Wheel of fortune turns for South Bend people
This article was written by Angela Bernhard Thomas, Founder, A-Game Esports, and Tyler Othen, Esports Lead, CSL International. Edited by Esports Insider & Coliseum.
The idiom ‘Wild horses couldn’t…’ sits well on Jeff Jarnecke, Executive Director, Century Center, South Bend, Indiana (US).
Jarnecke’s grit and gumption – along with adequate support from a grassroots marketing group, a local university, and a community of believers – helped him to even brace up to the coronavirus storm and complete a first of its type esports venue within its downtown convention center – the Century Center.
Due to the vision of Jarnecke and the total dedication put in by him and his team, the Bendix Esports Arena is a reality today and opened to the public on February 4th, 2021. It sits within the precincts of the Century Center.
The Century Center – a convention center in South Bend, Indiana, designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, broke construction in 1974 and opened in 1977. The center, built on the banks of the West Race canal, overlooks the St. Joseph River in downtown South Bend, Indiana, United States.
From a turnkey production and broadcast layout to a flexible space that can be utilized for practice or preparation, the 600-seat Bendix Arena is equipped with cutting-edge technology, large space, knowledgeable staff, and an eager community needed to bring the region’s first dedicated esports facility to town and provides the perfect venue for the next competition.
With COVID-19 sounding the death knell on the world in 2020, the physical esports event industry, like the live event sectors, totally shuttered down. But, Jarnecke was not the one to sit back and twiddle his thumbs and his indomitable spirit led him to complete the esports venue.
When our group, Esports Entry Advisory (EEA), got an invite to the ASM Global Annual Summit in 2019, at that point of time we had completed several esport-centric venue planning studies throughout the United States. It’s here that we met Jeff Jarnecke. He evinced keen interest in an esports-focused feasibility study as he had a strong feeling that esports would find a bustling market in South Bend. To this end, he wanted to carry out a market study – a hallmark for any large-scale public facility investment.
The question topmost on Jarnecke’s mind was, ‘How can South Bend capture the market at the initial stage itself in the fast-growing esports industry?’ He wanted to carry out an extensive study on how revenue streams could be diversified and cash in on the niche opportunities as well as how a regional esports venue could carve a niche for itself.
Today, 16 months later, Jarnecke and his team are using the planning work of EEA to design, build and program a 6,000-square-foot gaming center which will be housed within a meeting hall at Century Center which is not much utilized. It is also being planned to transform Century Center’s Bendix Theater – which can accommodate a crowd of 600 – into an esports-capable championship venue (read the Bendix Theater has since opened on February 4th, 2021).
Jarnecke and his team as well as the powers that be in South Bend deserves a big shout-out for being able to get to this stage at a time when the United States has been thrown out of kilter due to the fatal respiratory disease.
esportsinsider.com quoted Jarnecke as stating, “EEA was able to help us research and brainstorm project concepts, putting together a feasibility study around the impact and potential of hosting and building an esports facility. The work inspired us to think about our operations and our building differently.”
Destinations and venues which are mulling on injecting funds into esports arenas can take pages out of the books of Jarnecke and his team who have pulled off such a feat amid the pandemic. The factors which worked to their advantage are putting faith in a ‘big idea’; carrying out a comprehensive and thorough market analysis; revolving the design around findings based on research; making a strong conviction that the esports venue business will benefit commercially; initiating solid strategies and quick decision-making in the face of challenges; and devising an action plan for the future course of action.
Jarnecke got a hang of esports during his earlier stint with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as Director of Championships and Alliances. He got an insight into what esports is all about through early research studies and an in-depth study on NCAA’s role as a governing body in collegiate esports.
Armed with sound knowledge regards the esports industry and its potential to open floodgate of opportunities, Jarnecke held brainstorming sessions with his local hotel tax board at St. Joseph County in Indiana. The objective was crystal-clear: To build an esports venue within the precincts of the Century Center. Jarnecke and his team were pushed by the Board President, John Anthony, to deliver.
After holding extensive talks with Jarnecke, the Esports Entry Advisory was entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out the research work that would facilitate a feasibility study. The team examined every minute detail just as it would have done with any other sports or convention facility developments. A concept was chalked out focusing on the niche market and would it help in reaping commercial benefits.
Weighing pros and cons
The feasibility analysis weighed the pros and cons of the market, competitive and complementary venues, and demand characteristics custom-made for South Bend.
A mixed-use development buttresses Century Center esports in the form of a walkable and navigable downtown with food joints and bars, an urban residential space which will attract young professionals to the area, according priority Citywise of generating and attracting Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technical jobs, Notre Dame University to boast a robust student population, the market will be just a drive away from Chicago and Indianapolis, the local residents will take active part in online gaming, and generating great interest among the community in using esports facilities and attending esports events.
A proper study was conducted and more than 30 esports event organizers, college esports teams and regional school districts were interviewed so as to get a clear picture as to whether esports activity will strike a chord with the people of South Bend.
This whole outreach exercise gave us meaningful information as regards events level and space needs.
Our at-length interactions with esports organizers and varsities led to the following three inferences:
- The region does not boast ready-to-move spaces to stage low-key and mid-sized esports tournaments and events;
- The college crowd is quite enthusiastic as regards holding fixtures the year round; and
- Demand for a ‘tournament venue’ that could play host to several matches in one go instead of just a traditional stage and arena setting.
