Esports arena cultivates a new market in amusement

The $30 million venture near McCormick Place promises an immersive experience in virtual reality.

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A rendering of Surge, the planned $30 million center for esports at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave.

A rendering of Surge, the planned $30 million center for esports at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave.


Scott Greenberg is convinced he’s getting in early on something new and big.

He’s a real estate developer, and they are known for public shows of confidence and proclamations that what they’re working on will have a great economic impact and possibly benefit all humankind.

Except that what they’re working on is seldom unique and can’t possibly match the hype.

Greenberg, though, is planning something near McCormick Place that you don’t see every day. It could pioneer a new business niche in Chicago, with substantial job prospects and opportunities for community events.

Chicago Enterprise bug

His project is a $30 million esports arena at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave., covering 108,000 square feet. With his approvals from the city now in place, Greenberg can start making construction plans. He wants to begin this summer for an opening in fall 2022, provided the COVID-19 pandemic cooperates.

“I’m thinking that will be well in the rearview mirror by then,” he said.

If not, he’ll look into operating at reduced capacity.

His facility will be two stories, with an existing building at 2540 S. Wabash Ave. renovated and attached to new construction to the north. It will have a ticketed capacity of 1,040.

This isn’t for drop-ins; just like at the United Center, access will be limited to employees and ticket holders.

Scott Greenberg, co-CEO at Smash Interactive, which plans to develop Surge, a $30 million esports arena at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave.

Scott Greenberg

Sun-Times file

Those are some particulars for a project that’s already been in the news. But to appreciate its scale, you have to peek inside. Greenberg and Chris Lai — co-CEOs at Smash Interactive, the company formed for the arena — accommodated with descriptions.

Imagine large floors to roam in virtual reality. You would be outfitted with goggles, a backpack and whatever props the game requires, such as a wand or a toy gun. (Yes, there will be pretend violence.)

It will use technology the company has patented. Lai said it’s been in development for five years at his company Mass VR, which Smash has acquired. It was tried out at a pop-up gaming center at Skokie’s Westfield Old Orchard mall that operated before COVID-19. A key point was to make sure no participant got motion sickness. Lai said no one did.

Another highlight will be a 30-by-75-foot LED screen above a live stage. Those seated in this area can watch the elite or professional players compete. The second floor would include lounge and VIP areas for viewing the action below. All around would be nooks for private events, a section for Smash Interactive’s offices and bar and restaurant facilities. The site plan also describes two studios for virtual mountain climbing.

Greenberg, president of Lincolnshire-based ECD, ordinarily develops hotels, offices, apartments and shopping centers. Asked if the arena is his most unusual venture, he said, “Yes, it is. This is something that can change the world.”

It doesn’t sound so expansive if you consider esports is drawing a greater share of people’s time and entertainment dollars. The global esports audience is 474 million, said the consulting firm Newzoo, and should be 577 million by 2024.

The venue, called Surge, can host events for schools and organizations. Greenberg and Lai foresee an esports tournament endorsed by the Illinois High School Association, March madness on mainframes. Another possibility is training sessions for first responders. The project has support from schools and universities that see it as a resource for students in game development.

“We’re trying to create an experience for people,” Greenberg said. “When they go to the venue, if they don’t know anything about the game, they will know somewhat what’s going on.” Lai sees it as an extension of the Top Golf business model that uses technology to enhance physical activity.

Chris Lai, co-CEO at Smash Interactive, which plans to develop Surge, a $30 million esports arena at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave.

Chris Lai

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Massive esports events have been held at stadiums such as the United Center, the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden, but Lai said there’s a need for smaller, purpose-built venues that can be used constantly and with less cost because the gear is already set up.

While the activity is gaming, it’s not the sense of the word that means gambling. Any wagers will be private transactions, Greenberg said. He said games played will be popular, mainstream products without the gore or misogyny that has brought critical attention to the industry.

Lai is an entrepreneur who’s also a co-founder of the red-light camera company SafeSpeed, which has been involved in a public corruption probe involving activities of a former partner now cooperating with federal authorities. The SafeSpeed affiliation was not an issue for city officials when considering the esports arena. “This is a completely different stack of investors and owners,” Lai said of Smash Interactive. The arena will not require public subsidies.

For urban development here, it’s something new under the sun. Fans can have fun and maybe get in some exercise.

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