Scrim City: Could Las Vegas be the esports capital of North America?

Esports Asia News
Las Vegas wants to be the esports capital of North America. Las Vegas wants to be a lot of things, and most importantly, it wants people to come to town and spend their money. Whether that happens at casinos, shows or restaurants, Vegas makes a lot of money on tourists, and now it wants to transform itself into the destination for esports in the West. In order to make that happen, legislators are passing laws to encourage the growth of the esports industry in Nevada, while casinos and other investors are building venues to bring the audience. Vegas has come a long way from “what happens here, stays here.” Every few years, like clockwork, the city needs to change to draw a newer, younger crowd and millennial esports fans are that new crowd. The people who put money into growing and changing Las Vegas see parallels between the heyday of boxing, when Las Vegas was the fight capital of the world, and the excitement around esports today. Esports is happening in Vegas, and if the casinos and legislators get their say, it’s going to stay. Over the last few years, Las Vegas-based investors and legislators have been slowly building up their city as the future destination for esports tourism in North America. First was the Downtown Grand, which started running esports tournaments at their casino in 2015. Then, Millennial Esports opened Las Vegas’ first dedicated esports venue, thE Arena, in downtown Vegas. More recently, MGM partnered with Esports Arena in April to open a dedicated esports venue in the Luxor casino on the strip by 2018. While this was all happening, Nevada lawmakers were working on passing Senate Bill 240, which allowed esports to be gambled on at a lower risk to book keepers through pari-mutuel wagering. Essentially, sports books in Las Vegas can pool bet together and give each bettor a cut if they win, instead of setting the odds in advance. “We hope that this bill, along with other legislation, will encourage growth in the gaming, hospitality and events industry statewide,” Nevada senator Becky Harris told theScore esports. Harris sponsored the esports gambling bill. “Esports events are events that we would like to encourage in Nevada as I believe that our state has the best combination of available event locations, technological infrastructure, lodging, and additional entertainment offerings for esports event operators and fans.” Harris notes that moving into esports makes sense for Vegas, given the city’s technological infrastructure and several hotels, but that’s all been there before. Esports has never necessarily been a stranger to Las Vegas, just something that the city didn’t take seriously as a key part of its future. EVO, the biggest annual fighting game tournament, has been held in Vegas every year since 2005. Riot held the 2016 NA LCS Spring Finals in the city, and there have been plenty of MLG events in Las Vegas.
The crowd at Mandalay Bay for EVO 2016
The reason Las Vegas is interested in chasing esports is a challenge of demographics. According to a 2016 study funded by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the average age of a Las Vegas visitor is 44, which has slowly gone down over the last few years. Vegas does not want that number to go up, since that would mean less and less young people are coming to Vegas every year, which would eventually leave the city without a base demographic of tourists. Some people in positions of authority in Nevada believe that esports is the best way to bring down the average visitor age and restore some of Las Vegas’ lost glory. “I would compare what I see as the future potential of this to be similar to Boxing,” Nevada Gaming Control Board chairman AG Burnett told theScore esports. “You could have the event in Nevada, you can have it in a casino, you can have it attended by thousands of people, and you can have wagers on that event as well. It can all happen in Las Vegas. I look at the heyday of boxing back when I was younger and there were huge fights in Las Vegas that were events for everybody to see and be seen. Why not have that for esports?” Of course, Las Vegas has hosted esports events for a long time. Beyond even EVO and those MLG events, Las Vegas has a competitive gaming community like most major cities in North America, and Bassem “Bear” Dahdouh has some concerns about how the casinos moving into esports will affect the local Las Vegas esports scene. Bear travels all over North America for fighting game tournaments. He works partnerships at, has been a tournament organizer at dozens of prominent tournaments, including EVO, and he’s the FGC and Smash Bros. manager at Panda Global. But Bear got his esports start by running small Super Smash Bros. for 3DS tournaments for the local Las Vegas scene. The events never cracked 100 entrants until the fifth tournament, but they helped build up the Vegas Smash 4 scene and encourage local events that weren’t being run by someone from outside of the community. These days, Bear says that the local Vegas scenes he’s closest to, Smash and the FGC, are pretty healthy, and he says he’s excited for what the casinos can offer in terms of venue space, but he does have a couple concerns. “Something I’m genuinely worried about is gambling for esports. In general a lot of the players are young, it’s kind of a tricky thing that needs to be really just make sure things kind of make sense in the perspective of not diminishing the scene’s grassroots nature. My only concern is when the winnings from gambling are more than the salary of a player, it kind of makes me hesitant, not just as a spectator but also as a local. Not that I’m fully against it, I just want to make sure there are things put in place to ensure that there’s more streamlined and more process to it.” SB240’s enabling of pari-mutuel betting functions similarly to the way sidebets tend to work at fighting game events, but with more regulations in place. