Christopher Lee – Populous – The gaming house of the future


Esports has undoubtedly come on leaps and bounds since the days of top tier player sleeping on warehouse floors at LAN events as they compete for championship titles. Increasingly now we’re seeing dedicated training facilities for teams such as EXCEL & Twickenham, or Team Liquid’s vast Alienware facility

It’s not just training facilities, either, with the rise of dedicated esports arenas. These include venues such as the Allied Esports Arenas, and recently the opening of Arlington, in Texas. ESI is keen to explore the future of esports entertainment and our upcoming Forum Series on the 6th Februray will explore that exact topic. Similarly, at ESI New York, a panel titled “Home Sweet Home: Building the perfect esports venue” will also feature. 

The aforementioned stadium in Arlington was built with several considerations in mind – and arguably the most vital cog in any building design is the architects that work on the concept. Populous is the architecture firm that designed Arlington., and has also provided an interesting concept with the “Gaming House of the Future”. We had the chance to speak to Christopher Lee, Managing Director (EMEA) of Populous. 

Esports Insider: What made Populous turn its head towards esports as an industry? 

Christopher Lee, Managing Director EMEA, Populous

Christopher Lee: As a practice that specialises in sports and entertainment venues, esports has been on our radar for some time now. We’ve watched as the industry has grown bigger and bigger, rapidly gaining ground on traditional sports in terms of both viewership and revenue and exploding into the mainstream as a live spectator experience. But we could see that most esports competitions were taking place in traditional sports arenas that had been retrofitted for gaming, and we were interested in exploring the ways that bespoke design and technology could enhance esports athletes’ performance and improve the spectator experience for fans.

The last five years have felt like a tipping point for the industry and we’ve worked hard in that time to position ourselves at the vanguard of esports arena design to help propel the sport forward, culminating in the opening of the first Populous-designed esports arena, Esports Stadium Arlington, in Texas, USA, last month [November].

ESI: Populous have been involved with the likes of Arlington’s new esports arena. How does designing an arena for esports purposes differ from other arenas/halls?

CL: On a conceptual level, it’s important to create an immersive experience in an esports arena. You have this unique setup in esports competitions where although the athletes are physically present, the action is taking place in a virtual a space and the fans need to be made to feel connected to the play in a meaningful way; the spectator experience for a fan in the arena must eclipse that of one streaming the competition on their computer at home or on their phone. Essentially, the challenge is to blur the line between the virtual and physical world, and this is where esports arena design becomes really interesting for a practice like Populous.

What does this mean on a pragmatic level? Clearly, large-scale video screens are important, as are secondary screens showing close-ups of the players. The knock on effect of this is that the most valuable seats in an esports arena aren’t in the front rows as they would be at a concert or a sports event, but in the middle and towards the back of the seating bowl, as they are in a cinema, because this position gives the best sight-line the screens. So for us as designers, this changes where the hospitality seating is positioned.

On the tech side of things, an esports arena requires cutting-edge connectivity; you simply can’t afford to have network issues. Esports Stadium Arlington is fitted with a one-gigabyte dedicated symmetric line that can be split into two 500-megabyte lines, where the download and upload speeds are the same. To put this into context, the average download speed of a domestic broadband connection in the UK is around five megabytes per second.

ESI: The Gaming House of the Future design looks fabulous. Do you see such complexes emerging in the future – and if so, how far down the line do you think it will be until we see such buildings? 

CL: As esports grows and we anticipate increased development of bespoke venues and in parallel an investment in the athlete and team training facilities. Ensuring our esports athletes are training at an optimal level and ensuring they are at their physical and mental peak condition is essential to ensure the team is successful. That said, we designed the complex as a ‘kit of parts’, so as the team grows and evolves so too can the facility.

ESI:  With the convergence of sports and esports becoming increasingly more common, do you see the scope for more individual esports complexes or will facilities become increasingly merged with big sports clubs?

CL: It’s certainly true that big clubs from traditional sports have woken up to the huge potential of esports, both as a revenue generator and a means of broadening their appeal globally. In the last few years we’ve seen the likes of footballing giants Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain create their own esports franchises here in Europe, while basketball team the Philadelphia 76ers and Kraft Group, the owners of NFL team the New England Patriots, have both bought established competitive gaming outfits in the US.

But with rapid growth experienced by the industry (total revenues have more than doubled over the last two years and are forecast to surpass the billion-pound mark by 2020), esports has shown that it’s more than capable of standing on its own two feet. While investment from traditional sport is helping to accelerate professional gaming’s rise, the industry is by no means dependent on it and we will continue to see independent esports facilities being built over the coming years.

ESI: What was the inspiration behind the gaming house of the future? 

CL: We held a workshop with esports athletes and consultants to discuss emerging trends in the industry and how Populous, as a design practice, can address them. The major take away from this session was that, on the whole, the top esports athletes are not benefitting from the same state-of-the-art training facilities enjoyed by their counterparts in traditional sports — despite earning well in excess of £1 million each year.

Another thing to come out of the workshop was that it’s not uncommon for professional gamers to burnout in their mid-twenties as a result of years of intensive practice. So we wanted to develop a concept for a cutting-edge esports training centre — one that would help the athletes perform at their best and encourage them to lead a more balanced life.
With the two-tower design of the Gaming House of the Future, we’ve created a clear physical divide between the gaming facilities and analysis rooms, and the areas dedicated to downtime and relaxation. The clear façade of the building allows sunlight to pour through, and we’ve incorporated calming greenspaces where players can go to reset after a tilting scrim, as well as a gym and a wellness studio.

ESI: Do you envisage a continued rise in esports dedicated venues? If this is the concept of the near future, what will we be seeing ten years down the line?

The next five years will see a rapid rise in the number of dedicated esports arenas globally, and as more franchises enter the professional leagues, we will see increasingly elaborate training facilities built. In ten years’ time, everything we have seen up until now suggests that esports will have caught and even overtaken traditional sports such as Formula 1 and NHL in revenue generated and viewership. If a top ice hockey team such as the Montreal Canadiens can sell out a 21,302-seat home arena every other week, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that an esports team will be able to do the same in the not-too-distant future.