One man’s quest to build an esports bar in Austin

There’s nothing quite like heading to your favorite bar with a few friends, ordering a round of drinks, and watching the big game… of League of Legends

Photo via Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

There’s nothing quite like heading to your favorite bar with a few friends, ordering a round of drinks, and watching the big game… of League of Legends.

At least, that’s the idea hatched by Josh Burkhart, 27, whose Austin-based AFK Esports Bar and Grill will serve as a watering hole for esports fans—if he can just raise enough money.

Heading down to the local pub to watch a video game match might seem a strange idea at first. But Burkhart, who currently spends his days working in sales for Dell, got the idea for the bar after hanging out with a gang of friends who were already making it happen.

“I got involved with a group of people who, when a major StarCraft event would occur, they’d find a bar where they could come in and change the TV from a sporting event to a StarCraft match,” Burkhart told the Daily Dot.

It was a neat arrangement: They’d get booze and sports-bar atmosphere, and the open-minded owner would get some extra business. Burkhart started to think of his passion for watching professional League of Legends and StarCraft the way many think of watching soccer or baseball. And he figured there were probably more people out there just like him.

While the idea of a sports bar devoted to competitive video gaming might seem wild to some, there is an established precedent. Another such bar exists in nearby San Antonio, and there’s an entire popular franchise, called Meltdown, in Europe. But that doesn’t make it an easy sell for investors, as Burkhart has discovered. And the reasons that cause investors to decline are actually part of the reason why he wants to launch now.

“You do have a stereotype that geeks and nerds just stay in every night and I want to get rid of that. If you build it, they will come,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart had seen the way professional League of Legends players were greeted when they had visited the South by Southwest festival for a March 2013 event. The game is the biggest esport on the planet, and its players were greeted as celebrities by their fans—the same way you’d expect popular athletes to be treated.

Players and teams were able to turn their gaming pursuit into a full-time job. The League of Legends world championship drew more viewers than the World Series. And through it all, Burkhart began to think people might be ready to accept esports in a new and different way.

This meant bringing together his two chief loves in life, gaming and food, into an esports sports bar. Burkhart launched the idea on popular crowdfunding website Indiegogo to seek help in purchasing the required space, but he didn’t start there cold. Months of planning and preparation have gotten him to this point.

“I’ve gotten my (alcohol license) and spent a lot of time around Austin looking up the local laws and looking for the right space,” Burkhart said. “I took business classes, talked to small business owners, bank lenders, everyone, and asked all kinds of questions.”

From there, it was about promoting the Indiegogo page. Burkhart is trying to help his idea get traction through social media and local gaming organizations who might be able to spread the word further. Not everyone is quick to understand the concept, however.

There are a few common concerns. The gaming industry just can’t supply the required entertainments for such a venture, some say. Others think he’s simply looking to build an arcade with liquor on tap. Burkhart disagrees with either sentiment, and has still gotten more positive feedback than negative.

He’s has also spoken to a number of indie game developers about bringing their games in development for special playtesting events, especially titles such as Gigantic which are suited for competitive play. The game sees teams of players battle against one another on a field of play, utilizing both individual skill and team tactics to try and get the better of their opponents. Just as with any good competition.

“I want it to be a relaxed place that gets excited during the big games and events,” Burkhart said.

As excited as he is to make it all work, Burkhart does recognize the potential pitfalls, calling the entire process “very scary.” He’s been told most such businesses will either succeed or fail within the first six months, not leaving him with much time to pick up the pieces should things go wrong. But he’s confident that the esports market will emerge sooner rather than later, and wants to get a foot in before it’s saturated.

“I love the esports scene and want to grow it even bigger than it already has grown,” Burkhart said. “And there are so many people already watching these games.”