Playing Well Together: Super League Gaming brings young competitors to theatres

Cinemas Features

There’s a new game in town for theatres, begun only last summer by Santa Monica, CA-based Super League Gaming (SLG), which itself was only founded the year before.

As Super League’s gaming in theatres is just in its infancy and currently just for the young, let’s begin with a two-question quiz: What do those aged six to sixteen love most for their entertainment? Well, going to the movies and playing videogames are right up there. And, second, might there actually be a Holy Grail way to combine these two mega-popular activities?

Super League Gaming, among other innovators, thinks there is a way and has teamed with major U.S. theatre chains like Regal, AMC, Cinemark, Carmike, Showcase, Metropolitan, Goodrich Quality Theaters, iPic and Studio Movie Grill and Canada’s Landmark Cinemas to make it happen.

Gaming has become a $100 billion business worldwide that is “growing by leaps and bounds, as is the videogaming category within it,” says Super League president and COO Brett Morris, such stats bringing a big-screen glow to this new venture.

SLG calls itself “the world’s first and biggest interactive videogame league that brings gamers together for an immersive, collaborative gameplay experience in movie theatres worldwide.” To prove the concept, it launched a trial run last summer in Santa Monica by hosting what it calls “theatre mode” events involving the top three chains and the world’s number-one videogame, Minecraft. That home run got the ball rolling fast, so that just this past April 30, SLG began its one-month-long third season in theatres. (Season 1 took place last October and Season 2 in February.) eSports shows its influence here.

Individual Minecraft players and teams compete during these seasonal after-­school League sessions to climb the national leaderboard and vie for the coveted national championship trophy, a $15,000 scholarship and the title of Super League Minecraft National Champion that a team of maybe five or six gamers share. To assure the prize money is distributed fairly and goes to education, SLG hires an outside company whose business this is.

Both SLG and its theatre partners are thrilled with the results so far. Cinemark senior VP of marketing and communications James Meredith reports, “The events are good and have done very well and on so many levels, especially as we’re responding to the yearning that gamers have of wanting to get together in a social environment. We’re encouraged by their response and are happy to be leaders in this space.”

Meredith says that Cinemark was initially attracted to the experiment because “gaming is such a popular form of entertainment. Just its size!” Additionally, he notes that “the theatre seemed so naturally suited to the demographics that gaming attracts.”

Currently, SLG works with 12 different exhibitors, including the four top chains, with installations in 135 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada. SLG is of course aggressively looking overseas and already partnered with Wanda in Beijing in a successful China tryout last December. The company has plans to be in over 800 theatres internationally by the end of the year.

At first blush (or parental flush of anxiety), the notion of gaming in theatres might suggest to some an innovative, disruptive activity that is just feeding an addiction or maybe just another pure, fun experience for kids. That the auditoriums—full of kids pounding at their laptops and the big screen in front of them displaying their activity via individual gamer avatars—can look like party central doesn’t dispel parental fears. But theatre/gaming is much more, say both parents (many accompanying the younger players for free to the theatres) and theatre partners, because the Super League activities have redeeming educational value.

Since Minecraft stimulates strategizing, patience, creativity and thinking, SLG is able to work with schools and educators to incorporate STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) subjects into the experience.

And there’s redeeming social value. Morris explains, “When they [the kids] usually game and play, it is usually a solitary activity after school behind a closed door with maybe only a friend or two there. So everyone understands and can see that [the theatre locale] provides a more social, different, healthy atmosphere.”

Being in the theatre, he continues, is “a social experience—face-to-face gameplay for the players and spectacle for so-called audience ‘participants’ who are more than content to watch this gaming mania in real time on the big screen as the gamers around them face the screen and play.”

Older folk might be surprised to learn that this passive “participant” kind of Minecraft gaming mania—just sitting back and watching others play (and not unlike the TV mania of poker game-watching)—earlier emerged as a top destination on YouTube. Minecraft and YouTube have also made a celebrity out of gamer CaptainSparklez, whose YouTube/Minecraft network, on which he plays the game, has many millions of subscribers. He also figures in Super League’s marketing for its events.

