Players in competitive gaming leagues, dubbed eSports, have found a new proving ground in North Bergen.
On Feb. 23, three simultaneous tournaments were held at the newly established Helix eSports Center in town. Dozens of teams descended on the venue. Players competed for prize pools in “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4,” “Fortnite,” and “Super Smash Bros.” Tensions ran high for hours as the finals approached; the competitions ran well over 10 hours.
Helix eSports opened its doors in December, founded by father and sons Murph, Murphy, and Jack Vandervelde. The venue has 4,000 square feet of space, making it one of the largest eSports venues in the country. It has 110 PC stations, 56 gaming consoles, live-streaming services, and a bar.
The venue at 3167 John F. Kennedy Blvd. was reportedly once the site of a gun range, a bar, and a banquet hall; the owners were looking to re-purpose the property. “It was good to see this old building transformed into something modern,” said Jack Vandervelde, who is speaking for his brother and father in this story. “I don’t know where bars and shooting ranges are being built together anymore. I’m glad that’s a thing of the past.”
“There are certain times that the numbers make you turn your head and say ‘that’s pretty cool.'”– Jack Vandervelde
ESports is taking off
ESports is a relatively new term for increasingly popular competitive gaming leagues. These leagues were once less organized with a fringe following. Leagues like the one in North Bergen are starting to resemble professional sports leagues.
Internationally dominant teams receive sponsorship from gaming companies. Global competitions have garnered prize pools in tens of millions of dollars, and ESPN began covering eSports in the summer of 2018.
Today, eSports is commercially broadcast to hundreds of millions of followers. “There’s a whole infrastructure behind it of casters, stream engineers who manage video and audio for broadcast, talent that organizes events, managers, and teams,” Vandervelde said. “We’ll never sit here and say it’s anything like the NBA or the NFL, but there are certain times that the numbers make you turn your head and say ‘that’s pretty cool.’”
A regional proving ground
Jack and Murphy Vandervelde, brothers who are 24 and 26 respectively, shared a vision of opening a large-scale venue to give competitive gamers in the region some online, live visibility, and a springboard to playing on a professional level.
“That’s kind of what this is,” said Vandervelde, “It’s a path to pro, a pipeline to getting out of your basement and onto a main stage. We’ve already had some people who play here sign on to different pro organizations with Fortnite and Super Smash Bros.
Within five months, the Vanderveldes, their partners, and investors had one of the first brick-and-mortar stages of this kind in New Jersey.
“As kids, we dreamed of a place like this, and it didn’t exist,” Vandervelde said. “My parents would’ve loved to have a place to drop us off like this when they were sick of us bouncing off the walls.”
The venue holds some higher-stakes tournaments, where winners take home cash prize pools.
Each week, the coordinators hold event nights. Monday nights include a rotation of sports games, Tuesdays are “duos” competitions, and the rest of the week are scheduled events for specific games.
With the huge turnout in North Bergen so far, there’s an apparent demand for large-scale venues to host regional competitions. Despite the size of the venue, the number of competitors still exceeds capacity.
For hardware, Vandervelde said, “We partnered with HP Omen. The Obelisk model met our requirements. We have 1080i’s in there, i5 processors, and all are in the Omen case. The monitors are 144hz with a one millisecond refresh rate.”
Like many other tournaments, those that took place on Feb. 25 got a live digital broadcast. This tournament showcased how partnerships between third-party promoters and local venues can bring large numbers of regional competitors.
Something for everyone
According to Vandervelde, the eSports scene may be known for cutthroat competition, but it’s welcoming for newcomers as well.
He said it’s important to bridge the learning curve that turns people away from eSports by having casual, quick-play hourly sessions.
“I can assure you, that if you come in, you will not be the worst player,” Vandervelde said. “You might not be the best, but you’re gonna have fun. There will always be people on the same page as you.”
Vandervelde can be reached with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Helix eSports can be reached at 201-250-7137.
Vandervelde said that anyone who references this article will get a free hour of play at Helix eSports.