Carolina Gaming Arena at UNC Chapel Hill Joins a Growing Higher Education Esports Trend

UNC Esports Arena in Chapel Hill, NC; Architect and Engineer: Clark Nexsen

UNC Gaming Arena in Chapel Hill, NC. Photo by Hayden Christopher.

When you think of sports at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, basketball might come to mind. After all, not every school can boast six NCAA National Championship wins. UNC student athletes compete in more than 25 varsity sports – and now a new digital sport is being added to the mix. Working with UNC Housing, Clark Nexsen and Troy Hutchins finished UNC’s first esports facility in March 2021. Carolina Gaming will have a grand opening this fall to announce full use of their new Carolina Gaming Arena on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.

Esports is growing quickly in popularity, with many individual or multi-player video gaming arenas being created across the US. There are esports facilities for professional gamers, with potential earnings in the millions of dollars. To support this career, universities are including gaming arenas in their programs – a significant incentive particularly for students with a STEM focus. High schools are also getting in on the action with leagues of their own, and opportunities for scholarships at the university level.

“Gaming is more than just playing a game for stress release. There is a massive industry. Programs are now being molded around the other things beyond gaming itself: management, production, and marketing,” said Lee Hyde, director at UNC ResNet.

How popular is esports? In 2018, more viewers watched esports than they did Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League. In 2019, more viewers tuned in to a single esports event than the Super Bowl. According to the Center for Generational Kinetics, “65% of American adults play video games. The average age of an American gamer is 33, and gamers are seven percent more likely than non-gamers to have a creative hobby. 46% of gamers are female.” Millenials and Generation Z enjoy gaming, and this billion dollar industry continues to gain traction. Esports has continued to soar in popularity particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, since gaming does not require teammates to be in close proximity. Individuals or teams can hone their skills while socially distancing at home.

“The Carolina Gaming Arena will expose people to a better understanding of what gaming is. Student leaders explain that having a space to dedicate the messaging and exposure, inviting people and providing a presence that is welcoming, that does a lot to level the playing field,” comments Lee Hyde. “Whether it be a diversity or equity issue, it provides us a space where we can make people feel comfortable to have a broader discussion and broader understanding, and be exposed in a fun way but also they’re learning at the same time.”

UNC Esports Arena in Chapel Hill, NC; Architect and Engineer: Clark Nexsen

Left: The viewing area of the arena doubles as an interview space for gamers. Right: The arena has 36 PC stations and three game console zones. Photographs by Hayden Christopher.

UNC’s new gaming arena is housed in the lowest level of Craige Hall, which is centrally located on campus and easily accessible. Being positioned on a main thoroughfare has provided opportunity for natural advertisement to many students – particularly at night when the glow of the space spills across the adjacent lawn. The arena is free to all student users, giving everyone an opportunity to participate, no matter their experience level. After entering the arena, players head to a check-in station to learn the status of availability, progress of current games, and to check leaderboards. A virtual concierge who appears on one of the 7′ vertical screens mounted on columns will be available to help new gamers.

“The thing we’re most surprised by with Carolina Gaming Arena is not what we envisioned it to be, but watching the impression of every student who walks in the room, remarks Lee Hyde. “You see their breath sort of pause for a moment as they take it in.”

The arena boasts 36 PC stations and three game console zones. An impressive 16-foot gaming wall comprised of screens is located on one wall, with a viewing area positioned nearby for gamers to cheer their teammates on. With over 100 games to choose from, there are options for everyone. Stay tuned to updates from Carolina Gaming on potential partnerships, including possibilities for nationally televised media.

Clark Nexsen provided architectural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection for this state-of-the-art arena.