From Texas to Las Vegas, Esports Make a Splash In the Events Industry

July 2, 2019

As event destinations search for more recession-proof market segments to generate strong economic impact for their communities, the convention industry is taking a serious look at the rapidly growing world of esports, aka competitive video gaming. 

This year alone, the global esports industry is set to surpass the $1 billion mark, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. And with many association and corporate events continuing to grapple with flat budgets and shrinking attendance, an exploding industry such as esports, with its broad appeal and growing fan base, has become all the more attractive to convention venues far and wide.

For those who aren’t familiar with esports, think popular in-home video games, such as Fortnite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Overwatch, Minecraft and Madden NFL — in which people from all over the world play against each other in real-time. In the professional esports world, competitors from different leagues or teams play while millions of spectators from across the world watch on TV, online or live.

According to the 2018 Global Esports Market Report by market analytics company Newzoo, 380 million people watched esports last year, including 165 million esports enthusiasts — aka, frequent viewers.

“Esports is already on track to have a global monthly audience larger than Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League,” says Mike Hunter, director of convention and event services for the City of Arlington, Texas.

Across the country, cities are rallying around the esports phenomenon, betting big on this growing market segment with new venues, new technology and audiovisual infrastructure and more.

From Data to Reality in Arlington

Arlington is one city that understands the gaming craze-turned-spectator sport. In fact, it took a big risk last year in partnering with Esports Venues LLC to convert the Arlington Expo Center ballroom into Esports Stadium Arlington. It became the city’s first esports arena and North America’s largest dedicated esports venue.

According to Matt Wilson, vice president of sports and events for the Arlington CVB and executive director of Arlington Sports Commission, the city began taking a serious look at esports more than five years ago when it noticed an uptick in esports activity in cities around the country. 

They partnered with New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport to conduct research resulting in a white paper suggesting that the time was now to invest in the rapidly growing market segment. 

“Around the same time, our mayor was having discussions with other mayors about what was happening in other cities, and [esports] was something that continued to bubble up to the top,” Wilson says. “One of the owners of the Texas Rangers purchased an esports team and was looking for a home for it, and we had a convention center that fit the description of what they were looking to do — so we saw an opportunity.” 


The rest is history. Announced in early 2018, Arlington’s $10 million, 100,000-square-foot esports arena opened just in time to host the Esports Championship Series Season 6 last November. It has hosted close to 100 esports events since. 

Retaining its ballroom functionality for regular events, the revamped space features a permanent competition stage and built-in audiovisual technology including an 80-foot LED screen, production lighting and sound. Surrounding meeting rooms have been transformed into team and green areas, and production and holding rooms for talent as they’re waiting to compete. There’s even a performance area where gamers train and learn about nutrition and sleep habits, Wilson says. 

In addition, the venue’s pre-function area has been repurposed into a gamer gallery featuring 90 competition workstations open to the public seven days a week. The arena also houses local and small regional esports tournaments and league competitions. 

“This isn’t just pipe-and-drape and slapping some logos on the wall — this is a dedicated space with state-of-the-art sound and visuals, painted in a matte black so that you can darken it for optimal game viewing,” Wilson explains. “There are other facilities around the country that are deemed esports stadiums, but [we have] everything you need to do in the ecosystem of esports all in one spot.”

While there are tentative plans on the horizon for a new convention center in Arlington, the Expo Center remains open for convention business, Wilson adds.

Finding the Right Gaming Mix in Dallas

Just a few miles east of Arlington, Dallas has also been luring esports business. It recently hosted DreamHack, a gaming lifestyle festival that attracted 31,000 people and spanned 300,000 square feet of exhibit space and the arena at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center from May 31-June 2. 

Since 2012, Dallas has been home to major esports tournaments including Major League Gaming Pro Circuit, Call of Duty World, Gears of War and Minecraft Minefaire, according to Monica Paul, executive director of the Dallas Sports Commission.

Paul and her team have kept a close watch on the rise of esports over the last eight years, but particularly in the last three, when the market began to boom into such a large – and lucrative – sports segment. However, as appealing as this phenomenon might be, cities still have to evaluate whether these events are going to drive the right attendance, economic impact and room night numbers to make hosting them worth it, Paul emphasizes.


