feet. Inside the venues are gaming consoles and technology provided through partnerships with PlayStation and Omen by HP. Monitors will be from ViewSonic, and the gaming chairs will be from Mavis Gaming.
Martyn Gibbs, CEO of Belong Gaming Arenas, said that in the U.K., he has seen people coming to the venues and forming teams rather than doing so online.
Initially, Belong’s gaming centers will target people from ages 16 to 30, but Vindex plans to expand by forming partnerships with local brands, high schools, universities and professional esports teams. Belong will also allow gaming leagues to use the facilities for tournaments.
“We’ll have programming across all of the major titles and creating the tournament program on the back of that,” said Gibbs. Certain age groups prefer to congregate at different times of day or certain days of the week, and the facilities will work with those preferences. “We’ve always found certain nights work really well for the publisher and the competitors, as well,” he said.
To go along with the gaming centers, Belong is also launching a digital platform that will offer the community access to the latest gaming news, leaderboards and recreational and competitive opportunities.