For a long time now, esports has been a mostly private activity. Sure, there are large conventions where players can compete. Some even allow players to book a slot and bring their own PC equipment to play games over the Local Area Network (LAN). Yet for the most part, competitive gaming either takes place online or at a single venue.
Locales where esports have not yet gained traction are video game stores, malls, and shopping centers. However, that could change with some news from Sports Direct International this week, as reported in The Guardian.
Esports in stores
Sports Direct is teaming up with another famous high-street brand, Game Digital, to create a number of physical esports hubs.
The sportswear chain, owned by billionaire Mike Ashley, is reportedly set to open pay-to-play concessions in its stores across the UK and Europe. Shoppers will be able to take a break from browsing sports apparel and sit down to compete in-store (for a small fee) in live matches.
To facilitate this move, Sports Direct — which already held a 25.8 percent stake in Game Digital following the purchase of shares in the company back in 2017) — purchased 50 percent of the intellectual property rights of Game’s esports offshoot company Belong. This also entitles Sports Direct to 50 percent of the profits generated by the company.
Furthermore, Sports Direct handed a £55 million loan to Game’s Spanish division to develop more esports centers and venues across Spain.
Why the move?
The answer here is fairly simple. As explained by Game Digital in The Guardian’s story, the companies hope to capitalize on the overlap between traditional sports and esports. Certainly, the fact that esports global revenues last year grew to reach a new high of $1.5 billion played a big part. Further, experts project total revenues will hit $2.3 billion in five years.
What is Belong?
Belong is Game Digital’s specialist esports company. It attempts to foster the popularity of esports by creating what it calls “tribes” of gamers.
Several UK cities have their own “tribe” with exotic-sounding names, such as the Plymouth Armada or Preston Invincibles. The teams pay up to £7 per hour to play esports at their local Game store. Going forward, these Belong will offer specialist esports gaming centres, as well as virtual reality, for customers to enjoy.
As part of the deal with Sports Direct, Game Digital will open another 16 Belong arenas in its UK stores. This is in addition to the creation of specialist esports zones within individual Sports Direct stores. Currently, Belong operates 18 such arenas.
The move away from retailing games to providing game experiences for customers is part of Game Digital’s new business model.
This figures to be a productive move for the company, which has struggled in the face of competition from online retailers in recent years. In fact, Belong’s revenues doubled last year up to £8.7 million, according to Game Digital’s annual report. The report also shows a typical Game customer spent £165 in shops last year. By contrast, Belong gamers spent considerably more per head — £239.
While this is an interesting change in customer behavior, there are still many more Sports Direct customers purchasing games and other items than there are Belong gamers. We’ll have to see whether and how the scales continue to tip toward the esports world in this respect.
Is this a new idea?
Game and Sports Direct are the first companies to specifically offer esports gaming (as well as VR) in their stores, but they are part of a growing trend of companies now selling a shopping experience, evidenced by the portmanteau “Shoppertainment.”
Other shops, such as the new John Lewis store in Westgate, Oxford, have taken a more unusual approach to selling. This store trained its staff of over 300 in theatrical techniques to produce an “Alice in Wonderland” experience.
For another example, Debenhams offers a new approach to the high street called “social shopping.” In an interview from lats year with SkyNews, chief executive Sergio Bucher cited his aim to make visiting the store a “fun leisure activity.”
Without doubt, the lines between the worlds of shopping and entertainment are becoming more and more blurred as traditional stores seek new ways to compete with online retail giants such as Amazon.
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