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Boardwalk Hall transforms to host high-level college gamers

ATLANTIC CITY — As collegiate gamers from as far away as California and Canada prepared to fly to the city, organizers and technicians bustled through Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall to transform the 93-year-old Adrian Phillips Theater into a hub for competitive esports.

The event — the 10th Collegiate Starleague Grand Finals — is coming to Atlantic City on Saturday and Sunday for the first time through a public-private partnership between the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and Ingame Esports.

“You spend time dreaming about things and imagining and putting the prework in,” said Ali Robinson, program director for Ingame, “but once you get into this short term, everything’s coming together, everyone’s working 100% … and it’s just, like, this beautiful ballet of frenzy.”

Taking part in that dance with the 10-year-old Collegiate Starleague and Ingame are local unions, Boardwalk Hall employees and Waveform Entertainment, a Toronto-based esports company that is handling set design, lighting and production. They’re working in tightly choreographed concert from Wednesday to Friday to ensure Saturday morning’s opening goes smoothly. More than 100 students from more than 30 teams are set to descend on the city to compete for scholarship and prize money.

The competition was held in Long Beach, California, last year. Only recently did organizers get word that it was coming to the city this year, said Anthony Gaud, Ingame president and co-founder, and so they’ve been working on an “accelerated schedule.” On Thursday, that meant roadie gear cases spread around the hall’s wooden floor and organizers coordinating preparations through walkie-talkies. Scissor lifts roved around, and light techs tinkered on a ceiling rig brought down to ground level.

“It’s working well, we’re on track,” said Thomas Gentilhomme, of Montreal, the lighting designer for Waveform, as he installed stencils in lights to emit logos. “Still have a lot of work in terms of lighting programming. … Probably tonight we’re gonna spend a lot of time on that.”

Above them, the ornate gold-trimmed ceiling and arched walls with peeling paint of the hall, a National Historic Landmark built in 1926, provided a contrast to the LED lighting and powerful gaming stations that have begun populating the floor. Four large screens hung from the walls to project the matches.

“This hall is almost a hundred years old,” said Gaud, “and it’s going to look like it’s a hundred years in the future when you end up putting all the staging together and the lights and the lasers.”

Saturday will feature a Rocket League exhibition match between Stockton’s team, which was created in 2018 and can already claim two victories at East Coast events, and Rutgers University’s team, the largest of its kind on the East Coast. For the main event, teams will compete in “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “League of Legends,” “Dota 2” and “Fortnite.” The winner of each will secure a quarter of a $100,000 scholarship pot. For individual players over 13 who qualify, $20,000 in prize money is up for grabs in open pool tournaments in games like “Super Smash Bros.,” “Apex Legends” and “Street Fighter V.” There will be seminars for organizing collegiate gaming as well.

Teams are coming from schools across the country and Canada, including Penn State University, University of California Santa Cruz, Universite de Montreal, University of British Columbia and University of Illinois at Chicago.

“This is our first event of this size, definitely, so it’s exciting,” said Duran Parsi, CEO of Collegiate Starleague. “I’m nervous because it’s the first time we’ve done an event of this size on our own. We usually partner with other gaming conventions or other venues. … I’m looking forward to just seeing how it goes.”

Jim Wynkoop, general manager of Spectra, which manages Boardwalk Hall, said the preparation and execution of the event could be a learning opportunity for the staff.

“It’s different for us. This is our first big e-gaming production event in here,” Wynkoop said. “You learn a lot when you do (something) the first time. Or hopefully, anyway.”

Angela Bernhard Thomas, 54, co-founder and CEO of Ingame, said the organizers are expecting about 1,000 attendees. Gaud said there’s been plenty of interest from grade school and high school gamers in the region.

Last year it was projected that, by this year, esports would be a $1.23 billion industry. Seeing that potential, CRDA partnered with Ingame in December with a $700,000 investment.

Hosting the Collegiate Starleague may be the perfect way for Atlantic City to dip its toes in that water. More than 20,000 students from more than 2,000 university and college campuses in the United States and Canada have registered and competed in tournaments with the league leading up to the finals this weekend.

“If we show that this is as popular as we believe it is, then we will see more of these in Atlantic City, hosted hopefully by the CRDA,” Gaud said. “It’s the beginning of something that’s very, very, very big. And it could put Atlantic City in a really great position for years to come.”

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