Vindex-owned esports facilities company Belong Gaming Arenas announced Wednesday that it will open its first esports competition center in Houston, Texas, “this summer,” followed by a roll-out in key markets such as Dallas, Columbus, Chicago and Nashville.
Belong Gaming Arenas, which was bought by Vindex from games retailer GAME Digital plc in July 2020, operates 25 centers in the UK. The company had planned to build arenas in 500 locations across the U.S. over the next five years when it initially bought Belong, but had to delay plans due to the pandemic.
Vindex CEO Mike Sepso tells SBJ Esports’ James Fudge that key hires over the last year including former GAME digital CEO Martyn Gibbs, Activision Blizzard exec Kasey Kramer, CSL Esports exec Wim Stocks and former Starbucks exec Pablo Arizmendi-Kalb have helped the company refine its deployment plans while it monitored the pandemic and waited for an opportunity to execute.
“We’ve really just been getting ready, monitoring the COVID-19 situation, having close conversations with our key partners, and paying special attention to when we felt like it would be safe to start opening arenas,” Sepso said. “On top of that, we’ve made a few key hires this year that are critical, but it all goes back to the original announcement about the acquisition that we made last summer and bringing Martyn Gibbs on board to oversee the whole international development of this business for us.”
Sepso said that Belong chose Houston as its first location because “it’s a good market, but the city and the property that we’re in, in particular for this location, was just kind of the easiest to get open quickly.”
Belong Gaming Arenas are more than just gaming centers where people can play games; each arena serves as a competitive team that competes against other locations in the United States and the UK. This is facilitated by other divisions of Vindex such as Esports Engine, an esports operations company that works with stakeholders in facilitating tournaments and broadcasts such as Learfield IMG College, Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, Riot Games, Tencent, and many more. Inter-arena competitions will officially kick off this fall.
“This is already an existing business in the UK, where there are about 25 locations that are currently operating,” Sepso said. “Over the past five years of developing the business in the UK, Martyn and the team built up this Arena Clash programming function, which connects all of the individual locations into one network, effectively [an] inter-network league program to help determine which of the locations field the best teams in each game that we manage. What we’re doing in the U.S. is obviously connecting the UK and U.S. together in that network, but also trying to connect the entire network to professional esports teams and leagues.”
In addition to utilizing the services of its own companies Vindex is working with partners Sony PlayStation, adidas, Omen by HP, ViewSonic, and gaming chair maker Mavix, to outfit its arenas. Belong, partners, some of which have been associated with the company since the days when Martyn Gibbs still worked at GAME, have bought into the long-term vision, according to Sepso.
“Everyone onboard today has seen the long-term rollout plan, they see the schedule,” Sespo said. “So we’re investing quite a lot of time and capital into making that happen quickly. “I think you can see based on the size of those initial partners before we even have our first location open, where our heads are in terms of what level of scale we hope to achieve quickly.”
Finally, Sepso says that each new location that opens will increase in scale and size as they roll out across the U.S., and that the Columbus arena, home to Esports Engine, will serve as a testing ground for the company’s future innovations.
Ultimately the goal, according to Sepso, is to use Vindex owned resources (facilities, esports infrastructure building, broadcasting capabilities, etc.), to help facilitate both grassroots and professional esports competition in the U.S.
“I’ve been dreaming about being able to do this for a decade and a half, and I feel incredibly confident and excited about the first opening, but also just the full plan of how big we’re going to go with it,” Sepso said. “We have been planning and building it for a long time across the Vindex management team, with Sundance DiGiovanni’s input, the Esports Engine management group, and a number of people on the Belong team that started with us back at MLG.”
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