Esports meets mainstream: Disney World's interest in esports opens the door to the esports tourism industry

by Daniel Rosen Aug 8
Thumbnail image courtesy of User "danuv" (under CC BY 2.0) / Flickr

Disney is interested in esports. We've actually known that for a while, between ESPN's continued efforts in broadcasting professional Street Fighter and the recent moves from Disney XD into esports-related content, but a recent report from Forbes indicates that Disney is interested in esports beyond just broadcasting. It's interested in bringing esports to Disney World.

According to Forbes' Christian Sylt, Disney is considering using a new venue they're building at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World in Florida to host esports tournaments. Disney traditionally uses the complex to host youth sports events, with an aim towards increasing tourism to their parks. The idea is that if your kid plays in a soccer tournament at Disney World, you're likely to stay at the park for a few extra days and make a vacation of it.

What's interesting about this isn't so much that Disney World is building a venue that could be used for esports events, because to be perfectly honest, there aren't a lot of large, modern buildings that couldn't be used for an esports event in some capacity. What's interesting is that Disney effectively sees esports as something they can utilize to increase the amount of people attending their parks — they see esports as a tourist attraction, essentially.

There are two angles to this. One, Disney could believe that enough young people are invested in esports as an activity they take part in that hosting youth esports tournaments, maybe at a high school or collegiate level, would bring those kids and their families to the park. Alternatively, Disney could feel that those same tournaments could attract enough spectators that would want to stay in the park before and after the tournament. Either way, esports are bringing people to the park.

"We are trying to keep up with what sports are breaking and how we can be involved in them," Faron Kelley, Vice President of Sports at Disney World told Forbes. "Esports is a big one we are looking at and are very excited about it."

Semi-dedicated, physical spaces for esports as tourist attractions is a fascinating potential future for esports, and one it could share with virtual reality. VR is cumbersome, expensive, and demands both a high-end computer and a lot of space, which makes it perfect for VR arcades, which charge a fee for timed access to VR rooms. VR in general has yet to take off in a huge way, but VR arcades have been cropping up around major metropolitan cities in the West, where arcades have been dead for years, to fill demand for what is projected by some to become a $45 billion industry in eight years.

Similarly, people seem to want to attend esports events when they can. Major tournaments have strong attendance numbers: ESL claims that ESL One Cologne 2017 had 15,000 attendees, Evo recently said that they had 12,000 attendees this year and in 2016, Riot claimed that the Worlds Grand Finals sold out the 18,188 seat Staples Center. The core difference between the two industries is that people don't really have consistent access to esports events the way they could in a geo-located future.

The goal of the Overwatch League is to eventually have teams host home games in their home cities, which is an unproven model for esports. In the meantime, events like ESL Ones, Dreamhacks and even Evo serve as the basis of what is essentially esports tourism, and it looks like Disney wants at least somewhat in on that. People can't go to esports events locally very often, and there's a clear market for people who want to go to those kinds of events, based on the numbers mentioned earlier.

Now, before we go crazy on this, I'd like to couch this all by making it clear that Kelley said that Disney World is "looking at" esports. They haven't confirmed anything, they're just going to have a large venue that could be used for esports and they might be interested in it. While Disney's TV properties have started airing more esports programs, that doesn't necessarily mean that Disney's parks are suddenly jumping on board the esports train as well. They're very different parts of the same company, and much of this is speculation.

However, Disney's mild interest in the space as a part of Disney World speaks to the strength of esports as a tourism-driving industry. It shows that larger companies are looking at esports as way to drive esports dollars into theme parks and cities. It follows in the steps of Events D.C. partnering with NRG Esports earlier this year, and it's a good marker of the growth of the industry.

Grade: B- — No one is saying that Disney is suddenly going to open a "It's An Esports World After All" ride, but Kelley's statement that Disney is looking at esports is proof that these non-endemic brands are interested in esports beyond just selling a one-off product. Esports as part of the tourism industry is a very interesting and unexplored avenue, and while it has the potential to backfire if geolocated esports really takes off, it's a very interesting possible future for our scene.