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Gamers get paid to fight each other at this weekly e-sports tournament

Think you have what it takes to be an e-sports pro? There's a place in Southern California where you can test your skills (and maybe win some cash and prizes).

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Remember LAN cafes? I used to spend hours at my local cafe, playing Diablo II slaying demons next to my best friend. Later, I'd haul my Xbox and my 19-inch CRT TV to a friend's house for all-night Halo on New Year's Eve. Playing games in the same room as my friends brought me some of the best memories of my late teens and early 20s...but now, it's tough to find any game you can all play together in the same place. Sure, we've replaced LAN cafes and LAN parties with online competition and chat, but there's something special about a shared, in-person experience. Then, e-sports happened.

In case you're still not sure about the success of e-sports: According to Superdata, over 213 million viewers are watching pro gaming this year, and they believe the industry will see that number grow to 303 million by the end of 2019. Universities are offering e-sports scholarships, and some of the more famous players are treated like rock stars in countries like South Korea, where e-sports is already a massive part of the culture.

So you can watch e-sports, and pro players get to have a shared social experience via hosted tournaments...but what about everyone else?

Esports Arena (ESA) bills itself as "North America's first dedicated e-sports facility." It's located in Santa Ana, California, near far more famous attractions like Disneyland, but it's drawing hundreds of gamers to its location for what it calls "Wednesday Night Fights."

Every week, players pay a $10 entry fee ($5 for members), and then pay $10 to enter the tournament. Joining the venue as a member is much like a fitness gym, where there are recurring or month-to-month membership subscriptions. The schedule is a mix of open play time, tournaments, meet-and-greets, and even free pass weekends where curious players can try out the facility.

WNF is a co-hosted effort between Esports Arena and Level Up LLC, a broadcasting and event organization that's been growing Wednesday Night Fights for the past 6 years (and continued to outgrow the spaces they hosted events in until they hooked up with Esports Arena). Fun fact: Level Up LLC is run by Alex Valle, a professional Street Fighter player hoping to pass his knowledge and skills to the next generation of fighting game fans.

Most gamers have good internet connections and a comfy couch to play on, though -- so why would they want to leave home to play the same games with similar broadband speeds? LAN cafes might be dead, but there's a resurgence in spectating and participating in video games at a venue away from home, largely thanks to e-sports.

Esports Arena wants to be the place where aspiring pros and enthusiasts can gather together to find support, coaching, and willing opponents. There aren't many locations where gamers hoping to make the jump to the big leagues can both spar with other players of their skill level *and* do that in front of a lively, raucous crowd -- a factor that can easily break a player's focus if they're not specifically trained to handle it.

It's also a kind of feeder system for the pros. If a team or league is recruiting, it's much easier to come to a place like Esports Arena to scout for potential talent. Not only do you get an idea of a player's skill, you also get an idea of their skill under pressure, how they interact socially with fans and media, and how they treat opponents after winning or losing a close match.

My night at ESA was a blur of friendly participants and watching skilled players battle for the weekly tournament prize. Hundreds of people came out on a weeknight, and stayed until 2-3 a.m., even if they had school or work the next morning. Eliminated players stayed to watch the final rounds of the tournament and cheer on the people who'd beaten them earlier in the night. It's a vibe that's exciting, social, and most important of all, fun. The entire experience reminded me of how social gaming could be again, at least beyond what we've become accustomed to, and a deep pang of nostalgia brought me back to those days of enjoying games and talking about life with my friends.

Esports Arena is a new kind of haven for local, multiplayer gaming. We'll see more of them pop up across the country as both a social watering hole and recruiting ground for spectators, pro gamers and leagues as e-sports continues its meteoric rise. We might never see the heyday of the LAN cafe again, but if this is its replacement? I'm on board.