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the system is perfect for every event. Meanwhile, Bear says the new opportunities provided by interest from the casinos and real backing from the government create new concerns for a guy like him. “I feel like these arenas should leverage existing, established tournament organizers and community figures,” Bear said. “Not that I necessarily want a job, it’s just that if there’s someone who’s really committed to the Overwatch scene, or the Pokemon scene, or the Injustice scene, they can leverage that and bring them on as well. It’s just that it looks kind of weird when that doesn’t happen. If that talent within the community isn’t used, the talent within the community may not feel like they want to go to the event, which sucks. You really want locals to come to your event too.” But the MGM doesn’t just want locals to come to the Luxor Esports Arena, they want everyone, and that means they have to approach esports differently than what’s already out there. When the Luxor esports venue opens, it isn’t going to look like the one Esports Arena currently runs in Santa Ana. Both facilities will host regular tournaments and offer production facilities, but that’s where the similarities end. While the Santa Ana location got to start small and slowly build a dedicated base of community members who come and play every week, Esports Arena CEO Paul Ward says they won’t be afforded that same luxury in Las Vegas. “There are no half measures in terms of building up a venue space in Vegas” Ward said. “We kind of bootstrapped our venue in Santa Ana and kind of scaled up as we grew. We have to hit the ground running from Day 1 in Vegas from a technical standpoint and an operational standpoint, so it is a much different beast. Not to mention you have a completely different cost. I mean let’s be honest, it just costs a lot more. Everything is just kind of amplified.” Esports Arena is taking over a space that was previously occupied by a nightclub to open the first dedicated esports venue on the Vegas strip, but that comes with some hurdles that their current location doesn’t have. If the Luxor wants their venue (and by extension the city of Las Vegas) to be known as the place to go to for esports, they need it to be more than just an esports venue. “We’re approaching Vegas the way you would approach Vegas if you were a nightclub or a hotel, it’s a whole different beast,” Ward said. “So we’re not necessarily completely focused on that small scale community building as kind of a primary force to get people into the building, it’s still an element we want to be a part of, but in terms of getting people into the facility, it has to be a spectacle. It has to become a Vegas-like experience that can captivate someone’s attention and time. So we go into that with clear eyes, we’re not expecting to host 20-person tournaments for the first six months of opening, that’s not the model.” Of course, that means that the local community might have to be left behind as Vegas pursues bigger and bigger markets in esports. MGM, which owns and operates the Luxor, sees Esports Arena as a destination for more than just local fans, they want it to be something that draws in tourists through spectacle, whether they’re already esports fans or not. “You’re looking at taking 30,000 square feet of space and customizing it and designing where every square inch will be designed with esports fans in mind,” Nik Rytterstrom, General Manager of the Luxor said. “If you are an esports fan, this is the must-see destination, and you probably have your own esports community at home where you play, but this will be the flagship that you want to see and interact with other esports fans at. “If we do this right, this will be the must-see destination for esports fans and it wouldn’t surprise me if even if you’re not that into esports this will be a venue that you may want to hang out in.” There are a lot of opportunities for the future of esports in Las Vegas. Both Burnett and Rytterstrom note the possibility of teams playing in the T-Mobile Arena on the strip, and some esports teams, including Rogue, have already claimed Las Vegas as their city. With things moving this quickly, it’s hard to gauge exactly how successful anything might be. Esports Arena won’t be open until early 2018, while SB240 won’t go into effect until July, and any major, geolocated Vegas esports team playing in the T-Mobile arena could be further away still. Las Vegas isn’t the esports capital of the world just yet, and it’s impossible to say if any of these efforts will actually pay off to make Vegas the esports capital of the world. However, the people working to make that happen have reason to be excited about the potential. It might not change the fact of esports, but it’ll definitely change esports in Vegas. Once everything is in place, all that really matters is if the esports industry really is willing to commit to Las Vegas once the honeymoon period is over. “Personally, as someone who is a Nevadan, I definitely think that it’s a possibility, and personally I’d love to see [Las Vegas be the esports capital,]” Burnett said. “You’ve got the infrastructure already in place in Las Vegas and in Reno to accommodate all of these things, in whatever category you’re talking about. Whether it’s hotel rooms or dining, other types of entertainment, the infrastructure is already there. Nevada’s got a great tax structure and I think all the benefits are here. What I would call the turnkey is now that the statutes in Nevada have allowed for betting on it in a highly regulated, well-controlled environment, I think it’s up to the esports industry now to see what it can do.”

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