“We’ve been approached a lot [by esports events], and it’s been our job to figure out which ones are legit and which are going to hit on our goals — whether it be in attendance, economic impact or room night metrics,” says Paul.

She and her team work with Smart City Networks, KBHCC’s telecommunications and internet provider, often a year in advance to get a clear picture of each esport group’s requirements so the convention center able to meet their specific needs when showtime arrives.

Not only do these events have much greater broadband and electrical needs than the average conference or trade show, but also often come with their own operations and production crews, Paul explains. 

In attracting esports business, Dallas has an advantage of being in a region replete with good partners in the esports space, with cities including Arlington and Frisco becoming hotbeds for new teams, leagues and venues. Case in point: the new GameStop Performance Center, an 11,000-square-foot esports facility developed by Complexity Gaming, one of the oldest U.S. esports organizations owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

“You’re seeing companies making investments in esports, not only from a technology side but also from a sponsorship side, you’re seeing teams and leagues popping up, and teams building their own arenas like basketball and hockey teams have,” Paul explains. “With all the sponsorship and investor money and seeing who’s investing in it, esports is going to remain high on our bucket list.”

In San Diego, Infrastructure Matters — But So Does Culture

Well-versed in hosting large fan-based events such as ComicCon, the San Diego Convention Center is actively pursuing the esports market, too — so much so that it upgraded its broadband infrastructure for that exact purpose.

For the second time, SDCC will be hosting TwitchCon, a bi-annual gaming convention produced by the live streaming video platform, in September. During their first event at the venue, in 2016, they took up 1.5 exhibit halls. This year, they’ll occupy four or five. 

San Diego CC

“[TwitchCon is] 10-fold of what it was three years ago in terms of attendance and expectations of size and draw,” says Rip Rippentoe, SDCC’s president and CEO. “In my career, I’ve not seen a show blast off like this one has.” 

Betting big on the future of TwitchCon and other esports events, SDCC recently upgraded the fiber optics system throughout three of its older exhibit halls. This move, along with the overall appeal of the oceanfront destination, helped the facility secure TwitchCon for ’20 and ’21. Yet it’s not only the technology requirements that make esports and SDCC a good match for each other.

The fact that we have had festival-type events like ComicCon where the community embraces that kind of vibe makes a difference,” Rippentoe says. “Being able to find that compatibility between the destination and the show is just as important as making sure that the broadband capability and the integrity is there.”

Channeling a “Gaming Lifestyle” in Las Vegas

As the No. 1 trade show destination in the U.S., Las Vegas is also hopping aboard the esports train — a natural transition for a city already well-versed in the gaming world.

MGM Resorts began hosting major esports events several years ago, taking an aggressive leap into the space by building HyperX Esports Arena at The Luxor in partnership with Allied Sports in 2017.

“We were looking [for] other revenue sources that could help us diversify our entertainment options,” says Neil Johnson, director of global sales for MGM Resorts. “We saw [esports] as a wave coming, and we had a great venue where we thought if we had a proven partner, we could retrofit the space [into an esports arena].” 

In addition to HyperX, the company also can host esports events in T-Mobile Arena, MGM Grand Garden Arena, and Mandalay Bay Events Center and Theater. 

But there’s more to MGM’s esports strategy than luring in leagues and teams to the new arena and other Vegas properties. According to Johnson, the company is developing offerings that appeal to the overall gaming lifestyle.


“The esports community right now is 300 million people worldwide, and in terms of revenues coming from this market, it’s about $900 million annually for esports,” Johnson says. “But if you’re looking at the larger ecosystem [of] gaming and lifestyle, that’s a $2 billion-per-year industry. So not only are we looking to host esports events but also have more of our properties indoctrinate a gaming type of culture and lifestyle.”

This includes working with esports “influencers” to experience MGM’s offerings, develop content and events, and incorporate the gaming subculture into its nightclubs, shopping, dining and nightlife. 

“Corporate America has woken up to this phenomenon and they’re pumping dollars and investment into this market in unprecedented levels,” Johnson says. “These events bring in significant [revenue]…citywide events that are putting heads in beds and a market segment that’s new and growing.”

He adds, “You have a market that’s younger, that every brand is trying to market to and an audience that’s global and digital. I would be hard-pressed to find any brand out there that’s not trying to get in front of a group like that.”


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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.