“This needs to be, first and foremost, a good bar.”
Out of everything I spoke to Lachlan McAllister and Jamie Skella, two of the founders behind the GGEZ esports bar (short for Good Game Easy) opening in Melbourne this week, that stuck with me the most.
Being Australia’s first esports bar is important. But not as important as being a good bar.
GGEZ, which officially opens to the public this week, isn’t the first time a licensed venue has traded on the image of esports. Following in the footsteps of Mana Bar, places like Beta Bar and Spawn Point arose. There’s arcade-centric bars, like Bartronica in Melbourne. And then there are bars that incorporate just a touch of gaming, rather than making it part of the aesthetic.
But GGEZ isn’t a place you go to play games. It’s a spectator venue first, like any good sports bar, with lots of screens for patrons to watch sports.
Except the sports is actually esports.
Skella, one of GGEZ’s founders and a veteran of local esports – he was one of the original members of Pantheon Esports, as well as being the coder for one of the most prominent hubs for Australian esports in the early 2000’s – explained that they wanted to appeal to gamers, instead of trading on the subculture as a drawcard.
That’s smart, really.
Gamers are everywhere these days. But not everybody identifies as a gamer, even if they’re a regular gamer.
“When I tell people that I’m in the opening of an esports bar, they go, ‘Isn’t that a nerdy thing?’,” Skella explained. “And I go, I play esports. So they go, oh, there is normal people who play.”
It’s easy to forget, especially if you play games or work in gaming every day, how much that perception still persists.
There’s also the practical issues around playing games at a public venue. There’s cords. People spilling drinks. Sitting comfortably around a monitor. Problems with the screen. The internet cutting out. Games that need patching.
So that’s part of the idea behind GGEZ Bar. It’s really, in principle, just a sports bar.
With games, but not just for gamers.
The idea of an esports-specific bar has been kicked around before, but as the founders tell me, timing is everything.
“We started talking about it,” McAllister explained, “and I said I wanted to do an esports bar one day and he said he’d be keen to be involved.”
“A few years ago the idea of opening up an esports bar didn’t necessarily seem like a good commercial idea, but now it certainly seems like the time is right,” Skella added.
Things have certainly changed in a couple of years. Just in the last six months alone, esports has expanded onto traditional broadcast TV in a massive way. Channel Seven unveiled ScreenPLAY, and announced that it would be running a league of its own.
Esports is much, much larger than the days when a top of the line PC was an Athlon 64, or when the hottest numbers was the viewer count in a HLTV server.
But for all the exponential growth, watching esports can still be a bit difficult. And it’ll be a primary challenge for a bar that relies on broadcasting nothing but esports.
Some of that will be tournaments from local events, like League‘s OPL or a Rocket League qualifier. And some of it will be international, given that GGEZ’s license allows them to remain open until 5:00 AM.
While GGEZ isn’t that different from a normal sports bar, one teething issue will be the increased amount of tech. It’s something anyone who attended a BarCraft or a viewing party for League or Dota 2 knows all too well: reliable internet.
A fat internet connection isn’t something bars would prioritise over, say, good whiskey. Locally sourced gin. A working kitchen. A good head chef. Those sorts of things come first.
That’s just one of the unique challenges GGEZ will have, not just being Australia’s first esports bar, but a bar that uses the internet so heavily for entertainment.
Of course, it probably won’t be too long before more and more bars follow suit. How many rely on Google Music or Spotify to control their playlists?
In more ways than one, GGEZ is a bit of a trailblazer.
One advantage with being the first is that you get to own the space. There aren’t rival establishments vying for the same kinds of partnerships available to GGEZ.
Partnerships and collaborations with conventions and organisations doesn’t guarantee success, of course. And it’s no replacement for steady, regular punters in the door every week.
Skella mentions that they’ve had chats with the Adelaide Crows, which recently bought a local esports team. I’ve heard talk of upcoming events and conventions wanting to partner or use the bar as a venue. Publishers are keen to get involved.
The local industry is excited.
And if you’re running a business, that helps a hell of a lot.
One of the unavoidable hurdles for GGEZ is that some esports – even the most popular ones – aren’t easy to watch.
“I think it’s interesting, we’re going to see a lot of effort put into the kind of spectator mode for some of these kind of bigger games, because to be honest, some of the main [games] aren’t approachable,” Skella said.
“Overwatch has trouble because it’s incredibly complex, in terms of visually what’s happening during a set of fights, obviously the MOBAs are also quite hard to follow … for new people. You’ve got games like Street Fighter, games like Counter-Strike, these are much simpler to get a quick appreciation for,” he continued.
Some of what he’s saying is hard to follow – when we spoke, the bar was still in the process of being built. Halfway through our interview, the founders relocated to the kitchen just to get away from the noise.
There’s lots of pieces that always come together at the last minute.
But the biggest piece are the games. And until the bar opens and patrons have been through the door, Skella and McAllister won’t know for sure what games will work, what personalities punters will respond to, and how much non-gaming folk will get involved.
Esports has become massive – but that doesn’t make it any less risky.
GGEZ Bar, located at 93-95 Queen St, Melbourne, is now open.