20170419-Showboat-house-of-blues-A former Atlantic City casino is betting that professional video game tournaments — attended by thousands of spectators — can lure in the coveted millennial crowd to the Boardwalk.

Showboat's owner Bart Blatstein is teaming up with Venturis Partners to create the Atlantic City Fan Expo, a weekly mini-convention featuring anime, cosplay and occaissionally professional esport tournaments.

ACFX, which will manage the expos, said it believes Atlantic City is ahead of the curve on the next big thing. ACFX said professional video gaming is set to explode in the United States, and esports is the lynchpin of the organization's plan for the former House of Blues theater located within the in the Showboat property. 

"It's ripe for somebody to really step into that space," said Carl Doninger, of ACFX. According to Doninger, tournament level videogames fill arenas overseas, and crowds are growing fast in the United States. Pro esport gamers can see the sort of intense following enjoyed by other professional athletes.

In 2015, the audience for the world championship of League of Legends from Riot Games, an immersive, multiplayer battle game, topped 27 million people, and some industry experts expect audiences for esports to soon rival more traditional sports like basketball and football.

"I grew up with video games being new. It's their Olympics. They grew up as part of the YouTube generation," Doninger said.

As Doninger envisions it, the players will be on stage, with huge screens showing the gameplay. 

Enthusiasts already watch championships streamed live on the web, but Doninger said there will be a growing market for people to turn out in person. Spectators will want to get caught up in the play, and get a chance to see the stars in action.

"It's always more fun to watch something live than on TV," he said. ACFX planS to present tournament play in games that include League of Legends, Gears of War, Rocket League, Halo, Defense of the Ancients and more. They include strategy games, battle games known as first person shooters, and in the case of Rocket League from Psyonix, a soccer match in rocket powered racecars.

ACFX will feature live music

As the House of Blues, the 2,800-seat theater hosted the Neville Brothers and the White Stripes. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio rang in 2007 from that stage, and a year later, Elvis Costello and the Imposters did his New Year's show there as well. Doninger said ACFX would look to book music and other acts in the hall as well, citing electronic dance music, as well as DJs and family friendly raves.

"It's going to be wide open," he said. "We're going to use the heck out of it."

The theater is just part of the plan. In the space that once served as the casino floor, ACFX plans to present a summer-long series of themed weekends. The idea would be similar to a comic book, anime or horror convention, according to the organizers, but with another convention on the way next weekend.

Attracting millennials

Geek culture and video games are already an integral part of the Atlantic City scene. On the casino floors, much of the play already takes place on screen, and themed games try to connect with players through Game of Thrones, Star Wars, from the Lord of the Rings to the old Batman TV series or anything else that may connect to an audience. Game Co recently announced plans for a skill-based video game based on the worlds of Star Trek, with the first of several planned installments expected to be on the floors of area casinos later this year.

When the new ACFX site opens at Showboat, there will be no gambling, but there will be speakers, events and a geek-friendly retail area.

"We have the opportunity to create a geek amusement park; a three-ring circus for geeks and millennials," said Shawn Smith, who at 32 years-old, described himself as the group's token millennial.

"There is nothing like this in the world," said Derek Pew of Philadelphia, one of the principals in Venturis Partners, in a written statement.  "We wanted to create the most perfect shore experience we could — someplace we would want to spend all our time and someplace our children would want to spend all their time."

Aside from Pew, most of the Venturis crew are from an Indiana-based group called DUB3, which produced conventions and other events. The plan is to bring more than 100,000 people to Atlantic City this summer.

Smith said the group has successfully presented Indy Pop Con in Indianapolis, but the Atlantic City site will have a huge advantage over other convention centers: while the theme may change each week, the organization won't have to set up and tear down the convention in a couple of days' time. For most conventions, that means overtime and waste, but with another event on the way next weekend at ACFX, the turnover will be far cheaper and easier, he said.

ACFX hopes to open its doors by Memorial Day, and run a series of themed events until Labor Day in the former casino. "We're still mapping that out, but we've got a pretty solid plan," said Doninger.

Those involved emphasized the family-friendly angle several times, saying they planned to keep almost everything G or PG, and any event or attraction that may go beyond what Doninger called "safe for work" would be very clearly labeled, he said.

Reinventing the Showboat

The Showboat is near the end of Atlantic City's lengthy boardwalk, almost at the inlet that separates the island from Brigantine. On a recent sunny spring morning, a few strollers enjoyed the sunshine, walking to the end of the 'walk, a few peering through the closed doors of the theater. There wasn't much to see so far.

Former owner Caesars Entertainment shut the casino in 2014, even though it remained profitable, in a move aimed at stabilizing the market for the group's other casinos in town. That year saw four casinos close, in a huge blow to the local economy. That included Showboat's neighbor The Revel, a relative newcomer that cost about $2 billion when it opened two years earlier, but never managed to break even.

Showboat, on the other hand, had been open for 27 years, and saw major renovation projects in 2003 and 2007. In December of 2014, the Richard Stockton College (now Stockton University) bought the building for $18 million, with plans to house students and offer classes in the oceanfront property, but later sold the property for $23 million to Bart Blatstein, a Philadelphia developer.

He reopened the hotel last year, but the concert hall and casino floor remained vacant.

"The Atlantic City Fan Xpo came about due to the faith and efforts of Blatstein," said Bill Dever, executive producer for Venturis, in a prepared statement. "There is a growing feeling that Atlantic City is coming back, and coming back strong thanks to the vision of entrepreneurs like Bart Blatstein"

The group's website, acfxpo.com, went live this month, but so far, no events are scheduled.