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Despite low attendance, inaugural esports event gives a preview of D.C.’s gaming potential

D.C.'s new Entertainment and Sports Arena hosted its inaugural esports event, Red Bull: Conquest, over the weekend of Nov. 16-18. (DREW GURIAN/Courtesy of Red Bull)
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Congress Height’s new state-of-the-art Entertainment and Sports Arena rocked with a rambunctious, concert-like atmosphere last weekend. Flashing lights and smoke effects enveloped the floor in color, while music blared from speakers and six huge high-definition screens tracked two days' worth of intense competition during the facility’s first-ever esports event.

The District’s shiny, new $65 million-dollar venue, jam-packed with all of the latest technological bells and whistles, checked all of the boxes to impress the organizers and participants in the final event of Red Bull: Conquest, a competitive video gaming tour built around three separate video game titles. But in the moments after Philadelphia native Victor “Punk” Woodley, raised his arms to celebrate his championship in the tournament’s Street Fighter V division, something was missing — fans.

While the facility was aesthetically pleasing to its weekend visitors, no amount of smoke and lighting could disguise the thousands of empty seats in the arena constructed to accommodate a capacity crowd of 4,200.

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The official attendance numbers for the event, were not made available, but National Competition Director for Red Bull: Conquest Jimmy Nguyen said the event attracted about 200 participants, as well as 50 to 75 members of the growing fighting game community.

“Washington doesn’t really have a huge fighting game community versus other regions we focus on,” Nguyen said. “Since we aren’t as known in D.C., as we are in other regions, I think it’s a good start.”

In its first season, Red Bull: Conquest is composed of a 16-stop tour, featuring 15 cities and one online event, in which players compete in three separate games: Guilty Gear Xrd REV2, Tekken 7 and Street Fighter V. Each city’s top three finishers in the three-pronged tournament qualified to compete in the final event in D.C. The three-day event in Washington offered one-, two- and three-day passes, with prices ranging from $15 to $25. Event participants paid a one-time fee of $25, which included a three-day spectator pass to the event.

Other major esports events, including one fighting game community event centered around Nintendo’s popular Super Smash Bros., last weekend may have sapped some of the potential attendees. Additionally, fighting game events tend to skew smaller in crowd size than more well-funded, game publisher-organized enterprises like Overwatch League or the League of Legends Championship Series, whose championships have filled Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, respectively. It’s that massive audience potential that made esports an intriguing component of the Entertainment and Sports Arena, though its full potential in that area remains to be fully realized after its inaugural gaming event.

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When D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, Events DC and Monumental Sports and Entertainment joined forces to construct the arena in Ward 8, the trio placed a strong emphasis on exposing Washingtonians to new and innovative events, like esports competitions. Such events have been a prominent component for advertising and marketing materials for the facility, which also serves as a home arena to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, the NBA G League’s Capital City Go Go and a practice venue for the NBA’s Washington Wizards. It also operates as a concert venue.

In an April news release, Events DC Board of Directors Chairman Max Brown touted Bowser’s foresight in creating a city goal to “remain at the forefront of the rapidly growing gaming industry.”

“Esports is the next frontier," Brown said in the release, which referred to Events DC’s presence at a gaming festival in London. "And it is opportunities like this with the London Games Festival, that allow us to position DC on a global stage to attract new and exciting industries, events and visitors to our city.”

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Esports-centric facilities have become a growing trend as cities around the country have sought to attract an industry that is collectively approaching a billion dollar valuation, according to market analysis firm Newzoo. Arlington, Texas, will open what it bills as North America’s largest esports-dedicated facility this weekend. Earlier this year, Las Vegas hotel and casino the Luxor unveiled that city’s first esports arena.

While both parties would have enjoyed seeing more fans in the stands, this past weekend’s event was an opportunity for Events DC to show what the city can offer future gaming competitions. From that perspective, the event was a resounding success based on the sentiments expressed by organizers and competitors.

“To me, the District of Columbia is a boring place to be,” Woodley, the Street Fighter V champion, said. “But the stadium is just amazing, it looks cool, the stage is very nice. Everything about the venue is just amazing, there’s a lot of setups to play casuals [practice matches between bouts] with everyone, it’s just a very amazing venue.”

Those familiar with the fighting game circuit agreed.

“In terms of production, how the venue looks, the innovative things they’re doing with the AR [augmented reality] technology, making good use of all the hosts and commentators and all of the vendors is definitely leagues above all of the other events right now,” Red Bull: Conquest Host Samantha Persia explained. “I’ve attended EVO [the premier event for the fighting game community held annually in Las Vegas] for the last seven years and from a production standpoint, this event was on par with EVO and a lot of the other big gaming competitions.”

A major benefit of hosting an esports event in the arena is the facility’s flexible floor plan. Having access to certain amenities like locker rooms, built-in jumbotrons and a large open space allowed Red Bull to get creative while planning the event.

“Doing it in a stadium, where you have options for how you want to do the lighting, different rooms where you can put the media, players and even production, it really gave us a blank canvas on how we can pretty much transform ideas on paper into reality,” Nguyen said. “Whether it came down to the staffing, which is great here, the guards/security, it came with the full package. When you go down the checklist, we have ticketing, we have food, lights, sounds, flexibility with the venue, and I think that was the key. We came and said, ‘Here is the idea. Can we do it?’ And they worked with us so it really gave us a broad scope on how we can form everything.”

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