Thinking outside the Xbox: Durham Bulls Athletic Park trading baseball for competitive gamers

Durham Bulls Athletic Park is set to host an e-sports tournament later this month. The Bulls say it is the first minor league baseball stadium to host such an event.
Durham Bulls Athletic Park is set to host an e-sports tournament later this month. The Bulls say it is the first minor league baseball stadium to host such an event.

The Durham Bulls may be in the middle of a playoff run, but the minor league baseball team has already planned the stadium’s next attraction once the season ends.

On Sept. 29, visitors to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park will be able to watch a whole new type of athlete – one that has traded a bat and glove for the controller of an Xbox or a PlayStation.

The Bulls have partnered with Carolina Games Summit and Amateur Esports League to bring a three-day tournament to downtown called the DBAP Gaming Challenge. The organizers say this is the first time a video game tournament has ever been held in a minor league baseball stadium.

It’s an amateur event – meaning anyone can sign up to compete – where contestants will compete in popular games such as Rocket League, Call of Duty, Overwatch, Super Smash Bros. and Halo.

The Bulls plan to transform nearly every part of the stadium to host the games, including using the team’s left-field video board that measures 63 feet wide by 25 feet tall for the championship rounds. Tickets start at $12.

E-sports, the blanket terms for all kinds of video game competitions, has seen its popularity skyrocket, going from niche sport to one that occasionally is shown on ESPN. The entire e-sports economy has now grown to $696 million, a year-on-year growth of 41.3 percent, according to e-sports data compiler Newzoo.

The Triangle is already known as somewhat of a hot bed for video games, as game makers Red Storm and Boss Key are based here.

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The large video screen in left field at Durham Bulls Athletic Park will be used to project some of the championship rounds of the e-sports tournament. Chuck Liddy

The Bulls, who often hold non-baseball events in the offseason, want to see what interest the fast-growing e-sports market will drum up.

“We have been looking at different sports events (to potentially bring to DBAP), and there is something new about e-gaming every time I look around,” Bulls General Manager Mike Birling said. “We finally are going to go for it and see what we can do.”

In the past “we have done some beer fests, we have done some concerts, though that’s not something we have gone all in on,” Birling added. “(But) we are always open to different ideas. That is the fun part of being in the business we are in. No idea is too crazy.”

DBAP is hoping to draw around 2,000 people to play or watch the competition.

“We are trying to hit a demographic that is not easy to hit,” Birling said of the event’s marketing to gamers. “It’s a demographic that maybe isn’t going to a lot of Bulls games.

“We are learning. Some of things that we know work from the Bulls standpoint won’t work for this.”

‘Thinking outside of the box’

The event reflects the diversification the Durham Sports Commission is trying to help bring to the Bull City.

The sports commission was started last year to increase the number and types of events choosing to come to the city, along with increasing the number of dollars spent by out-of-town visitors. The commission is partnered with the city of Durham and Durham County, the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce.

Ashleigh Bachert, the first year executive director of the commission, said experimenting with events like the DBAP Gaming Challenge help the commission’s recruiting efforts.

“For us it’s a chance to show how diverse Durham’s sports scene is,” she said. “When I’m going around the country selling Durham, (events like this) show we can think outside of the box with our venues.”

Bachert said her group is projecting an economic impact of $200,000 for the three-day event – if it hits its projected attendance numbers.

She added that the event will be a testing ground to see if Durham could support more than just amateur e-sports competitions in the future, especially as more colleges add scholarships for e-sports teams.

“We are not a major league market – we get more college events, such as the ACC and from local schools,” she said. “But years down the road, how do we land collegiate (e-sports) tournaments?”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

Video games that will played at the DBAP Game Challenge

  • Rocket League
  • Super Smash Bros.: Melee
  • Overwatch
  • Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Call of Duty: Black Ops II
  • League of Legends
  • Halo 5
  • Street Fighter V
  • NBA 2K18
  • MLB: The Show 17
  • Madden 18
  • Marvel vs Kapcom
  • Mortal Kombat X
  • Tekken 7
  • Injustice 2