Video games are beginning their takeover of the real world.
Across North America this year, companies are turning malls, movie theaters, storefronts and parking garages into neighborhood esports arenas.
At the same time, content farms are spinning up in Los Angeles, where managers now see gamers as some peculiar new form of famous person to cultivate — half athlete, half influencer.
And much of it is powered by the obsession with one game: Fortnite. Over the last month, people have spent more than 128 million hours on Twitch just watching other people play Fortnite, the game that took all the best elements of building, shooting and survival games and merged them into one.
How obsessed are people? After each of their wins this season, the Houston Astros — among many other sports teams — are doing a very specific dance, their arms in the air, fingers spread, their legs bent, toes tapping rapidly. It’s a Fortnite dance.
Fortnite content received 2.4 billion views on YouTube in February alone, according to Tubular Insights. So yes, people love playing video games — but people also love to watch others compete at them.
Esports are, finally, just like any other sport.
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For gaming, this is a moment of convergence of trends. Professional esports leagues around games like League of Legends are growing more popular and more serious; huge numbers of people are tuning into livestreams to watch gamers play (Fortnite broke the record), and going to YouTube to get fun game-centric content from game celebrities.
At the same time? Physical spaces around the country are being renovated into gamer bars.
Those 150 million gamers in America want to gather. They want to sit next to each other, elbow to elbow, controller to controller. They want the lighting to be cool, the snacks to be Hot Pockets, and they want a full bar because they are not teenagers anymore.
It was inevitable. Movie theater attendance hit a 25-year low in 2017, while 638,000 tuned in to watch Drake play Fortnite recently. The Paris Olympics in 2024 are now in talks to include gaming as a demonstration sport.
Besides, gamers already have been playing together, chatting live on headsets and messaging apps as they march through their increasingly beautiful digital worlds.
Oakland’s new esports arena threw a pre-opening party recently. A line stretched down the block. Nearly 4,000 people jammed into the former parking structure and onto the street around it, right in the touristy heart of Jack London Square. The sponsor was Cup of Noodles. Inside it was cacophony.
There were game sound effects, hundreds of hands clicking on controllers, bags of chips opening and the periodic shrieks of “shoutcasters,” who comment on game play for live streams that tens of thousands watch.
Tyler Endres, the co-founder of Esports Arena, said he had to speak at four community meetings to convince the community it would, in fact, like an esports arena.
“They wanted a grocery store,” Mr. Endres said, grimacing.
And yes, the arena had trouble getting a liquor license.
“The thought was, ‘They’re 13-year-olds, they’re not drinking,’” said Jud Hannigan, 36, who is the chief executive of Allied Esports, an investor in Esports Arena. “But the average age is 25.”
It was a big industrial-looking space with a raised floor to hide the warren of cables, designed flexibly for big stage games or for nights when more people would play. Tonight was a bit of both, with more than a hundred TVs and computers set up with different games.
On the glowing stage, two of the best from the scrum went head-to-head, as the audience cheered and shoutcasters on high presenter chairs narrated the play-by-play. A smoke machine blew over the whole scene.
Landon Trybuch, a 24-year old from Vancouver, British Columbia, said it was nice to be out from the sweaty back rooms of video stores where he used to play.
“It’s amazing,” he said, holding his own controller. Its cord had been covered in yarn by his girlfriend. “There’s so much room.”
Six people ran a production studio in back, getting the game streamed live — audio, lighting, graphics, live cutting and instant replays.
Herb Press, 77, who designed the space, watched from the restaurant a few steps above the fray. This was his first esports arena, and he was not sure what to expect from the patrons.
“This is an audience involved in this particular time in the computer age, but I’m amazed how critical they are,” he said. “They do have serious concepts and tastes. I heard one come out of the bathroom and say it looked cool in there.”
Mr. Press is excited about Seattle, where he is working to transform a registered historic building, the four-story Union Stables, into an esports arena.
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One recent afternoon in the Hollywood Hills, the guys were tired, but the creative director needed more Fortnite content, and so the break dancers kept going.
The guys were FaZe Clan, an esports organization. Their job is to be cool gamers. They stream game play, and they make highly shareable videos about video games. This workday goal is to leave with three to four pieces of viral-ready content. So they’d keep filming “guess this dance move” videos.
FaZe is one of several growing esports teams and content mills. The Faze Clan, probably the largest pop gaming brand, has houses in California (Calabasas and Hollywood) and Texas (Austin). Fans often show up outside and try to come in, and Vera Salamone, the director of talent, is most alarmed by the fact that their parents are driving them there.