Based on the above inferences, it was suggested that a 36-station local area network (LAN) center be developed in Century Center’s Whitewater Suites, and meeting rooms spread over 9,000 square-foot area in the building’s lower rung. As per the scheme of things, the space would boast 24 community desktop stations for training and competitive play purposes, apart from 12 tournament-quality gaming pods which would be perched on a slightly elevated stage at the end of the room.
To provide an enchanting and exalted experience to esports fiends, proper lighting, sound prowess and cutting-edge audiovisual facilities were recommended which would also help in producing a truly experiential ambience.
esportsinsider.com quoted Jarnecke as explaining, “Considering the multipurpose nature of the technology used for esports, I think we’ll see other centers turning underused spaces into gaming venues in the future.”
Compared to traditional rehabilitation projects, the LAN gaming center expenditure was pretty reasonable. We also viewed the development as something which would ensure a steady flow of revenue and presented the scope to gradually consolidate the building’s financial health as the esports industry comes out from its fledgling stage.
Today, Bendix Arena’s LAN center can accommodate both the casual gamer and professional streamer. One can play on the latest equipment and peripherals with access to everything one needs to game competitively and share one’s victories.
Nevertheless, the cash injection by no means rules out the possibility of the space hosting conferences, meetings, seminars, and other events.
Equipment used in esports is highly modular and can be stacked away if the need arises. The building will enjoy varied revenue streams as the esports market will act as a booster for its present revenue base.
Jarnecke explained, “The EEA study proved to be the validating point, in terms of the qualitative and quantitative research that was needed, to put together the business plan to share the proof of concept, and ultimately get approval from the respective boards and leadership within the City.”
Earlier, stakeholders were not open to the idea that if the structure is provided, they will come. But, when we pointed out that there exist a tangible user base that would use the space the year through, it cut ice with the local stakeholders and decision-makers.
As the market demand painted a positive picture, the financial structure was rolled out that foresaw an operational surplus after the first year and the revenue wheel would stay well-oiled much into the future. The $2m which would be required to meet the upfront expenses of the development was greenlighted by the St. Joseph County Board of Managers for Hotel-Motel Tax.
Added Jarnecke, “This was $2m dedicated to build that sense of community, to be innovative, to be an early adopter, to be aggressive, but then also to drive hotel room nights, energy and excitement in the downtown as well as the building.”
esportsinsider.com stated that with COVID-19 throwing into array the hospitality projects across the United States and the pandemic continuing to bludgeon the country, the going was anything but smooth for Jarnecke and his team. Nevertheless, they went ahead with the project despite everything shrouded in uncertainty. Initially, the project went off the ground with a $2 million budget, which would be phased in over two years. It was due to the unstinted support of his Board that Jarnecke could continue planning for the development all through the pandemic. As hotel tax collections were not encouraging, purse strings were tightened and project budget was cut by circa $1 million.
As part of the planned development, the game stations, the lighting, the stage featuring gamer pods fit to be used during tournaments, and auxiliary area for console gaming and virtual reality (VR) were all maintained. Once it is completed, they would come armed with an unrivaled publicly-owned esports center – something which the community can take pride in.
Gauging the opportunity the project offers, the President of Bethel University has got in touch with Jarnecke. The President feels that the varsity can use esports to lure students in the various science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, while at the same time the venue will provide entertainment to the students.
(The latest development has it that Bethel University and the South Bend Lions soccer club already are using the gaming center to practice and compete.)
Bethel University was ready to get rolling with its own esports varsity program. To this end, the university has hired a coach and Program Director, and the Bethel esports team got going with their competitive play in the Fall of 2020. The first tenant for the esports center will now be Bethel University.
Stated Jarnecke, “Their first recruit to the team was a young lady from the local area. The team will use the venue as a practice facility during the week, host competition events, and help us run the public side of the gaming center.”
Jeff and his team are now on the hunt to acquire sponsors for the space and have already struck deals with Game Fuel and Pepsi. The next step will be undertaking a publicity blitzkrieg with help from their grassroots marketing agency, Vala Marketing. They will reach out to rights holders and tournament organizers around the country. Winning over the residents to participate in weekly matches as well as several other events will be the job of the sales and marketing teams.
The community will have to play a collective and responsible role as well to sell the esports space. The South Bend CVB sales team will collect leads and contact organizers of esports events, just as they do with youth sports like hockey, football and baseball.
Excited about the whole development, Rob DeCleene, Executive Director, Visit South Bend, exulted, “The Bendix Arena project at Century Center could be transformative for South Bend. It seems like we’re fortunate to still be at the forefront of the burgeoning esports market relative to being able to offer a new, dedicated facility for gamers, events and competitions. We’re hoping it continues our proud sports culture in South Bend by advancing into this newer market with a great venue in the heart of our downtown.”
Added DeCleene, “Additionally, increasing the presence and visibility of the gamer and associated esports demographic downtown should have ripple effects for all of our businesses and downtown merchants.”
The project is a beacon of hope for the community on which it sits and the promising future which the esports industry holds. It is also bringing meaning into the lives of the local residents of South Bend, Indiana. Let’s doff our hats off to Jeff Jarnecke and his entire team who have worked through the sweat of their brows to make this esports project happen.
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