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Las Vegas, California casinos ready to bring back esports in a big way as pandemic wanes

Before the coronavirus pandemic, casinos in Southern California and Las Vegas attracted visitors ready to play, but they weren’t necessarily looking to get lost in the spinning reels of slot machines.

Esports tournaments are among the ways resorts have diversified their attractions. Properties including the Agua Caliente Casinos in the Coachella Valley and Luxor in Las Vegas have gambled on esports and come out big winners, drawing in huge crowds.

The video game tournaments came to a halt in early 2020 due to novel coronavirus restrictions and operators turned to online events instead. But as vaccinations increase and case rates decline, casinos are planning to again host big esports events.

Already, in-person tournaments have been happening on a smaller small scale with 100 people or less with lots of precautions at the HyperX Esports Arena at the Luxor since the resort casino property reopened in June 2020. But arena officials hope they will be able to host bigger events when Nevada eliminates social distancing and capacity restrictions later this year.

In Southern California, Coachella Valley-based esports company Conflux Gaming and the Agua Caliente Casinos plan to bring back the esports tournaments they partner on possibly as early as May or June.

“As we open up, as shots start going into arms, as people start moving around and are more comfortable with being out and social, I think the natural question is ‘When do we get back to work?’” Jay Bednar, entertainment coordinator for the Agua Caliente Casinos, said. “The interest is there. I feel like it’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand once we’re able to launch.”

Embracing the digital 

When the pandemic hit and casinos closed, both Conflux and HyperX embraced online tournaments.

Conflux Gaming, which puts on events at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage, also quickly moved to online game play and started to stream the tournaments over services such as Twitch and Facebook, according to owner Chadwick Blackard.

“We pivoted very fast,” Jud Hannigan, CEO of Allied Esports, the owner and operator of HyperX Esports Arena, said. “Overnight pretty much.”

Hannigan said that four people on the Esports Arena’s team quarantined together and built a production facility inside one of their living rooms using 20 monitors and 15 computer stations to run online tournaments while in-person events weren’t happening. He said the online events let the company continue its outreach and build an audience.

Hannigan said that the live events side of Allied’s business, like many industries, took a hit but the switch over to online events helped.

“Because we operated in such a digital-first industry, we were able to continue to have an offering and see some growth in some key areas,” he said.

There’s a lot to suggest that there was a big appetite for online tournaments as many people stuck inside during the pandemic turned to online games and streaming services.

Microsoft reported in an earnings call that its Game Pass service cracked 10 million users in April 2020 and among those subscribers there was a 130% increase in multiplayer engagement in March and April 2020, according to a blog post from the head of Xbox.

And in 2020, video game streaming service Twitch had its biggest year to date with more than 17 billion hours watched.

The return of in person tournaments 

Though the HyperX Esports Arena at Luxor is back to doing in-person events, they’re relatively small for right now.

Tournaments currently draw a maximum of 65 competitors and 30-35 spectators, but Hannigan said that number may soon go up now that the state plans to drop social distancing protocols on May 1 and eliminate capacity restrictions as of June 1.

There are a litany of safety precautions in place, including requiring people to wear masks and social distance. Stations are sanitized between players.

The Agua Caliente Casinos have not yet set a date for when they will bring back their massively popular esports tournaments. Those events drew in as many as 700 people when the tournaments took place on at the Rancho Mirage location on Fridays and between 200-300 after being moved to Wednesdays.

Brian Bork, Agua Caliente’s senior director of marketing, said casino officials hope to possibly start offering the tournaments on-site as early as May or June as conditions improve and safety details are confirmed.

Some of the safety precautions that Agua Caliente and Conflux have talked about include social distancing, mandatory masks and people bringing in their own controllers when they come to play, according to Bednar.

Bednar estimates that 60-70% of the people coming in before the pandemic were already bringing their own controllers. He said that players like to personalize the accessories with unique colors and buttons.

“It’s just part of their goods needed to go into battle, so to speak,” he said, adding that Agua Caliente and Conflux may take the extra step of making what most people are doing the rule.

Blackard said his entire staff at Conflux will be vaccinated by the time the in-person tournaments restart.

 

The road ahead 

As esports events get rolling again, the companies behind them are excited to use some of what they learned during the pandemic.

Blackard said that a lot of the streaming elements that Conflux gaming began to toy with during the pandemic, where they used services such as Twitch and Facebook to broadcast game play, could now be used for in-person events.

Hannigan, from Allied Esports, said that he can envision hybrid model tournaments where players begin a tournament online and later move to an onsite venue for later rounds. He said they’ve already tested that in some markets.

And though Bork and Bednar say they plan to start carefully when they do restart the tournaments, they have big aspirations for the future.

Bednar said he could see tournaments taking place not only at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage (where they were held in the past) but also at the new casino property in Cathedral City. He said he could also see the Agua Caliente Casinos hosting large-scale convention-style events that might attract video game enthusiasts from around the country.

“We are thinking very very big in terms of where we want to go with esports for Agua Caliente and making Agua Caliente certainly the home for the Coachella Valley and perhaps the large part of Southern California,” Bork said.

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