And parents who accompany the young players also have a good time. Many, says Morris, even become cheerleaders for their offspring and their teams. And, importantly, they can monitor what kids buy at the concession stand.

Theatre times are often Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m., but the majority of games are on Saturdays at 10 a.m.

So how does this SLG-exhibitor partnering work? Morris and Cinemark assure the theatre retrofit is easy, inexpensive, uncomplicated and glitch-free. And theatres are left intact to the extent that regularly scheduled film shows can directly follow each 90-minute gaming session.

SLG equipment is small and easily installed. For the auditorium, where a wireless local area network (WLAN) is created, only two or three wireless access points are installed to handle signals to and from the laptops to the Super League Game server in the projection room (no longer the humble projection booth). An easy add-on is the server’s HDMI plug to the projector. For the more technically attuned, the server contains an Event Manager, Presentation and DHCP. Nearby the server is the POE (power over Ethernet) switch that precludes any need for batteries. And a 4G router in the room allows the Internet access.

The equipment also turns the big screen into a special attraction that allows a customized, aerial third-person real-time view of gamers as avatars and their moves on the big screen. With their laptops, gamers only get their own first-person POV.

Super League’s proprietary technology, Morris explains, allows about a hundred gamers (each bringing in their laptops and mice). Few use laptop touch pads. SLG recommends that exhibitors allow a maximum of 100 players per room and an additional 50 “watchers/passive participants.”

To assure things run smoothly on-site, Super League hires locals, adults who serve as company reps in the auditoriums. One rep focuses on tech, the other serves as a kind of brand ambassador.

Interestingly, theatres weren’t SLG’s initial idea for bringing gamers together outside their homes. Co-founders David Steigelfest, the company’s business-minded techie and engineer, and John Miller, who has more of the entrepreneurial/visionary DNA, had their eyes on the airport and restaurant space.

But when Morris, whose focus is mainly in administration, marketing and sales, arrived with a varied background and expertise in disruptive business models and a top position with Mark Cuban’s Landmark Theatres, a (projector?) bulb went off that signaled to the three SLG executives that theatres, which kids already love and whose rooms assure the very best in sight and sound, would be the place to be.

The big-venue, big-screen experience is not Super League’s only analogy to theatregoing: “Our model is so similar to films,” says Morris. “Movies are made to make money on a ticket price and the Super League passes we sell are the tickets. We are simply applying the theatre ticket model to gaming.” He further explains, “Super League gamers buy through Minecraft and pay for a prepaid four-week pass that is $60 and gives them 90 minutes [akin to movie times] per week of gameplay.”

Even the splits mimic the theatre business. “And [Super League] is like a distributor who also deals with a studio—in our case, the game manufacturer—so we do a revenue share off the tickets sold.”

But the game—Minecraft—is the thing and Morris is the guy who talks with both the game manufacturers and the theatres. He went after the number-one videogame because of its creative and building aspects. The game, which he says is working “beautifully,” enables players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a kind of 3D world where exploration, resource gathering, crafting, combat, new characters and worlds can come into play. (Or something like that, but the kids sure get it.)

The main appeal of playing the game in the League is the competition, he explains, “the urge to beat another player and know who that other player is because he’s right there in the theatre.”

The gamers form their teams when they go online to get their passes, either by uniting with friends or leaving the team draft up to Super League. The company, Morris explains, customizes the game for every season (a process they call “modding,” maybe short for modifying, and not to be confused with Minecraft “modes”).

Asked about SLG’s gamer demographics (“gamer” being the preferable term for users or players), Morris says they are mainly six- to fourteen-year-olds, about 60% boys, 40% girls.

Morris says SLG is rapidly expanding its game library and in a month or two “we’ll add three or four new titles,” but he cannot name names until the ink is dry. Hinting, he offers that “we are in the blockbuster business and those are the games we’ll do.”

While this initial Super League venture skews a young demographic with one game, Morris reminds that the ideal demographic is dictated by the game. Minecraft may be the youngest game we ever play, since some of the world’s biggest games are played by people in the 16-to-60 demographic.”

