SVG Sit-Down: Populous’s Brian Mirakian on the Future of Esports Venues

Esports venues aim to enable fans to ‘choose their own adventure’

As designer of the recently opened Esports Stadium Arlington, Populous has already made a major commitment to the rapidly growing esports industry. The architectural firm, which has designed hundreds of venues worldwide ranging from Yankee Stadium to Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena, worked with NGAGE Esports and Shawmut Design and Construction to create the $10 million, 100,000-sq.-ft. facility in Arlington, TX. Although ES Arlington represents the largest esports-events facility in North America, it appears to be just the beginning when it comes to Populous’s presence in the esports sector.  

Populous’s Brian Mirakian: “Next-gen fans want to be together for a cultural and social experience; we’re just creating the environment to make that possible.”

Brian Mirakian, senior principal, Populous Activate/director for the Americas, Populous, sees esports as a genuine phenomenon that will shape entertainment as we know it. With ES Arlington opened, he expects even more esports-focused facilities to launch in the near future. SVG sat down with Mirakian to discuss the ES Arlington project, why Populous is an esports believer, how the market has evolved in recent years, and what he expects the next generation of esports venues to look like.

Why did Populous begin exploring esports venues, and how did it approach this rapidly growing sector?
Esports has really been an emerging part of the industry for the better part of the past decade, but, about five years ago, we began to look at this with a more critical eye. We saw the popularity already exploding in Asia and taking a foothold in North America. And, as we began to look at the data and talk to partners like Goldman Sachs, it became very clear to us that this was not just a fad; this was a phenomenon that was going to shape the future of entertainment in many ways. We saw an audience that was trending very young and is still trending on the young side of the spectrum, although it’s maturing.

How have you seen the market mature since that initial entry?
Since then, we’ve seen a lot of formational aspects of the industry take hold, the biggest of which has been our partners in traditional sports investing in esports. You are now seeing ownership groups of NFL, MLB, NBA, and other teams and even the leagues themselves investing in esports. They are all trying to connect with a young, affluent audience, which is certainly what esports fans and spectators constitute. This is a next-gen audience that is digitally connected on many different platforms and consuming media in a very different way [than generations before them did]. We realized we needed to look at how we design a venue differently. That is what led us to where we are today in terms of designing these [esports] venues.

How do the principles used in designing an esports venue differ from planning for a traditional sports venue?
Frankly, I think there are many principles that we used in designing traditional sporting venues that apply to an esports venue. First and foremost, we want to provide a great fan experience the moment they walk through the door, [offering] great experiences around retail, unique experiences around food and beverage, especially nontraditional F&B. You want to be able to have places where fans can “choose their own adventure.” That is especially important to this next-gen audience. They’re not there to necessarily sit in their seat the entire time; they’re there to choose an experiential adventure.

An esports stadium like we designed in Arlington [is] where the gaming center comes into place. You could be at a tournament for eight to 10 hours, but you have the ability to walk out and socialize with your friends and participate in games. There is the ability for you to be able to migrate from place to place, and, ultimately, that’s the driving factor behind this project.

We’ve designed a different type of venue in terms of fewer physical seats and more sort of social spaces — which we’ve actually seen in our traditional venues as well. An esports environment needs the ability to adapt and create flexibility — not just from a seating perspective but overall.

The critical driving factor is connecting with this next-gen audience. There is a stereotype that esports fans are just sitting in their basement watching esports on Twitch and don’t want to leave the house. But the reality is that these fans want to be together for a cultural and social experience; we’re just creating the environment to make that possible. That is the engine behind these projects.

What can we expect from Esports Stadium Arlington over the next year, and how do you expect the venue to evolve in the coming years?
I think that Esports Stadium Arlington is going to be very exciting to watch over the next year because it’s truly going to be a living laboratory. This is an opportunity for Jonathon [Oudthone, founder/president, NGAGE Esports] and Corey [Dunn, executive producer, NGAGE Esports] to experiment with a completely new building type and, in many ways, a new business model. A few others in the industry have done similar [venues] but not at this scale. So this is a vehicle for them to test many different things in terms of how they connect with their audience and how they produce events. Ultimately, they’re going to learn a lot in the next year. From what I’ve seen thus far, it has been a tremendous success, and I believe it’s going to continue to grow and blossom.

The market is going to ultimately dictate where [others in the industry] head, and we’re going to continue to work with them to make adjustments, whether that’s seating concepts, VIP and premium type of products, or sponsorship, which I’m confident is going to continue to grow. I think they are going to have a number of corporate sponsors that come into the equation that will be designing experiences. I think they are going to continue to evolve the Gaming Center, and we’re already talking about expanding with more gaming stations to accommodate the demand. All of those venues are going to incrementally adapt over time, which is not an uncommon scenario. The moment that we open our doors in any of our venues, whether it’s Yankee Stadium or T-Mobile Arena or any other venue, we are almost instantaneously planning our Phase 2 project.

In terms of the esports market as a whole, how do you see these venues evolving, and what role can Populous play in this evolution?
In terms of what’s on the horizon for esports venues in general, we have seen a tremendous amount of activity that has spurred from this project. There are many opportunities on the drawing board at the current moment that are tremendously exciting and will serve as the next generation of these esports projects.

I think you’re probably going to see some larger-scaled venues in the future. I think technology is going to continue to grow, which is going to create a more immersive spectator experience. We see a lot of opportunity in regard to mixed reality and being able to engage deeper into the event experience itself. We see a future related to premium-product experiences, where you can be in environments that are social but you’re able to tap into unique personalized show productions at your fingertips. We think that there’s going to be a lot of more mechanization in these buildings, where you’re going to be able to shift the shape of the venue through mechanized components, whether seating or [staging]. There’s just going to be a lot more flexibility and adaptability in these venues and more immersion.

Even more exciting is when you start to think of the esports [venue] as the crown jewel of a larger plaza, where you have a retail presence, hotels, and other experiences so you can create a truly rich esports entertainment environment. Whether it’s in Arlington or in Las Vegas with T-Mobile Arena, you want to have the critical mass 365 days a year at these plazas, so esports-dedicated venues are certainly going to be a major engine behind developments in the future.

NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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