The UK retailer Sports Direct is joining up with Game Digital to create venues for hosting live matches
Sports Direct shoppers will be invited to take a break from browsing for leisurewear to play video games, with the chain unveiling a partnership that will see Game Digital open pay-to-play concessions in its stores.
Under the terms of the agreement, Sports Direct, owned by Mike Ashley, hopes to cash in on the growing popularity of eSports by clearing space in stores to host live matches between players battling it out in a variety of competitive video games.
Sports Direct, which bought a 25.8% stake in Game Digital in 2017, will also pay £3.2m for 50% of the intellectual property of Belong, the computer game company’s eSports offshoot, and will be entitled to half its profits.
The retailer will also provide a £55m loan to Game’s Spanish division to help fund development of more eSports venues in the country.
Game Digital said it hoped to capitalise on the overlap between traditional sports and eSports, a fast-growing genre that has attracted sponsorship from major brands and captured the attention of celebrity backers such as the singer Jennifer Lopez and the Formula One driver Fernando Alonso.
Global revenues from eSports grew beyond expectations to reach $1.5bn (£1.1bn) last year, and are forecast to be $2.3bn by 2023, according to the gaming research company SuperData.
Belong has sought to harness the popularity of eSports by creating “tribes”, groups of gamers clustered around UK cities with team names such as London Lionhearts, Preston Invincibles and Plymouth Armada.
They are charged up to £7 an hour to play and can book other experiences such as 10 minutes of virtual reality for £5 or birthday parties.
Under its deal with Sports Direct, some of the 16 new Belong arenas planned for this year will be housed within the retail chain’s stores.
Game Digital said: “The arenas provide dedicated space for both PC and console gamers to play with friends, compete in tournaments, enjoy gaming nights, celebrate new games and technology launches, and share game themed events and experiences.”
Its chief executive, Martyn Gibbs, said the partnership and loan from Sports Direct would help the company “move from a seller of physical products to providing gaming experiences”.
Game Digital has struggled in recent years as supermarkets and online retailers such as Amazon have muscled into the video game specialist’s market.
It has opened 19 Belong venues as part of its plan to make money from an increasing trend among retailers and hospitality venues for offering experiences, alongside their traditional products.
The strategy, which has been dubbed “shoppertainment”, has been adopted by major retailers such as John Lewis, which staged an Alice in Wonderland-themed show in its store in Oxford’s Westgate centre.
Game Digital launched Belong in 2016 as part of a plan to move away from traditional retail sales and now hopes to accelerate investment, backed by Sports Direct’s money.
Revenues from the division doubled last year to £8.7m, according to the company’s annual report, with players typically spending more money than other customers.
The average Game Digital customer spent £165 in its shops last year, but the figure was £239 among Belong gamers.
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Lead Image: Gamers take part in an eSports tournament in Leipzig, Germany. Photograph: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images