To Game or Not to Game

Cinema’s relationship with esports and gaming has been building steadily over the past five years or so. Whether it’s playing League of Legends on a specially set up console in the local multiplex (“gaming”), or watching a major Fortnite tournament in Screen 2 in the early hours of Tuesday morning (“eSports”), cinemas can cater to each discipline in different ways. But given the extensive technology demands, Helen Budge uncovers what’s actually required when an exhibitor is looking to convert its sites into successful gaming venues?


eSports vs gaming?

The first thing to realise is that, fundamentally, eSports as an event cinema concept requires a similar technological set-up to other live event screenings. Caspar Nadaud, CEO of distributor Piece of Magic Entertainment, says, “In principle an [eSports] event is similar to satellite broadcasts, like the ones used by The Metropolitan Opera or the Royal Opera House.” And operators are well-versed in the technical problems that can occur, having been using this method since circa 2005. But for an operator encouraging customers to spend time actively gaming in their kitted-out cinema foyer or arena, the requirements are a completely different beast. And there are technology-based pitfalls to be aware of if a smooth gaming event is desired.

Latency, ping and lag may not be terms that trip of the tongue of many in the cinema industry, unless you have a predisposition towards gaming — but these three terms describe different elements of technical delay experienced when gamers play high-speed games. And these can not only be atmosphere-killers if they cause problems, but entire tournament killers. High monetary and prestige stakes of the top gaming tournaments mean they can be devastating, but even at a lower level these are to be avoided. So what technical aspects need to be taken into consideration to avoid these issues and ensure a cinema can successfully convert itself to a gaming centre? And how well suited are they as venues?


The GFinity eSports Arena — a model for the future?

GFinity in south-west London, is perhaps the example that most readily springs to mind when talking about cinema venues adapted for eSports and gaming within the UK. Based in the Fulham branch of international cinema chain Vue, it’s a purpose-built venue for gamers. One converted screen is dedicated to gaming action, another is a Green Room and there’s a warm-up space for players.

James Dobbin, director of event cinema UK and International for Showcase Cinemas, says of these kinds of adapted spaces, “The reality is that with retail in decline I believe we’ll see more retail and cinema spaces used as fixed eSports locations. Their permanence means they don’t require rigging/de-rigging, they’re likely to be more centrally located, and most importantly they allow for multi-player set ups.”
One can be forgiven for thinking that this kind of venue would take significant investment to fit out. But Jon Winkle, founder and managing director of gaming events company epic.LAN, explains that although a venue like GFinity would have to consider substantial outgoings for their broadcast technology, some other costs aren’t as expensive (relatively-speaking) as you might think.


So what are we talking about?

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Winkle explained that when an event operator books a venue to put on a pop-up gaming night, they’ll typically take the necessary kit with them. This includes everything from cabling right the way through to gaming seats and consoles and these (generally-speaking) aren’t the venue’s concern.

With his “event operator” hat on though, Winkle outlined that the main considerations for him when looking at a cinema or other potential venue for a gaming night would actually be the physical layout and available space in an established cinema. A cinema’s design doesn’t allow for much movement in a screen — why would it when you’re normally there to watch a film — but space is necessary for an event due to the need to accommodate extra bodies such as commentators and press.

This is also a key consideration for a venue looking to purpose-adapt any of its screens permanently in the way that Vue did with GFinity. And it’s not, Winkle says, just front of house space that should be considered, although this area is important in setting the tone for the event. For example, audio in the auditorium needs to be heard by the audience to keep them abreast of the live-action play, but the players actually shouldn’t be able to hear commentary, partly to avoid distraction but also to avoid any tactical comments that might provide an advantage.


Winkle says, “If I’m considering potential cinema venues for an event, the questions I’m going to be asking are about the physical layout of the cinema, the available power circuit, the connectivity / the LAN (Local Area Network), the ventilation system.”

He adds that a cinema converting itself to a permanent venue would obviously need to invest in its own kit and the necessary specifications for computers, consoles etc. would have to be to a certain standard. But relatively speaking these costs are manageable — a decent gaming PC can sit in the region of £1-2k — it just takes research.


Connectivity: the need for speed

Of course, internet connectivity is perhaps the biggest issue for any potential gaming venue. Despite some cinema buildings being old, there’s a misconception that this means they’re difficult to connect to the modern world. Winkle explains that typically location and infrastructure determine how strong the internet connection is. He emphasises that cinemas should not use guest wifi for gaming, “There must be a dedicated, wired connection physically or technically segregated from the accessible network. This cannot be the public wifi, it’s just too unreliable. People streaming live to Facebook, taking pictures or even the weather can impact performance.”

Dom Sacco, content director at the British eSports Association, explains what is at stake: “Games that require split second reactions like CS:GO [Counter Strike: Global Offensive] or with hundreds of people playing at once like Fortnite need efficient connectivity. A lot of pressure from a high volume of actions can result in disaster for players.” Winkle adds, “If it can’t be escaped that the network is shared then there must be a dedicated IT management team monitoring this, who are able to solve problems should they arise.”


Sponsorships and partnerships

When it comes to costs such as gaming seats, PCs, even player uniform (mainly applicable at higher levels of contest) this is where relevant sponsorships need to be explored. Sponsors will often agree to provide branded equipment, saving the operator money but gaining exposure for themselves.

At the ESL One Birmingham 2018 (UK) contest, a whole host of sponsors supplied different elements, taking financial pressure off the organisers. The outfit Need for Seat provided, unsurprisingly, player seating and DHL went all out with its incredibly well-received immersive package delivery robot EffiBOT.


The fountain of youth & the holy grail?

The conversation around esports in cinemas often carries an undertone, with some seeing it as an amateur, niche area that exhibitors are hesitant to invest in. But esports fans are the Holy Grail: the “younger cinema audience”. And they’re known as some of the most passionate, tech-savvy fans out there — but they can also be some of the most unforgiving. A one-off technical hitch might be forgiven, but honest communication really is crucial. If the venue has regular technical issues, trust will be lost with that operator, and it’s hard to win it back.

Johnny Carr, Vue’s group event cinema manager, notes “When we put on an esports event one of our priorities is to promote an arena-feel and crowd atmosphere that is notably different from our usual film-going experience. Our screens using Dolby Sound and 4K technology are a significant part of this.” Carr adds that they encourage what some would see as “anti-social cinema behaviour” which is key to fans’ enjoyment. Without this, as Dom Sacco says, “Atmosphere and crowd enjoyment is great justification for putting on the event in the first place.” To illustrate this point, Vue’s esports “instructions” on its website include the following: “Sit at the edge of your seat or leap to your feet and watch from the aisles.”


So is this something cinema can achieve?

Cinemas acting as gaming venues makes a lot of practical sense. As the conversation continued with Jon Winkle, he said, “The more we discuss cinemas as gaming venues the more it makes sense. They cope regularly with big groups of people in purpose-designed, comfortable auditoria offering a high-spec audio-visual experience. If connectivity isn’t an issue, then I’m already buying into this as a concept.”

It’s true that perhaps more outside-the-box thinking is needed, and more research can be done. But these types of cinema-gaming projects are happening and, more importantly, are adapting to the available environment well. With such a huge eSports / gaming market out there, cinemas have most of the necessary technical set-up but a “can do” attitude helps. The tide seems to be changing.