Arlington is betting on esports to add to the draw

Esports at more than a 30 percent annual increase is a growing industry offering better returns than the stock or bond market.

Arlington officially kicks off a $10 million gamble to become the world center of big-time tournament esports – otherwise known a competitive video gaming – on Thanksgiving weekend.

Think of it as digital armchair athletics.

And yes, the booming sport has its own professional athletes who make a living at electronic games, as well as hundreds of thousands of fans – maybe millions – who tune in to esports tournaments, typically viewed on live-stream venues such as Mixer, YouTube and Twitch.

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Who knew?

Probably everybody under age 30.

The Wall Street Journal says esports is a growing billion-dollar industry increasing more than 30 percent annually – much better growth than the stock or bond market, economically speaking.

Also, there’s this morsel: City Manager Trey Yelverton doesn’t see the venture as all that risky.

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We’ll get back to Yelverton and Arlington’s adventurous play on both esports and the convention business momentarily. But first, a review of how Esports Stadium Arlington came into being.

It started in 2016 when the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau commissioned New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sports to conduct a study looking for the next big thing in sports.

The city is already heavily sports-branded with both the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, plus events such as the Super Bowl and World Series have been in town recently. Last year the city checked in 14.5 million visitors to sporting, convention or amusement park venues, a handsome dollar-making number that would be even better, city officials and hotel owners say, if it became 20 million.

The study came back with one big recommendation: esports.

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It’s a simplification, but by last year the Arlington Council decided to convert more than half of its 175,000-square-foot Convention Center into Esports Stadium Arlington. This made it, easily, the largest such venue on the planet.

The cost: $10 million.

That transition is done, handled by architecture firm Populous. The old ballroom now has a glitzy stage fixed up with the best in gaming consoles and multi-story LED screens, plus all the electronic gadgetry needed for viewers in the audience to watch and for competitions to be live-streamed.

They won’t have a long wait. The inaugural event arrives Nov. 22-25, the Finals of FACEIT’s Esports Championship Series, at which video gaming aficionados will see the world’s top Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) teams converge to compete for the title of ECS Champions.

Don’t know what CS:GO is? Terrorists and counterterrorists try to wipe each other out, single-shooter style. Leave it at that.

City Manager Yelverton is, of course, watching events unfold with $10 million worth of interest, but also with a larger strategy in mind.

First, Yelverton says, though the design is for esports, the venue is still quite useable for speaker-oriented appearances when there are no tournaments.

It’ll host, for example, a coming appearance by famed urban economics theorist Richard Florida. Also, the remaining unchanged space in the center will still be used for previously booked traditional conventions, though perhaps for not much longer.

“Instead of a head table, it’ll be a head stage,” Yelverton says. “We’ll now have high-tech staging and technology for future events.”

Yelverton also said the conversion is part of a “broader economic development play” in which the city will eventually build a new, bigger traditional convention center in what will likely be a public-private collaborative with a major hotel.

“Basically, we’re pre-solving a future dilemma,” he said, “eliminating in advance the dark space that would be created when the current convention center isn’t needed and being on the cutting edge of esports.

“In the context of a broader economic development play, we want to have an economic development strategy that will attract younger clientele, younger entrepreneurs and an Arlington branded with a more modern vibe.”

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.