An Esports Future - Jonathon Oudthone Interview

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If there is such thing as an iconic esports photo trope, it’s probably the one that actually has little to do with what’s happening on monitors and over servers. Little, in fact, to do with fancifully designed gaming chairs, or keyboards and mice glowing the full spectrum of the rainbow. Arguably, it doesn’t even have to do with the players – young men decked out in ill-fitted sports jerseys – given that the stars of the show appear as mere pixels upon the whole of the image.

It is, instead, the crowds. The dark, yawning chambers, lit by blazing streaks of neon reds and blues, with glaring spotlights held aloft by riggings 30 feet high. It’s a stage of LED panels and the booming voice of announcers and MCs riling up a crowd of thousands. The definitive esports experience is, paradoxical to its games’ digital and location-agnostic nature, one underlined by its live stadium experience. And as the Overwatch League enters its much-anticipated home/away system, each of its franchisees are now opening up their own stadiums around the world – and into our increasingly literal backyards.

Out in Arlington, Texas, my former Infinite Esports & Entertainment colleague Jonathon Oudthone is busy operating the city’s newly-opened Esports Stadium Arlington - a massive 100,000 square foot complex carved out of the city’s expo center, across a pond from the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park. He was willing to offer his insights on the project – as well as those now being built by Comcast Spectacor out in Philadelphia, among the many others underway.

Passion Projects to Prime Time

Prior to his collaboration with the city of Arlington, Oudthone operated with NGAGE Esports, an events production company specializing in fighting games. His prior work included the Evo Championship Series and other high-profile events – most relevantly, experience that’s made him and his crew intimately familiar with the production challenges inherent in running events out of general-purpose convention centers, as is traditional for even most esports today.

Jonathon Oudthone Interview

It starts, of course, with proper budget allocations: “having to go in and budget out all of the LEDs, how much we can afford for the show, since it’s the flashiest thing you can have from a viewing perspective,” said Jonathon, musing over the expenses. In this case, LEDs refers to the large display panels, such as that used extensively throughout the Overwatch League’s LA studio, covering the entire wall and streaming the game live to the audience. “Many times, we didn’t have the budget. You’d look at utilizing a projector system.”

“Then, the cost of renting internet at a convention center is absurd – of course, that’s the backbone of esports. Without internet, you don’t have an esports event!” Further nickel-and-diming includes the often exorbitant cost of unionized labor to handle basic work and lighting – labor that might be adequate in setting up a conventional trade expo’s displays, but are largely ignorant of the best practices in showcasing competitive gaming. 

Non-monetary concerns plague such events as well – gray concrete flooring and walls aren’t the best aesthetic, and the overhead rigging for lights and cameras may be ill-suited for the task at hand as well. Not to mention whether separate rooms are available for teams, staff, and production talents, and if such rooms are adequate to their individual purposes.

Having all of that baked into the Arlington stadium plans was done through a collaboration between NGAGE and architectural firm Populous – who is also involved in the Spectacor project in Philadelphia, on behalf of Overwatch franchise Fusion. “You want to ensure that the core foundation of everything here was built with esports in mind,” said Oudthone. “Including our stage, all of our table runs, type of cameras we were using, type of switcher equipment we had, and even the type of rooms we had to build out.”

The challenge wasn’t just to address the pain points that plagued the behind-the-scenes work for traditional esports events either. Modularity was a big concern – the ability to, nearly at a moment’s notice, swap out tables to go from a six-on-six event like the Overwatch League, to a downscaled one-on-one showcase like with the fighting game community’s events. But just as importantly, their vision of a modernized esports-specialized facility required bending toward pragmatic business-related considerations too.

Futureproofing

“You can’t build an esports facility and rely on only one or two games,” noted Oudthone. “Something like the NFL and the AT&T stadium, which is a billion-dollar stadium – it wasn’t built just to host home games; it was built to host other events as well. Constantly keeping the stage programmed is going to be important.”

Jonathon Oudthone

The “home” stadiums currently being built or planned for the various Overwatch League regional markets will likely have similar concerns as well. Though ostensibly meant for a single team and a single esports title, Oudthone expects there to be a lot of crossovers with other mainstream and second-tier esports as well. “If you’re focusing on esports events, you have to hit every other community – being able to program your space to Smash Bros., Street Fighter, Counter-Strike, DOTA, to make sure that your space caters to that. Every game has its own specifications, so that’s where it gets creative in designing the space – to make sure it’s modular enough to facilitate, because they won’t live up to just one game, that’s for sure.”

In ESA’s case, their space doubles as a local LAN hangout, with computers and dedicated arcade stations for everything from Fortnite to Dragon Ball FighterZ enthusiasts. And a lot of their success, or what success they’ve planned for, is due to their host city’s own ambitions. Arlington’s build-up is focused in the local area – and their esports stadium plays neighbor not just to the Rangers, but the Six Flags amusement park, and the Texas Live! entertainment center, drawing in tourism from the greater Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis and far beyond to a space that’s ultimately only a few city blocks across. 

That means foot traffic, and cross-promotional opportunities, that’d be much harder to find elsewhere in DFW, or even in other Texas cities. Among the most important considerations for building an esports stadium, said Oudthone, is that you “put an esports facility in a highly populated entertainment area, just from a geographical perspective.” Local demographics matter too. “You want to be in an area with a lot of Millennial traffic; younger audiences are coming, as well as somewhere that’s easy to access much like traditional sports stadiums.”

Jonathon Oudthone

That matches nicely with the Overwatch League, then, whose teams are assigned only to markets that can support such an audience. It’s hard to consider the likes of Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, London, or Paris as anything but the most premiere hosts for such endeavors after all, with Dallas ranking high globally for the air passenger traffic that moves to and from its massive international airport. Even so, the plans for Esports Stadium Arlington and others like it are still modest compared to the headcounts for famous events like the League of Legends World Championships’ Olympic Stadium-filling tens of thousands. ESA, in particular, is slated for a more mid-sized 2400 to 5000 max seating. 

Their plan for the next 10 years – and likely that of their peers and rivals in the space – is to increasingly have a calendar full of events that fills those seats to capacity, regardless of what game’s on the screen.

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