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“We’re not seeing ourselves as a niche play. We see it as really just lifting the curtain on what’s happening around us all day long every night.”
A lot is riding on the success of Fortress Melbourne for the backers of this new esports and gaming venue. For Jon Satterley, co-founder and CEO of Fortress Esports, and for the backers of the company. But also for anyone who believes in the mainstream potential of the Australian esports industry.
The multi-level facility opening on Friday, March 13, features a 200-seat esports arena with associated sports-style bar, a separate large tavern-style bar, LAN gaming facilities and more. The overall architectural detailing suggests few expenses have been spared in the design and fixtures.
Its location is hard to fault; Fortress Melbourne sits in a high-end shopping mall in the heart of the Melbourne central business district while allowing direct access from street level. Fortress holds a 24/7 license to open and serve alcohol, making it possible to hold events or screen major matches from overseas at any time day or night.
“We struck gold having this property available,” Satterley told The Esports Observer. “We were looking for over six months to find the right space. We tried a few on, got close to signing a lease a few times. Thank god we didn’t. It’s hard to find this kind of space in the city.”
He points out that a dealbreaker was always going to be the capacity to install its own redundant fiber network connections; something many places could not offer but its landlords at Emporium were happy to accommodate.
Add to this Melbourne’s increasingly high profile as Australia’s “home of esports”, and it feels like Fortress has put itself in the right place to test whether success with a business like this is possible in Australia today.
“On a Friday night, there’s lots of things you can do,” says Satterley. “You can go to the cinema, you can go bowling, mini-golf, go to a bar, or whatever. One of our aspirations is for our venue and for the idea of live social game playing to enter that choice list for the mainstream.
“We know hardcore gamers will come. But people who have all those things they could be doing will put us on that list. We’re working hard to build that mainstream appeal and make live social game playing something people think of doing.”
With the failure of the Hoyts / Gfinity partnership to build live esports event venues not too far in the rearview mirror, it’s clear that good spaces need more than just aspirations to succeed. They need plans and commitment to drive them forward.
Alienware Arena: Beyond Branding
Satterley remembers cold carding Ben Jackson, Dell general manager for South East Asia, at PAX Australia in 2018. Before Fortress even had a name, back when Satterley was still chief digital officer at Australian media and entertainment giant Village Roadshow. But the seed of the idea was there.
“We know lots of people have quality gear at home, but our model relies on renting PCs. So why would you get out of the home and come to us if we weren’t providing the best in PC technology?”
Jackson says he gets approached about all sorts of venue ideas, but stayed in touch as the Fortress concept evolved and then the final business approach and scale of the project resonated.
In his regional role with Dell he says he has not seen anything like this anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, and in internal discussions with the global Alienware marketing team they feel this could be a first of its kind venue worldwide.
“What better showroom than a place where people can play on our hardware in a casual environment and make a decision for themselves,” says Jackson. “We’ll have someone in the foyer if someone wants to talk products, but to just come and have a drink, eat something and play some games. It’s a fun environment but they get to play on some of the best machines we have.”
The deal is extensive, from branding rights to the esports arena, named Alienware Arena, to the PCs across the premises, and even Dell Technologies driving the networking that underpins the entire venue. Dell will also provide all service support as part of the deal.
Jackson acknowledges that gaming fans can be cynical, but feels their integration is all about highlighting hardware and not just putting brand messages everywhere.
“Authenticity is key,” says Jackson. “You need to know the audience and we think we do. People don’t play hardware, they play games. For many years Alienware has shown we are gamers and make PCs for gamers and that was one of the critical reasons Fortress thought of us first. We’re proud we could find a partner who could bring this to life.”
Alienware Arena is a convertible space, with the 200 seats collapsing away to allow the area to be used for LAN gaming space when major events are not taking place. Satterley says Fortress will host its own events as well as offering it to outside organizers and publishers to hire for other purposes.
Ahead of the official Fortress Melbourne opening, Ubisoft held a Rainbow Six Siege Year 5 launch event in the venue, kicking off an events program that will play a major role in the venture’s fortunes.
Satterley explains that when the Fortress concept was first being developed in 2018, the idea was a pure esports play before evolving into a broader idea.
“We partnered with Allied Esports in Las Vegas,” says Satterley. “We really thought we were going to build an esports arena. But as we understood more and built the business model we thought… there’s just not enough pro esports in Australia to sustain it. So, no, it’s a home for gamers.
“[Esports] can always be a nice part of the business, but it’s not the whole business.”
Across the venue the capacity for gaming entertainment aims to touch many different styles. The esports venue is the centerpiece, but the tavern bar features space for tabletop and RPG gaming to take place, as well as casual console gaming in large booth areas for friends to gather without the pressure of esports competition. There are also retro arcade areas, as well as streaming booths for influencers to use the space in yet another capacity.
The business model has esports as the visible core of the pitch for bringing in audiences to fill those 200 seats for ticketed events, but the bedrock of the venture will be hospitality trade, gaming PC rentals, alongside publisher and corporate event hosting. Sponsorship of internally run tournaments will also play a role.
While general access to the venue is free to the public, a membership system will also form part of the PC rental model, allowing tiers of users to access discount rates on PC rentals while gaining further benefits for their ongoing association with the venue.
Finally, a Fortress Academy program will also launch at the venue, which will offer training and education events on everything from game coding to training to improve your ability in games.
Satterley says that building out a calendar of events is critical to the success of the venture.
“We actually say, as a team, that in some regards we are an events company. We’ve taken the lead from Allied Esports – that’s how they see themselves. They see each night in Las Vegas as being a separate event.”
Jackson also says that this events calendar is important to their partnership with the venue for Dell to feel like its Alienware product is being presented in the best way possible.
“It’s very important to have good quality content here that truly resonates with the target audience,” says Jackson. “But a range of events creates the opportunity to reach different facets of the market.”
He also sees ways for Alienware to engage with its global Alienware channels to run live segments from the Alienware Arena and give greater visibility to what’s taking place at Fortress.
“It’s good globally because we can add good quality content to the global business as well,” he says. “And also tout a little bit of Australia’s magic out to the rest of the world. To push forward the Australian experiences to the world.”
There is also an expectation that many opportunities will aim to leverage relationships with Melbourne-based esports team Order. Alienware is a sponsor of the team, and one of the Fortress co-founders is also the Chairman and part owner of the Order organization.
For Satterley, he feels it is ultimately a question of tapping into the many different sub-communities within gaming and convincing them to come to the venue for one event or another throughout the calendar year.
Alongside the opening weekend for the venue, Melbourne as a city plays host to the Formula 1 Grand Prix. At Fortress Melbourne the first event that appears in its online event schedule is an F1 2019 Grand Prix time trial competition, with visitors to Alienware Arena invited to set lap times in a Next Level Racing F-GT cockpit setup.
While the paint is still drying on Fortress Melbourne, Satterley is already thinking beyond this first venue toward other opportunities in other parts of the country.
“We think the next one’s going to be a heck of a lot easier. Getting the first one built is always going to be the hardest,” he says.
They don’t expect every Fortress venue to be built at the scale as Fortress Melbourne, but the hope is to carry the same core idea – a ‘home for gamers’ – to other locations around the country soon.
But first, for the Fortress investors, and the Australian esports industry, there’s a lot of fingers crossed this first location proves the market is ready.
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