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Vindex‘s Belong Gaming Arenas is opening its first U.S. location in Houston, Texas, as part of a plan to expand its chain of local esports gaming centers as the pandemic eases.
Many retailers have been stung in the pandemic as they paid high rents but were forced to close. Now many countries are starting to reopen, and Belong Gaming Arenas and its parent Vindex feel like the time is right to create the new locations in the U.S., said CEO Mike Sepso in an interview with GamesBeat. He anticipates hundreds of locations opening in the U.S.
Vindex has some ambitious plans, as it raised $300 million to open lots of centers where gamers could hang out and attend events with esports stars in cool locations. It also bought Belong Gaming Arenas, which the U.K. retailer GAME Digital was starting to create in the U.K. It may be risky as some pandemic-shy consumers may not want to go back to retail places, but others are likely itching to get out.
“We can’t open fast enough, honestly, based on the consumer and industry demand,” said Sepso. “We’re still doing it very safely. And we’ve been monitoring timing. In our locations in the U.K. are reopening daily.”
The United Kingdom-based Belong Gaming Arenas has already opened 25 locations in the U.K. , with venues in Dallas, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; and Nashville, Tennessee, to follow throughout the summer and plans to open 500 locations in the next five years. Rivals include Nerd Street Gamers.
Different from other youth esports initiatives, Belong’s hyper-local approach will be integrated both physically and digitally to accommodate a variety of gaming appetites, from casual players to aspiring professionals. Think of it as the baseball diamonds and soccer pitches of gaming, where local communities can come together to play, watch, and compete across the most popular game titles competitively or for fun.
To further enhance the in-person experience, Belong will equip its arenas with the best products on the market through national partnerships with PlayStation, Omen by HP, Viewsonic, Mavix, and more. As you can see from the pictures, there are multiple designs.
The U.K. locations are converted GAME stores that still have space for selling wares in the location, said Belong CEO Martyn Gibbs, in an interview with GamesBeat. There are still some local restrictions in some locations, but that should be done by July 19 in the U.K., said Gibbs, as that is when COVID-19 restrictions are expected to lift.
“When we first launched Belong, it was 12 stations on a mezzanine floor within one of the stores,” Gibbs said. “But it was really about how we were going to move from the sale of physical and digital products to the provision of gaming services both for gamers and for publishers. So as we started to grow, you saw belong take a far bigger percentage of the shop floor. Now 80% is Belong.”
In the U.S., the Belong centers will have relatively small store areas. And many of the newer designs have computers sitting above the monitors on shelves, leaving people to have their feet in more comfortable positions. Gibbs has been creating the locations since 2016.
“Following more than a year of isolation, people are craving interactive and shared gaming experiences, where they can come together to celebrate a shared love of gaming and its culture,” said Gibbs. “Belong will play a key role in the next evolution of gaming by deeply integrating within local communities while also connecting people from around the world digitally.”
This summer, Belong will also open more U.S. venues in Dallas, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; Nashville, Tennessee; and more will follow in the coming months as the company works toward its plan to establish 500 gaming centers in the U.S. over the next five years.
Each location will offer daily competitive programming, fan engagement opportunities, practice space for local professional and amateur teams, and the best gaming experiences. Everyone from casual players to aspiring professionals can come together at Belong to play the most popular game titles, both for fun and competitively.
“Every gamer, including me, has been cooped up for over a year, playing with a headset on by myself,” said Sepso. “We want to become a really critical and important part of every community where we operate. And that’s our objective.”
Beginning in the fall, community members will represent their hometown Belong teams in inter-arena competition against teams from cities across the U.S. and the U.K. Belong locations will serve as a home field for local amateur teams to compete in tournaments, leagues, and scrimmages against other teams in the Belong network.
Tiered competition will accommodate a wide breadth of recreational and elite play, with seasons ranging from three to ten weeks. Esports Engine, Vindex’s esports technology and solutions company and operator of many of the world’s top esports leagues, will design and operate the daily competitive programming across Belong’s gaming centers.
“Since launching Major League Gaming nearly 20 years ago, it’s been a dream of mine to make the professional esports experience accessible to hometowns across America,” said Sepso. “Through Belong, we are establishing the baseball diamonds and football pitches of esports and gaming to supply the talent development pipeline and grow fandom as the industry continues to mature.”
Belong Arenas will be outfitted with high-end gaming consoles and technology through collaborations with PlayStation and Omen by HP. This will allow Belong customers to compete using best-in-class gaming equipment in an interactive, hands-on environment where they can discover new games and products.
ViewSonic will serve as the official monitor partner for Belong nationally, with Mavix Gaming providing advanced gaming chairs for the arenas in each of the opening markets. Forthcoming partnerships with local brands, high schools, universities, professional esports teams, and more will ensure locations are uniquely tailored to each city’s identity.
While many centers will have lots of PCs, the PlayStation partnership means many will also have PlayStation 5 consoles.
“That’s an important strategic alliance for us as we move forward,” Gibbs said. “We don’t want gamers to not have the kit that they want to play on available or the games that they want to play on available. So while a lot of the tournaments can be played on PCs, we’ve seen that broaden out in the U.K. to the consoles as well.”
A digital platform
In addition to these gaming centers, Belong is launching a digital platform, which will give its community access to the latest news, leaderboards, and recreational and competitive opportunities that transcend the in-person experience and connect gamers around the world. Belong members will be able to seamlessly manage bookings through the platform as well as through a forthcoming mobile app.
And Beyond is also building its centers for the cross-platform world. The company is working with esports teams and game publishers.
“We want this to be an all-inclusive gaming community, in every location that we open,” Sepso said.
A wave of reopenings and openings
Sepso is excited to be leading the reopenings with a new kind of business built around games and esports.
The locations range from 4,000 to 14,000 square feet, with anywhere from 48 stations to 120 for gamers, Gibbs said. There could be eight to 12 jobs in each place. Vindex has 220 employees, and it’s adding more with each new location.
“We’ve already been hired some of the location managers from the prior MLG network,” Sepso said.
Sepso and his partner Sundance DiGiovanni were the founders of Major League Gaming, which they started in 2002 and operated before selling it to Activision Blizzard in 2015.
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