Small towns are building esports meccas


For centuries, Katowice was a mining town. The first settlers were craftsmen in the 18th century, who arrived in the lowlands of Southern Poland after hearing rumors of the rich coal deposits hidden in the dirt. Walk around the city today, and you can see those roots. Massive, turquoise-steel mines dot the horizon, all propped up in the strong, Stalinist style that still permeates every corner of Eastern Europe. Downtown, the Katowician pride and joy looms large; Spodek Arena, built in 1972 on the remnants of an old mineral dumping ground. It looks like a dormant flying saucer waiting to take off, and for generations, it hosted the concerts, conventions, and hockey matches that passed through the burg.

Today, that arena is best known as the home of Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Katowice, one of the most prestigious Counter-Strike tournaments in the world. Every year, teams fly in from North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe to compete for esports fame and a $1 million prize pool. To an outsider, it is genuinely bewildering to be in a minor Polish municipality, with a population of 294,000, surrounded by twentysomethings and teenagers who ate a layover in Frankfurt in order to watch the action live. (As you may expect, there aren’t a lot of international airlines that fly direct to Katowice.) The city is all gray skies and towering tenements, but for a few weeks in February, it’s also the Counter-Strike capital. This year’s tournament, in which Team Astralis took first place for the second year in a row, attracted 174,000 visitors. Last year, The Esports Observer reported that IEM generated Katowice $24.5 million (or €22 million) in advertising value. The little mining town has hitched its wagon to esports, in the hopes that it can transform its center of industry.

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“In Stavanger, Norway, I was asked by a group of young people where I came from. I said ‘Katowice,” says Marcin Krupa, the incumbent mayor of Katowice. “They asked me if I knew what IEM was and so we started talking. Such situations encourage us to take further steps.”

The new esports mecca

Krupa says IEM was the idea of former Katowician councilman Michał Jęrzejek. Seven years ago, he floated the idea of opening the town to investments in competitive gaming. As Krupa said, “Many mayors would shudder at the thought of spending so much money and letting thousands of nerds into the Spodek arena,” but his predecessor, Piotr Uszok, cosigned the initiative. It was bold, considering Uszok was a total outsider to PC gaming. But in 2014, the city council ratified a partnership with Intel to support IEM through 2019. Krupa doesn’t see that partnership expiring anytime soon. In fact, he reiterates that the success of the tournament has made it a crucial part of his own policy agenda. “I am honored to carry on and even elaborate this project,” he says.

Above: The Intel Extreme Masters Cup from IEM Katowice for Counter-Strike.

In its current incarnation, IEM Katowice occurs over the course of two weekends, and every year its imprint on the city grows bigger. In the bowels of the Spodek, you’ll find a fully functioning tech trade show, a variety of satellite esports events away from the Counter-Strike main event. It feels like a miniature Comic-Con, and according to Krupa, Katowician locals — many of whom are far outside the demographic who regularly attends esports events — have learned to embrace the city’s ovation to gamers.

“IEM means income for the local people: hotels, people [lease] their flats, restaurants, taxi drivers and local entrepreneurs. IEM is one event which helps hotels and conference facilities develop,” he says. “This event is so successful that its next editions and increase in costs are not questioned by inhabitants or opposition in the city council. And every mayor knows how thoroughly big events are analysed by their supporters and protesters.”

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Other towns are catching on

This is a balance that more towns will need to straddle, as city councils continue to look to the Katowice model to integrate esports into their own economies. In Hangzhou, a Chinese port city a few hours south of Shanghai, local governance has promised to construct 14 different esports projects, with a total cost over $1 billion. (The first investment is an “esports town complex,” which will host a variety of different professional gaming venues.) Closer to home is Frisco, Texas — a Dallas suburb best known as the home of the Cowboys’ corporate office. The greater Dallas area has long been a hotbed for the games business — both id Software and Gearbox have headquarters there — but it is also home to pro gaming organizations like Infinite, compLexity, and OpTic. CompLexity, which is owned by Jerry Jones, recently opened a new 11,000 square foot corporate foundation within his Cowboys 91-acre campus. According to CompLexity chief revenue officer Daniel Herz, the company has taken cues from its parent football team by establishing relationships with the Frisco Chamber of Commerce and the city’s community at large. In general, he envisions a Frisco that has solidified itself as a market leader in esports.

“Everyone here is very aware of how the video game industry is growing and the large chunk of the economy it’s taking over,” he says. “Everything from talking to Frisco ISD about the gamification [of education,] to the University of North Texas about not just video games, but the people who create soundtracks in video games, skins in video games. From the business standpoint, we really feel like there’s a ton of investment. We’ve talked on multiple Chamber of Commerce panels. There’s a strong interest in esports. I’ve felt it stronger here than in Denver or New York. There’s this attitude of, ‘What does our city look like in five, or 10 years,’ and the feeling that gaming has to be in the heart of that. We have the ability to build that infrastructure”

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Herz’s proclamation represents the core hope of every one of these cities. Frisco, like Katowice and Hangzhou, isn’t a metropolis. These are not fertile, highly diversified economies that tend to attract third-party investment. It makes sense, then, that the local economic stratum would be more open to a bet like esports. Professional gaming is a naturally volatile business, but if it strikes big, the rewards could be massive for the municipalities that dumped in the money early. We’re already seeing the symptoms; last year, Intel hosted IEM tournaments in both Chicago and Shanghai, but the World Championship was still reserved for Katowice. There has to be a first somewhere, and as these cities are proving, it can be anywhere. 

“Katowice is a unique place because it shows a perfect transformation of a city from an industrial one into a modern metropolis. We have focused on revitalisation, creating recreational areas, development of culture and business tourism,” says Krupa. “There is a catchphrase among British commandos: ‘He who dares, wins.’ A few years ago we bet on esports and today we know it has been a wise decision. It helped us become the city you see today.”



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