“The Make-a-Wish kids came over a couple weeks ago, and all they wanted to do was play Fortnite,” said Ms. Salamone, who used to be on Kid Rock’s management team and wears a diamond on one of her teeth. She worries about what happens to the boys — the talent in the clan are all boys — as they grow up.
“They all have distinct personalities,” Ms. Salamone said of the FaZe gamers. “Jev screams all the time.”
Jimmy Jellinek, chief creative officer of FaZe Clan and previously chief content officer at Playboy, said: “Jev will do a Top 5 clip of amateur footage and then rage over the microphone, and those do extraordinarily well.”
Thomas Oliveira, 24, who streams under the name Temperrr, took me down to his suite, where Barry the Bengal cat lives and where Mr. Oliveira streams Fortnite on Twitch and posts videos to his 1.6 million YouTube followers. He joined the collective when he was 15, playing Call of Duty when the clan was a handful of snipers. He went to school for business and was not even a full semester in when he stood up during a math test and walked out.
By 2012, the group decided to start professional gaming teams to compete in tournaments and take a percent of their earnings. Now they sign players to the FaZe teams across all games. At the house now they focus on more lifestyle gamer content. Mr. Oliveira has a tattoo of a wolf with the FaZe logo over it.
As he talked, he was playing Fortnite with his brother in Brazil. Their characters greeted each other and started dancing. “It’s colorful and smooth,” Mr. Oliveira said. “You can laugh a lot playing this game — like, this dude’s just dancing.”
The players were most recently working with Fullscreen Media, an entertainment company that works with internet stars, but now many in FaZe are heading off to make their own media company, “so we don’t have to split money with a random company,” Mr. Oliveira said.
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Ms. Salamone took me to the corporate office, a WeWork at Hollywood and Vine, where that new gamer management company is taking shape.
Lee Trink, 50, an owner of FaZe Clan, has a desk that is almost entirely empty except for a crossbow. His last gig was president of Capitol Records. Now, he says, esports and gaming are the future and will eclipse movies.
“The industry is asleep at the switch,” he said. “For people my age and older who control a lot of the zeitgeist, the vibe is still ‘gamers must be nerds in their parents’ basement.’”
He wore an unbuttoned chambray shirt over a tight white T-shirt, AirPods on a belt harness, and metal and leather bracelets.
He is not alone in his thinking about the industry. Peter Guber, the chief executive of the Mandalay Entertainment Group, and Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, bought a clan called Team Liquid recently. (“We’ve won $19 million in prize money so far,” said Mike Milanov, the chief operating officer of Team Liquid, which recently opened an 8,000 square foot esports team training facility in Santa Monica.)
“The experience of games is so rich, so deep, they deliver on the promise, whereas films have increasingly not delivered on the promise,” Mr. Trink said. “We’re creating a business that’s filling a void people don’t even know is a void yet.”
He sees streaming gamers as a fully new genre of mainstream entertainment. And like every generation of entertainment before, they’ll need their own palaces.
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Gamers are coming together for practical reasons as well as social ones. Games are so sophisticated that they can overload home connections. And cryptocurrency miners have driven the price of crucial gear — like the graphics card gamers use to amp up their computers’ processing speeds.
“We’re seeing the rebirth of social gaming,” Luigino Gigante, 27, who opened a gaming center called Waypoint Cafe on the Lower East Side of New York late last year. “It’s bringing back the community aspect of gaming again. It’s like, ‘O.K., we’re still playing separately, but we’re together.’”
And there’s an underused asset already at hand.
“The movie theater!” said Ann Hand, the C.E.O. of Super League Gaming, which converts movie theaters into esports arenas, and has raised $32 million from investors. “It has that thunderous sound, and it’s empty a lot of the time.”
Two days a week, Ms. Hand and her crews convert about 50 movie auditoriums into esports arenas, where kids, mostly younger, compete and watch the game projected onto the big screen.
For the Super League Gamers, the events can accompany or replace traditional sports. It’s a new Little League and Minor League for today’s athletes. Each city plays together as a branded team — there’s the Chicago Force, the New York Fury, the San Francisco Ionics. So far, there are 50,000 players.
Parents accompany younger players, and the real-life experience opens their eyes. “The most common piece of feedback was that they knew their son or daughter loved this game, but they had no way to understand the game or know if they were any good at it,” Ms. Hand said. “Like, ‘I didn’t know my son or daughter was that competitive.’”
By 2019, she expects to be in 500 venues.
Don’t be alarmed by Fortnite.
It’s time for you to sign up, Mom.