SOUTH BEND — Just a couple of years after it was first conceived, the new esports arena inside Century Center is showing its ability to draw in gaming enthusiasts from Michiana and beyond.
Already serving as the home of esports teams from Bethel University and South Bend Lions FC, the former Bendix Theater — now known as the Bendix Esports Arena — already has hosted several esports tournaments, including one that drew 16 teams from 12 different colleges and universities in the Midwest a couple of weeks ago.
Moretournaments already are lined up, and now the arena has entered into a sponsorship agreement with Xfinity, a provider of high-speed Internet, cable television and other telecommunication services, that runs until Dec. 31, 2023.
As part of the deal, a gaming center inside Century Center will take on the name of the sponsor and will be rebranded later this year. In exchange, Comcast, which is the parent of the Xfinity brand, will provide high-speed internet services for the new gaming center and arena.
The company also will pay $40,000 a year to have its name associated with the esports facilities inside Century Center.
“Comcast is thrilled to sponsor the arena and play a role in positioning it and South Bend as a national esports hub,” John Crowley, Comcast’s regional senior vice president, said in a release. As the nation’s leading provider of gigabit speed connections in the country, it made sense to partner with the esports complex, he said.
Jeff Jarnecke, who oversees Century Center as executive director of the city’s venues, said the Xfinity sponsorship as well as the tournaments that plan to use the facility moving forward justify the $1.5 million that was spent converting the underutilized Bendix Theater into gaming space.
The theater was already in need of an estimated $1 million upgrade when officials decided in mid-2019 to include video boards, high-speed internet, comfortable seats and high-tech sound and lighting equipment in the overhaul.
Work was mostly completed during the height of the pandemic last year when conventions, business travel and other events came to a virtual standstill. Though the new arena got off to a slow start earlier this year because of pandemic concerns, it is now finding its stride as an attraction that can draw in new visitors to the community.
Excluding friends and family, the recent tournament organized by Collegiate Sports Management Group, drew in more than 100 competitors.
That helped provide a boost for area hotels and restaurants while the Irish were off playing Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, but it also exposed the city and the Bendix Arena to potentially many thousands of viewers across the globe who might have been watching the action on Twitch or some other live-steaming service.
In the most recent tournament, the college teams were competing in Overwatch and Rocket League, but there are numerous other games that attract competitors and viewers, said Jarnecke, adding that video gaming is already more than a $1 billion industry that trails only the NFL when it comes to global viewers.
“It’s potentially exposing us to millions of people around the world,” Jarnecke said of the tournament broadcasts. “We’re seen as an early adopter and a national esports hub.”
Arena, hotel rooms draw student competitors
Nick Kleva, sports tourism manager at Visit South Bend Mishawaka, said another regional tournament is scheduled for November. That event is expected to draw in high school students and their families from throughout the region to display their gaming talents to college and university coaches.
Over the past several years, universities have been building esports teams that compete as club or varsity teams in order to attract students who are interested in the rapidly growing sport. Many are now handing out scholarships to attract the best gaming talent to their schools.
Kleva said another esports tournament already is scheduled for December, and another is considering the Bendix for an event in January.
“It’s been well received in the industry,” he said. “We’re early adopters, and it’s unique in that it’s inside a convention center with enough room – and the staff in place – for expos, speakers and vendors that might be part of a competition.”
Being attached to Century Center via an enclosed skywalk puts the 291-room DoubleTree by Hilton in a unique position to gain some additional business because of the esports arena.
“It was money well spent,” Dave Waymire, general manager of the hotel, said of the Bendix revision.
“It’s the wave of the future as it continues to gain popularity,” he said. “It’s going to help generate business for downtown hotels and restaurants and even out those slow times when there aren’t major events at Notre Dame.”
Additional diversification will be a big plus in much the same way junior hockey and other youth sports helped the local tourism industry survive the cancellation of many events during the pandemic, Waymire added.
“It’s putting heads in beds,” Waymire said, referring to the measurement used in the hotel industry.
Though it’s still early, Jarnecke said, the early success of the esports facilities inside Century Center, which also are getting used by local gaming enthusiasts and high schools, might justify additional upgrades to the 500-seat arena and the nearby LAN café and gaming areas.
Initially, officials planned to spend more than $2 million building out the facilities using money that is collected from the 7% hotel bed tax, but plans were cut back because of the 2020 downturn in the hospitality business.
Jarnecke is happy to see a little-used space inside Century Center bringing in area teams and residents on a nightly basis and national and regional tournaments already making use of the space.
“It’s far exceeding what we had projected,” Jarnecke said. “It might be able to justify further expansion and upgrades in the future.”