Movie Theaters Find New Life as E-Sports Arenas

League of Legends event at Cinemark Dallas theatre-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of High 10 Media

Super League, an amateur organization, has partnered with NetLevel to host events at select movie theaters.

While Avengers: Endgame keeps breaking records, 2019 has been hard in terms of generating box office revenue outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Overall, the film industry hit a six-year low to open this year and theater chains across the nation are feeling the strain. An unlikely lifeline has emerged, however, in the form of e-sports.

"We’ve been in the business of working with theaters since we launched," Ann Hand, CEO of amateur e-sports organization Super League Gaming, tells The Hollywood Reporter. Super League has partnered with such theater chains as Showcase Cinemas, iPic Theaters, Harkins Theaters and Cinemark to convert traditional cinema locations into e-sports arenas for a few hours of competition. "We always knew that theaters were a very attractive potential retail location because it gives you that thunderous sound and big screen," says Hand.

Super League has now partnered with NetLevel, the first nationwide fiber network for out-of-home entertainment, THR can exclusively reveal. With the new partnership, Super League can now host its e-sports competitions in more than triple its current number of theaters throughout the country. 

“Esports is growing exponentially, and we’re thrilled to be able to give gamers at all levels access to a state-of-the-art digital theater experience,” says Ray Bell, founder and CEO of NetLevel. “Super League has all of the elements in place to make amateur e-sports competitions mainstream.”

NetLevel has spent the past three years developing and launching its fiber network. The tech company currently has over 4,000 theater auditoriums under contract, but the new deal with Super League will assign the e-sports company's network infrastructure built with its current theater connections to NetLevel, further expanding its reach. 

"Historically, we’ve sold tournament seats against our events and shared revenue with the theater chains," Hand says. "The big win for them is drawing in new millennial and Gen Z foot traffic."

For a given event, Super League will convert one auditorium into an e-sports arena where players can compete on the big screen for two to three hours. In a standard cineplex, the other 10 to 12 auditoriums can still be used to screen traditional films, which Hand says is a "big win-win" for theater chains.

“Our goal is to make it possible for every amateur gamer to play in esports experiences in a venue near where they live," says Super League's chief commercial officer Matt Edelman.

"I think that we’re just scratching the service to what the crossover could be," adds Hand. "We have parents come in for their kids to have two hours of e-sports and they’re not only going to get popcorn and snacks, but they're also going in to the neighboring theater to consume other content. We think we can be complementary and hopefully there’s an amplification effect."

Such crossover is also aided by sponsorship deals or Super League with films currently screening, such as last year's deal between the e-sports organization and Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As part of the partnership, Super League hosted a series of competitions featuring a new mode in the game Minecraft based on the film. The league has also previously partnered with Nickelodeon and Disney and Hand says there is great interest in further promotional deals in the future.

Super League isn't just in theaters, as the company also announced a partnership with Topgolf in February that would bring e-sports competitions to the social golfing company's venues across the country. As e-sports continues to grow, Hand says that she and her company plan to remain in theaters and expand even further. "We want to stay. There’s no need to create new brick and mortar," she says.

Hand sees Super League as a community-building enterprise, and events held at local cinemas is a great way to build that sense of togetherness. "Exit polling shows that the number one thing players say is that they made friends at our event," Hand says. "It's like a local for gamers."