SLG and the theatres also collaborate on the marketing, a lot of which takes place on social media; SLG does the lion’s share and on occasion helps with some in-theatre props and premium giveaways.

Morris explains that as tickets are mainly a parent purchase, “we market to them and appeal to them by reminding that instead of kids being alone playing, we take them out into a social space. It’s like going to a movie and they can eat.”

Parents are made aware of the SLG events via parent blogs, Facebook and the like and, says Morris, “we get the kids excited through YouTube because they go there to watch other kids play games.”

In Super League’s last completed Minecraft World Championship several months back, (Season 2, earlier this year), five players aged ten through 14 on the Live2Craft team from Baltimore defeated 450 other teams throughout the U.S. and Canada to win the $15,000 scholarship prize. For four weeks, the team competed with others at Cinemark Theatres’ Egyptian 24 in Hanover, Maryland, earning points in custom game “mods” that tested their creativity, critical thinking and teamwork. The competition involved players in 68 cities from Anchorage, Alaska, to New York.

For the now-running Season 3 competition,Super League expanded to over 90 cities in partnership with top exhibitors in the U.S. and Canada (Regal, Carmike and Cinemark among them).

Also providing input from the theatre side is Cinemark’s Rob Carmony, executive VP of innovation. “We’re very encouraged by this new gaming space in theatres that Super League is enabling. This is something brand-new, but customers are really enjoying it. And beyond Super League’s younger players with Minecraft, games cut a wide swath across a large demographic and across genres, sowe’re hoping Super League will find other titles that appeal to other ages.”

He reminds that games, like films, cross genres and can cross into other demographics. “Minecrafters now skew young but there are Minecrafters who are in college and we’d like to put together a league for them.” And as other titles become available to theatres, “older teens and others will say they love that game and will join that group.”

Another plus, notes Cinemark’s Meredith, is that the gaming events actually serve two types of audiences who have two different “points-of-view,” those being that of a spectator (gamers who come together to the theatre to watch the playing) and, of course, the participatory attendees who play in the competition.

The Cinemark execs are also happy that the events run smoothly and fit into a day-parting strategy during slower time frames of non-peak hours. Meredith says that Super League is in 33 of its theatres across the country, in places like California, Texas, Chicago and the Northeast. No area is hotter than another for this nationwide event, as “the gaming in our theatres is working well and uniformly everywhere.”

And even if Cinemark’s core demographic of film fans is 18- to 34-year-olds, the younger 16- or 17-year-olds and under that Minecraft attracts works fine for what is going on now, execs say. Adds Meredith, “It’s early in this and it’s the experience for now that we value.”

Although less than a year old, the reality of this intriguing game-movie theatre marriage, say both Super League and Cinemark, is that the union appeals in every theatre and to every “player,” whether kids or parents. The buy side is happy and so are those on the sell side (exhibs, game manufacturers, distributor/organizers like Super League).

Cinemark chief financial officer Sean Gamble attests, “Our theatres are an entertainment destination, a place for people to interact and share an experience. And Super League brings a whole new energy to our theatres, and our investment in the company reflects our enthusiasm and belief that these types of events are additive to our core theatrical business.”

Expressing a perfect dovetailing of SLG and exhibition partners, Morris explains that “our mission is to push game content to fill out exhibition schedules. Like everyone else, we want theatres to succeed, but there’s a generation that isn’t going as often and we want to bring them in.”

But in an entertainment world of so much content, device and platform choice and screens large and small, competition is fierce, and gaming, which reaches a variety of screens every which way, is not immune. In April, in fact, Nielsen put out a report on the promise of mobile gaming and the “large role” it is playing in “broadening traditional perspectives.” This could also be a description of the new stage that SLG and the theatres have alighted on.

Gaming in theatres may be the promising new kid on the block, but it still has to look around at those more mature bullies, even for those tiny mobile fellas, all fighting for bigger slices of that billion-dollar-plus gaming pie. So, game on, everyone!