Video game tournaments

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Video game tournaments are a growing source of income for licensees. We find out more.The Bald Faced Stag in London's East Finchley was the...

Video game tournaments are a growing source of income for licensees. We find out more.

The Bald Faced Stag in London's East Finchley was the destination of an unusual pilgrimage a couple of months back. Virtual golfers from all over the UK arrived to worship at the feet of none other than Dean Liokakis, the world champion of video golf.

He had been shipped across from America as special guest at the Golden Tee Golf Challenge which brought together players from Spirit Group pubs as far afield as Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The event was the latest sign that video game tournaments, played between customers at any number of pubs around the country, are a growing draw for licensees.

Players have won up to £5,000 or even a car by topping a national scoreboard, and the competitive frisson is part of the life of thousands of community pubs and clubs.

But this may be only the beginning. Nova, which has given away a Mini each month, part of £20,000 in prizes, since last December with its Playpool game, hopes to increase that to five cars a month next year.

By then the company aims to have at least 3,000 machines out there linked up in a tournament - the current 500 machines already attract around 10,000 players.

Terry Farr, boss of Cosmic Video Amusements (CVA), distributor of Merit machines in this country and one of the leaders in the market, is convinced that we are on the verge of an explosion in tournament gaming.

"There has been a buzz around tournament games for two or three years but it's only now that the market is starting to mature," he said. "We are selling more machines every year and I believe there is an opportunity to double the size of the market."

According to Terry, the next big advance will come with internet-linked tournaments that will make it possible for pubs to host shorter, sharper competitions than the month-long ones which are the norm at the moment.

"People will be able to play in real-time against people at another pub," he said. "You could run a tournament for a pub chain on a Thursday night, for instance."

He also predicts growing sponsorship from drinks brands, fuelling bigger prizes. "They could brand the virtual golf course, provide and promote their products on the night and provide prize money, grouping pubs together in whatever way they like," he said. "We can certainly provide them with the demographic information that could demonstrate the impact of such an event on their target consumer."

Meanwhile, progress is being made with both the machines and game design. CVA recently launched PGA Tour, which enables players to compete on virtual versions of real PGA golf courses, adopt the personality of a star golfer and contend with daily changing tee and pin positions and wind directions.

It is also introducing a new cabinet called Vibe, which is smaller and can be mounted on the wall and which CVA hopes will take video gaming into more young person's venues.

For the moment, though, tournaments have found a welcoming home in community pubs. Peter Robinson at Nova reports that licensees with Playpool have noticed a significant increase in foot traffic.

"New people have been going to the pub just for the chance of winning a car and that has produced a rise in wet and food sales," he said. "Pubs where one of the locals has won a prize have seen a huge leap in custom because of it."

Licensees can also expect to take a cut of the cash that goes into the slot. It costs a minimum £2 play to enter Playpool of which 80p goes towards prizes and the rest is split between the machine operating company and the pub.

As well as the big national tournaments, linking machines at more than 500 pubs, CVA organises local competitions in which 25p out of a £1 play goes into prize pot. This has so far produced a record monthly pot of no less than £1,400, although £300 to £400 is a more common figure. That represents a lot of activity on the machine and a busy pub.

It is not necessarily easy money for the licensee, though.

Running tournament games take a lot of local care and attention before a momentum gets going. CVA recommends that publicans play themselves to create an initial interest.

One licensee, Douglas Stoneley-Hulme of the Antelope at Kearsley in Lancashire, took that task very seriously when machine operator Leisure Link introduced a new game called Phil Taylor's Darts on its ITBox terminal, which is on some 1,800 sites. In fact he went on to win a fat prize of £5,000.

Now, no doubt, he's trying to repeat his success with ITBox's new South Park £5,000 Fever tournament.

He can expect more competition though. The player base is growing all the time.

Customers are also increasingly confident about playing. "It's been a lot to do with consumer trust," said Leisure Link trade marketing manager Anne Harris. "People don't believe they can actually win such big prizes, but attitudes are changing."

Her colleague Chris Campbell believes there is more potential in local tournaments than in national competitions. "These games are more about being the local hero, the best player in the pub," he said. "There are a hard core of players who are always in the top 10 of any tournament and who are there to win the big prize, but the majority are just trying to outdo their mates."

Bill Knowles, machines manager at Punch Pub Company which has about 400 tournament-linked machines on its estate, agreed that the idea works best at pubs where the regulars have a "competitive mentality". "If you already run a successful pool tournament, for instance, you should be able to do the same with video games."

He reports "an awful lot of interest" across the Punch estate. "There are some strong products out there, they are very interactive, and we believe they have a long-term future."

Pictured: Licensee Douglas Stoneley Hulme, winner of the Phil Taylor's Darts tournament, with Phil Taylor himself.

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