The rise of esportsbars, a European Esportsbars Roadtrip
How it all began
Having started an esports online magazine in January 2016, I was a virgin in the esports scene. Did my research of course, but theory never gets you to the heart of the matter. After several esports related interviews, visiting a LAN and getting deeper into the world of esports, I kept wondering who these people are. Being born in the 60-ies I was pleasantly surprised by the ‘anything is possible vibe’ that you can feel everywhere and which is something I recognize from the days I grew up. However, in The Netherlands, esports is still mostly an online thing and visiting the occasional LAN wasn’t enough. Esports is getting more and more out there in big tournaments with astronomical price money, but who are the average gamers and is there such a thing at all. To find out, I went on a roadtrip with my dog Evi to visit esportsbars in 17 European countries. I interviewed owners and staff, talked to gamers and observed this happy world. 17 Countries, 17 different cultures and bars, is there a common factor and does the average gamer exist?
This article is for people that want to start an esportsbar, want to invest in an esportsbar or are just interested in esports.
Today’s gaming generation
This young generation grew up having a computer at home, making esports and gaming mainstream instead of exceptional like it used to be. At the same time, they also like going out, there’s no difference to the generations before them. The only thing that’s different is the way they spent their time off.
The kids that grew up in the 90-ies, had something extra; the IT revolution. It has developed from being available to some, to being available to all. From gaming by yourself, to gaming together. From playing from home, to playing at a (LAN) tournament. Today, over 80% in almost every country plays some sort of (computer) game. This amount of people (young and old) makes esports and gaming ordinary instead of special. Besides that, 80% covers all kinds of people. The group is too large to label them as loners with a pc in their room but most of all, they’re not in their rooms anymore.
They want to go out, meet people, practice their social skills and, if all goes well, meet a boy or a girl. The only extra nowadays: they want to do that in an esports- or game bar too, because they all play games. Does that mean all people that play games like going to esports- or game bars? Certainly not, but for the ones that do go, you can basically divide the outdoor esports- & gaming scene into 2 groups:
1 gamers that want to play a game with- or without friends outside their home
2 gamers that love the world of esports
1 gamers that want to play a game with- or without friends outside their home
These are the kind of gamers that just like playing games and want to do so in a social environment. They’re not super interested in the gaming scene, they just like to be in a bar while playing a game. They come in with friends or meet new people and hook up with them, play and go home afterwards.
2 gamers that love the world of esports
The world of esports is more than just playing a game with friends. It’s a world where they feel at home because of the mutual love for everything where gaming is concerned. The graphics, the top teams, understanding of the skills, in depth game knowledge and most of all, the ambiance.
Unlike online where there can be a fair amount of bullying going on, which by the way is almost always resolved right after the game, the real life ambiance of esports is one of love, respect and endless possibilities. You will find no negative competition between either sort of games or teams belonging to the same game. There is a mutual respect, based on the understanding of gaming. Sure, some games are regarded less complicated and therefore less skills needed (practice, input), for instance Dota vs FiFa, however, they’re not looked down upon.
So why is there so much love and respect?
I think the foundation has been laid in the early days of gaming where it was still only a thing for nerds. Having their own online world and not being understood by anyone outside that world, the only thing they could do is be good to each other. Add to that the overall characteristics of early gamers being IT specialist or -students, the calmer and more focused kind of people, and you soon get a relaxed and specific field-enthusiastic group of people that communicate and share information rather than testosterone based behavior.
With internet getting available to all in the early 90-ies and the development of games coming along with that, this conduct among each other sustained, at least, among the esports lovers. Since game development happens at such high speed and with superb technique, there is still an overall admiration and respect whenever a new game is launched. These are positive emotions that are shared and give the esports scene that ‘love vibe’. Maybe one day, when game technique has reached its highest level and some sort of boredom sets in, this vibe will change, but I don’t see that happening really.
Who are they?
The people that love today’s esports scene are not only IT related people, you will find them in any profession, age and gender. They have a special eye for the possibilities you find in a game. The many layers and levels that are built in, the graphics, the storyline and the skills needed are all things that are admired and respected. This is something they need to share and talk about, preferably in an environment where there’re others with the same interests.
When for instance someone has just discovered a new game and is full about what the game offers, he can go to a regular bar and start a conversation about level 8 and how to get there. The conversation might soon stop and he will feel unsatisfied in sharing his enthusiasm. If he goes to an esportsbar and starts the same conversation, he is understood immediately, his enthusiasm is shared instantly and there will be a feeling of understanding of their love for gaming and recognition of why they love gaming and who they are. This is the huge difference esportsbars bring. This same person will go to a regular bar as well, but for now, he will want to go to an esportsbar. At the same time, an esportsbar is a regular bar too and many will go there without constantly wanting to talk about gaming.
