Occasionally, I'll get a serious craving for some rubbery movie popcorn and go out to a theatre. But even as I enjoy the kitsch the big screen, I understand that $15 is just the price for indulging in the spectacle of an endearingly overblown commercial space. If all I really wanted was to see a movie, I could do that at home, for free, in my pajamas. The number of times I enter a theatre in a year can be counted on one hand.
It was with cautious interest, then, that I read the news that Cineplex—a major theatre chain in Canada—has purchased the operating assets of an eSports company called WorldGaming. The company plans on running local and national tournaments in their facilities, and streaming the gameplay to theatres around the country.
ESports is a huge deal, if you didn't already know, and tournaments easily fill stadiums with paying spectators. But the streams, which people watch at home, are free.
"We call it 'alternative programming,'" said Pat Marshall, a Cineplex spokesperson, of the program that eSports livestreams would fall under. "Just like we charge you for going to see a Hollywood or Canadian movie, we charge you for ticket prices for other things, and they're all different prices based on the product."
"I just hope that they're not going to charge movie ticket prices"
The logistics of streaming the tournaments are still being worked out, Marshall told me, and that games will be streamed to satellite theatres is only one possibility. There may be an online streaming option, as well. However, Cineplex has been streaming live events like operas and concerts for years, and it's always charged attendees—the price of admission for eSports streams, Marshall said, will be announced later.
"I just hope that they're not going to charge movie ticket prices," Lewis Ward, research director for gaming at analysis firm IDC, told me over the phone. "If it's a couple bucks, I get it, but if they try to charge $15, they'll be in trouble. Most of these eSports competitions' content has been free online."
Cineplex's plan isn't totally unprecedented. When the livestream of the international championship match for Dota 2, a popular game in eSports, was streamed to theatres in the US, some tickets cost upwards of $20.
Even so, although photos of packed-out stadiums filled with rabid fans avidly watching two people stare at a computer screen might make it seem like eSports is an unstoppable force right now, the industry is still nascent. Most streams are free, because monetizing spectatorship at such an early stage is a risk.
The key, Ward said, would be to play up the social aspect of the event; encouraging everyone to come and cosplay would be one way to do this. It's this social experience that Cineplex is banking on to make eSports work in Canada.
"Our theatres are social destinations," Marshall said. "Gathering places, for people to come."