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The Esports Observer: Inside the Campaign to Make Atlantic City an Esports Hub

Once branded as “America’s Favorite Playground,” Atlantic City, New Jersey is famed for its casinos and entertainment offerings. In recent years, the city has made efforts to expand its economy and become less reliant on gambling—and its next target is esports.

Atlantic City has already hosted two notable tournaments of late. In March 2017, Caesars Atlantic City hosted a Gears of War 

Pro Circuit event with more than 60 teams and a $200K USD prize pool, while this May’s Rainbow Six Pro League Finals drew in more than 2,000 attendees to Harrah’s Resort for the $275K major tournament. Large casinos hosted both of those events, and the turnout and enthusiasm around both events got local economic councils thinking about the future possibilities.

Those two tournaments could just be the tip of the iceberg for this iconic city, as organizations are working to establish an esports-ready venue in town and trying to lure significant events that leverage both the city’s reputation and its existing infrastructure.

Why Esports?

“We think that Atlantic City is a great location for esports. It’s very strategically located to highly-populated areas in the Northeast and East Coast.”

Since its first casino opened in 1978, Atlantic City has been known as a gaming destination—and its economic fortunes became increasingly tied to that of the casinos. When the thirst for gambling waned and five casinos shut down between 2014-16, the wider Atlantic County lost about 30,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. That’s according to Lauren Moore, executive director of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance (ACEA), a private, non-profit, and non-governmental organization that manages economic development for the county.

“That was a huge hit to our regional economy here in Atlantic County,” said Moore. “When casino gaming cycled down, our economy was so dependent on it that we didn’t have other industries here to help support and level off that impact when the casinos were lost.”

Eager to attract new industries to Atlantic City and the surrounding areas, Moore engaged with InGame Esports, a startup co-founded earlier this year by CEO Angela Bernhard Thomas and president/chief creative officer Anthony Gaud. Bernhard Thomas was previously managing partner for the esports-centric The Gamer Agency 

(acquired last year by Engine Shop), and also co-founded The Esports Leadership Salon; Gaud is an Emmy-winning creative officer/director with past roles at Disney Interactive Studios and DAG Entertainment. They created InGame Esports, in part, to help consult government and economic organizations on esports endeavors.

“We think that Atlantic City is a great location for esports. It’s very strategically located to highly-populated areas in the Northeast and East Coast,” said Bernhard Thomas, who is working to finalize a public-private partnership with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), which reinvests casino tax revenue into the city’s economic development. “Atlantic City has always been very adaptable to the changing entertainment landscapes,” she added. “It was America’s original playground. In the 1930s, Parker Brothers turned it into a city-building game [Monopoly], and [the city has] continued to adapt to modern forms of entertainment all along. This is just a natural progression for gaming and entertainment in their city, and I would say they already have a pedigree in gaming. This is the next natural step in its evolution.”

Building Support

“It fits perfectly with diversifying our tourism product here in Atlantic County.”

Beyond Atlantic City’s reputation, both Moore and Bernhard Thomas point to its existing amenities—the hotels, restaurants, stores, parks, and beaches that typically attract an older audience. It has what Moore refers to as “a 24/7 economy.” That kind of supporting infrastructure can be harnessed to host esports events and draw in not only younger competitors and fans, but also their parents and families.

“I think that Atlantic City certainly understands that gaming and esports is a growing industry that is still in its infancy in some ways,” said Bernhard Thomas. “But they’ve always been an early adopter, so they want to embrace the changing habits of the Millennial and Gen Z culture. They’re investing and designing for a future for those generations. Some of the objectives would be to foster community, to grow esports, and to create modern-day entertainment choices for the 4.5 million millennials that already visit there on a yearly basis.”

When InGame began discussing the possibilities with the ACEA, Moore saw the economic value as a boon for tourism, and understood the excitement and enthusiasm around esports because of his 17-year-old son’s own gaming habits.

“We took a really heavy and hard look at esports. What attracted us to esports is that it’s [promoting] tourism, and it also gives us an opportunity to bring the millennial generation into Atlantic City,” said Moore. “My generation, as a baby boomer—we don’t pay any attention to this. I would never believe it, except for my own son. That’s what grabbed my interest when Anthony and Angela brought this. It fits perfectly with diversifying our tourism product here in Atlantic County.”

InGame and the ACEA are working to build support in the region, and already have backing from some key parties—including Jim Wood, president and CEO of local tourism board Meet AC and also CEO of the Atlantic City Sports Commission. Even so, they are still working to convince local businesses and leaders that esports is not only a rapidly growing industry, but also one that can bring enduring value to the region. The Gears of War and Rainbow Six Siege events have helped to start bridging that gap.

“The tournaments have been well-attended and well-received here in Atlantic City, and that’s what we’re building on. We have to deal with our own skeptics here, as well,” said Moore. “And then when we hold tournaments here at Harrah’s and other locations, they see the popularity and how [attendees are] filling hotel rooms and coming into the city with a nice spend, as well.”

Next Steps

InGame has been working with the CRDA for about six months now, enlisting the help of advisory firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure (CSL) International and architects HOK to put together proposals and examine the potential impact of each. Bernhard Thomas said that they’re working to educate local government and advise on the topics of transportation, hotel, and food and beverage needs, for example.

“Part of what my job has been is to continue to work to try to convince the folks over at the CRDA that this is a smart thing to do.”

One key objective is to establish an esports-ready venue in Atlantic City, with Boardwalk Hall pegged as a potential target. Boardwalk Hall is an 89-year-old arena that hosts concerts and sporting events, with a 14,700-seat main arena and the smaller, 3,200-seat Adrian Phillips Theater, as well. The venue would need a potentially significant technology upgrade to support esports events, and Moore said they’re working to put together cost estimates and find funding sources. He called it “the ultimate goal that we’re working towards.”

“The CRDA is evaluating this,” Moore added. “Part of what my job has been is to continue to work to try to convince the folks over at the CRDA that this is a smart thing to do.” He said that local casinos could continue to host esports events until venue plans develop, and Bernhard Thomas mentioned that there are other publicly-owned venues in Atlantic City that could also be viable for esports if Boardwalk Hall doesn’t pan out.

One of their goals is to try and create larger, festival-like cultural events that fuse together music, esports, and other entertainment options. Another potential focus could be establishing Atlantic City as a collegiate esports hub.

“We’re leaning towards creating unique, signature esports events, as well as fostering collegiate esports activity around the shoulder season in Atlantic City,” said Bernhard Thomas. “They’re perfectly positioned to be a collegiate esports hub, with a lot of Ivy League schools nearby and local universities that are right there in Atlantic City, as well as in New Jersey and in the Northeast as a whole. This is the generation that will return later on with their families to enjoy esports and gambling in Atlantic City. We’re looking at working with some of the bigger collegiate leagues to bring events there.”

Nothing has been announced for 2019 just yet, but Bernhard Thomas said that we’ll soon see Atlantic City esports events pop up on the calendar. Some of their proposals will be longer-term efforts that could take further time and investment to execute, but if they can start drawing additional esports tournaments into town, then it may be easier to convince local doubters and industry organizers alike that Atlantic City can be a real destination for esports events.

“We have specific events planned with major leagues for next year,” said Bernhard Thomas. “We’re in the middle of planning events for 2019 and to start executing them within the first half of 2019. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re continuing in the strategic planning and due diligence that we’re doing.”

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