Sort of esportsbars
I’ve visited 17 esportsbars in 17 countries and saw 17 completely different bars. It varied from an esports restaurant (Kappa Bar Gotenborg) to a bar where you could only watch games and not play any (Afterlife Barcelona). From bars that were set up as second homes (404 Milan, Black King Bar Bratislava) to business formula based bars (1Up Lisbon and Respawn Vienna). Chains (Cybermachina Poland and Meltdown -Bordeaux-) and -former- pro gamers that started a bar (Tribunal Brno and eXanimo Riga). There’s a group of friends that don’t own a bar so they rent one once a week (Esports with Friends Hamburg). Bars that focus on youth as well (House of Nerds Oslo and Stavanger and DSrack Copenhagen) and bars that attract older gamers (GG-WP Tallinn), but also a municipal gaming youth center (Score Helsinki) and an Esports Game Arena (Netherlands). I have yet to visit eDen Esports bar in Leeds, but do want to mention them, since they’re one of the very few esportsbars in England.
All these bars are completely different but share one base: they’ve been set up out of love for gaming and the need to share this love. All the bars are successful and there’s one common factor: 95% of the bar owners have a university degree and have either never started working or quit their (mostly high paid) job.
Why are they successful?
The most given answer to my question to ‘why did you start an esportsbar’ was:
‘I love what I’m doing with esports in private so much, I can’t imagine I’m the only one loving this, so starting a bar will be successful, no doubt’.
It’s this conviction translated to enthusiasm in their love for what they were doing that got them loans, sponsorships and a location. It’s their (online) network and the need for this generation to express themselves socially that got them the busy crowds.
But even the crowds are different and sometimes come from the personal preference of the bar owners’ love for esports. Afterlife Barcelona for instance is the only bar that doesn’t have gaming equipment. Why? The owners loved watching tournaments and were sick of doing this at home on a tiny screen in a crowded livingroom. For this reason they started a bar offering exactly what they love, watching instead of gaming, and made that successful. Exanimo in Riga is owned by a former pro CS player that started organizing LAN’s and online tournaments just because he loved doing it. It became so successful he could move from his first shitty location and start a club downtown. And then there’s Simon in Tallinn who made his bar a mancave, because that’s exactly how he dreamed an esportsbar should look like. It’s dark, it’s packed with equipment, unused chairs and constantly occupied couches.
Every bar has been set up by personal preference and every bar is successful. This doesn’t only show there’s a large demand for esportsbars, but it also proves the variety in esports audience. Like said above, there is no more 1 particular sort of person gaming. It’s 80% of the population that’s gaming. If in all the cities I’ve been to, a different kind of esportsbar would open besides the one already existing, it will be successful too, simply because some like a mancave and some a club.
Is there one success-formula
From what I’ve seen, no, there’s not. Apart from the obvious ‘love what you do and you will be successful’ that applies to everything in life, all the bars have been set up differently. Some started with a good business plan to get things going, others started small besides their daytime job and found a point along the way they had to make a choice. All the bars have more than one source of income, it being food, tournaments, equipment, teams or merchandise. As Jo-Jo from 1Up in Lisbon puts it: ‘everything moves in curves. Sometimes your income from playing games will fall, but you can fill that gap with selling merchandise or providing excellent food and vice versa’.
Another important issue is the country’s culture and even the different cities in one country. Laurent from Meltdown Bordeaux runs a franchise esportsbar, so he’s bound to a Meltdown image. He explained that you need to give the people what they expect when they visit a Meltdown, however, each country and city have different expectations, so each bar runs slightly different. This doesn’t only apply for Meltdown, but for each bar you want to start, including an esportsbar. Does that mean a Kappa bar couldn’t exist in Amsterdam? No. It means there will be different drinks and different music, but it would still be a Kappa bar.
As far as location goes, of course a neat location is nice and in cities where bars are counting on tourists being part of their income, it will matter. However, many bars have started at locations in terrible neighborhoods or hard to reach places and it made no difference. People came and kept on coming to such an extend they could move to a better place.
Since there’re not many esportsbars yet, sponsoring is still sought in the obvious companies that already operate in esports. Acer for instance is a big equipment sponsor and Monster and Red Bull are represented in all the bars. It will take a while for the traditional businesses to discover the world of esports because they are slow and lack the courage to step out of their comfort zone, but think of the possibilities of for instance real estate sponsoring your location or internet companies your wifi, furniture stores your seats or a car company your startup capital. All these businesses don’t seem to realize that gamers cover a huge part of the population that all need transportation, insurance, a home and even have families and kids.
For now however, the most proven way to get sponsorships is doing what Damiano from 404 in Milan did; contact the already involved esports companies on facebook and don’t give up. It’s the quickest way to get results. Another great initiative was taken by the Esports Game Arena. Their home town was looking for innovating youth projects and Thomas presented his goals and business plan. He got partly subsidized by the municipality which gave some businesses that ordinarily wouldn’t, the extra push to step in as well. Afterlife Barcelona has had major help by private sponsorship. People that have achieved things by doing stuff out of the ordinary, are most of the times the ones that can see beyond the beaten track and could be willing to sponsor. Needless to say, you can’t get anything done without a solid business plan and proper presentation of yourself.
