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All we want to do is eat junk and watch each other play Fortnite
VIDEO games are beginning their takeover of the real world.
Across North America this year, companies are turning malls, movie theatres, storefronts and parking garages into neighbourhood e-sports arenas.
At the same time, content farms are spinning up in Los Angeles, where managers now see gamers as some peculiar new form of famous person to cultivate - half athlete, half influencer.
And much of it is powered by the obsession with one game: Fortnite. During the last month, people have spent more than 128 million hours on Twitch just watching other people play Fortnite, the game that took all the best elements of building, shooting and survival games and merged them into one.
How obsessed are people? After each of their wins this season, the Houston Astros - among many other sports teams - are doing a very specific dance, their arms in the air, fingers spread, their legs bent, toes tapping rapidly. It's a Fortnite dance.
Fortnite content received 2.4 billion views on YouTube in February alone, according to Tubular Insights. So yes, people love playing video games - but people also love to watch others compete at them.
E-sports are, finally, just like any other sport.
Those 150 million gamers in America want to gather. They want to sit next to one another, elbow to elbow, controller to controller. They want the lighting to be cool, the snacks to be Hot Pockets, and they want a full bar because they are not teenagers anymore.
It was inevitable. Movie theatre attendance hit a 25-year low in 2017, while 638,000 tuned in to watch Drake play Fortnite recently. The Paris Olympics in 2024 are now in talks to include gaming as a demonstration sport.
Besides, gamers already have been playing together, chatting live on headsets and messaging apps as they march through their increasingly beautiful digital worlds.
Oakland's new e-sports arena gave a pre-opening party recently. A line stretched down the block. Nearly 4,000 people jammed into the former parking structure and onto the street around it, right in the touristy heart of Jack London Square. The sponsor was Cup of Noodles. Inside it was cacophony.
There were game sound effects, hundreds of hands clicking on controllers, bags of chips opening and the periodic shrieks of "shoutcasters", who comment on game play for live streams that tens of thousands watch.
Tyler Endres, co-founder of Esports Arena, said that he had to speak at four community meetings to convince the community that it would, in fact, like an e-sports arena.
"They wanted a grocery store," he said, grimacing.
And yes, the arena had trouble getting a liquor licence.
"The thought was, 'They're 13-year-olds, they're not drinking,'" said Jud Hannigan, 36, chief executive of Allied Esports, an investor in Esports Arena. "But the average age is 25."
It was a big industrial-looking space with a raised floor to hide the warren of cables, designed flexibly for big stage games or for nights when more people would play. Tonight was a bit of both, with more than a hundred TVs and computers set up with different games.
On the glowing stage, two of the best from the scrum went head-to-head, as the audience cheered and shoutcasters on high presenter chairs narrated the play-by-play. A smoke machine blew over the whole scene.
One recent afternoon in the Hollywood Hills, the guys were tired, but the creative director needed more Fortnite content, and so the break-dancers kept going.
The guys were FaZe Clan, an e-sports organisation. Their job is to be cool gamers. They stream game play, and they make highly shareable videos about video games. This workday goal is to leave with three to four pieces of viral-ready content. So they would keep filming "guess this dance move" videos.
FaZe is one of several growing e-sports teams and content mills. The FaZe Clan, probably the largest pop gaming brand, has houses in California (Calabasas and Hollywood) and Texas (Austin). Fans often show up outside and try to come in, and Vera Salamone, the director of talent, is most alarmed by the fact that their parents are driving them there.
"The Make-A-Wish kids came over a couple weeks ago, and all they wanted to do was play Fortnite," said Ms Salamone, who used to be on Kid Rock's management team and wears a diamond on one of her teeth. She worries about what happens to the boys - the talent in the clan are all boys - as they grow up.
She took me to the corporate office, a WeWork at Hollywood and Vine, where that new gamer management company is taking shape.
Lee Trink, 50, an owner of FaZe Clan, has a desk that is almost entirely empty except for a crossbow. His last gig was president of Capitol Records. Now, he says, e-sports and gaming are the future and will eclipse movies.
"The industry is asleep at the switch," he said. "For people my age and older who control a lot of the zeitgeist, the vibe is still 'gamers must be nerds in their parents' basement.'" He wore an unbuttoned chambray shirt over a tight white T-shirt, AirPods on a belt harness, and metal and leather bracelets.
He is not alone in his thinking about the industry.
Peter Guber, chief executive of the Mandalay Entertainment Group, and Ted Leonsis, majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, bought a clan called Team Liquid recently. ("We've won US$19 million in prize money so far," said Mike Milanov, chief operating officer of Team Liquid, which recently opened an 8,000-square-foot e-sports team training facility in Santa Monica.)
Mr Trink said: "The experience of games is so rich, so deep, they deliver on the promise, whereas films have increasingly not delivered on the promise.
"We're creating a business that's filling a void people don't even know is a void yet."
He sees streaming gamers as a fully new genre of mainstream entertainment. And like every generation of entertainment before, they will need their own palaces.
Gamers are coming together for practical reasons as well as social ones. Games are so sophisticated that they can overload home connections. And cryptocurrency miners have driven up the price of crucial gear - like the graphics card gamers use to amp up their computers' processing speeds.
"We're seeing the rebirth of social gaming," Luigino Gigante, 27, who opened a gaming centre called Waypoint Cafe on the Lower East Side of New York late last year. "It's bringing back the community aspect of gaming again. It's like, 'OK, we're still playing separately, but we're together.'"
And there is an underused asset already at hand.
"The movie theatre!" said Ann Hand, chief executive of Super League Gaming, which converts movie theatres into e-sports arenas, and has raised US$34 million from investors. "It has that thunderous sound, and it's empty a lot of the time." NYTIMES