Gaming in our society
In Denmark I saw something I absolutely loved. DSRack is a huge place. It’s not really a bar, although you can get your food&drinks, but more a gaming house with over 80 pc’s ready to use. The positive thing here is that the local gymnasium realized gaming is here to stay and saw the advantages. They learned that to win a game (team games), you need to form a team, work together, solve problems, have a leader and think of strategy, in other words, students bound over a game and improve their social skills by working with others they would normally not seek friendship with.
The gymnasium hires DSRack for 2 days a week (120 students in 2017-2018) and has game instructors at school. According to the owner Thomas, more schools are adding gaming in their curriculum the coming years. And Denmark is not the only country, it’s happening in Norway and Sweden as well. And what to think about Finland that has set up a gaming house subsidized by the municipality for kids that can’t afford the equipment. Simply because they know the advantages gaming brings.
Gaming being taught at schools forces society to change its view on gamers. Although gaming gets more and more publicity, the main focus is still on the money you can earn, the big tournaments and the pro gamers, Gamewood instead of Hollywood. Because of this, society still fails to see the good things gaming brings, online as well as offline. Friendships over games instead of appearance and background, teamwork, strategic thinking, problem solving, innovation, international communication and initiatives, creativity and an overall new way of thinking in possibilities instead of limitations.
Opportunities and new rules
Today, the world of esports is still the wild wild west. Anything you can think of is possible. This makes esports an exciting world where enthusiasm rules, creativity flourishes and many initiatives are taken. The thing that struck me on this European Roadtrip however, was the lack of communication. In this online world where communication has never been easier and faster, people don’t seem to reach out to each other. They still act the old fashioned way where your communication was depending on your personal network, a telephone and the extended network of people you know. Since these people are today’s and tomorrow’s innovators, their none way of communication or working with others is something I don’t get, especially since the e-world is still so open, which it won’t be for long.
Organizations like eSCon (The Global eSConference) are already in their third year. They unite business to business and are basically dividing the esportsworld by making new rules and regulations that are currently not there. Once installed though, the rulemakers for some reason become the authority in that specific field, simply because they were the first to invent a certain rule and the mass are inclined to accept and follow. This is a shame, because the rules in place are always there to favor the one that made it and installing the first rule is always much easier than protesting to it once installed.
This is of course a negative scenario and eScon is of good will, involving for instance former pro gamers to improve the circumstances they must live and work in, however, something’s gotta give as well, like media rights. Look at it as what’s happening at Netflix. Ever wonder why you see actors lighting up a cigarette in a Neflix original all the time? It’s owned by Phillip Morris.
So many people I talked to have so many plans, wanting to interact with esportsbars in their city, country and outside their country, set up international leagues and so on. Already being restricted by the very many rules game developers force upon everybody that wants to organize an event (Blizzard being a wonderful exception), the future will bring even more restrictions. There’re also some big players focusing on Europe like the WCA (China), that will obtain some influence as well. I wish they would realize that. The ideas are there, the fast and international communication is available, the spirit and enthusiasm is all around, act on it! Make your mark in this happy world that is still full of opportunities!
This article wouldn’t have been possible without the warm welcome and enthusiasm I received in all the esportsbars I’ve visited and the knowledge they’ve shared with me!
Christopher from Esports with Friends Hamburg
Thomas and Tanya from DS Rack Copenhagen
Linus from Kappa Bar Goteborg
Vegard from House of Nerds Oslo
Thomas from House of Nerds Stavanger
Jaakko and Mikko from Kilpapelikus Helsinki
Simon from GG-WP Tallinn
Janis from eXanimo Riga
Michal and Raphael from Cybermachina Katowice
Thomas from Tribunal in Brno
Rado from Black King Bar in Bratislava
Patrick from Respawn in Vienna
Damiano from 404 in Milan
Theresa from Afterlife Barcelona
Jo-Jo from 1UP in Lisbon
Laurent from Meltdown Bordeaux
Thomas from the Esports Game Arena Alphen a/d Rijn
and the staff that took care of me!
Soon to thank:
Jamie from eDen Esports Leeds
Thank you also the people I met and tricked into an interview while they were just visiting. The parents in House of Nerds Oslo, Nic Storms in London, Boris in Tallin, Prebz from Prebz og Dennis in Norway, Thea Winger from Splay Networks and Emilis Grigalevičius for representing Lithuania and the many people that shared their stories but didn’t want to be on twitch😊
Thank you Dom Sacco and James Hood for your background help in the UK and Scotland!
A huge thank you to Acer Netherlands for being the only one that believed in me and set me up with awesome gear and the best back pack ever to keep my stuff together, Big O Sailing ltd. for sponsoring my boat fees and Red Bull for providing me with energy.
I’ve had the time of my life, sleeping in my car for 3 months in either pouring rain or heatwave Lucifer immersing myself in this wonderful world called esports, you’re all in my heart forever!
I will make a documentary of all the interviews I’ve had, but that will take some weeks. I’ve tried to make this article as short as possible, but there’s so much more to tell. If you need further information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Separate articles on all esportsbars can be read on this website.
The interviews can be seen at https://www.twitch.tv/esportsroadtripchallenge
Signing off, no longer an esports virgin,