Since its escape from financial trouble and subsequent relaunch in 2012, GAME has been putting a lot of effort into evolving its business.
This became very apparent when the High Street retailer forked out 20m for eSports and events firm Multiplay. But the launch of its brand new arena stores is perhaps the strongest indication of where the company is heading next.
GAME launched the first of these in Manchester's Trafford Centre in July,but this last week the retailer has launched another series of these larger stores, now under the Belong brand.
This is headlined by GAME returning to the centre of London with a Wardour Street location, just off Oxford Street where the firm's flagship store was until 2012.The Wardour Street and Milton Keynes locations are brand new stores, while Belong areas have been introduced to existing stores in Bristol Cribb's Causeway, Hull Prospect Centre, Portsmouth, Gateshead Metrocentre and Manchester's Trafford Centre.
Essentially, these locations are a mix of ‘traditional' GAME shops, where consumers can walk in and buy the usual assortment of games, consoles, accessories and merchandise, but they also feature dedicated areas where gamers can go to play the latest releases, take part in tournaments and try new tech like VR.
Consumers can buy food and drink. They can come in for viewing parties for big games events, such as E3 or League of Legends tournaments. They're a place consumers can go to hang out.
The original thinking was based on what we were seeing with participation and excitement from gamers at Insomnia and how we could create that local-level eSports in numerous locations around the UK,” CEO Martyn Gibbs says.
It was basically us asking if we put GAME and Multiplay together, what does the middle of that venn diagram look like? The middle of that is local, competitive gaming, of which Belong is the brand now of all our local competitive gaming activity.”
As mentioned before, this is GAME's grand return to central London. But Gibbs is eager to point out that this opening is no different to any of its other new stores.
I adore the communities that we have all around the UK and the way the teams have built those," he says. "I used to work literally two doors down the road [from the Wardour Street store], so it has a bit of an affiliation for me. But that's also true when I went to Manchester Trafford, when I go to Milton Keynes, Portsmouth, Bristol Cribb's Causeway – all of them have the same impact on me. It's great being in central London because it's easier to talk to people like you. Apart from that, every one of the Belong areas we have been opening has been great for that community.”
"What we have seen with our Belong stores is that they have attracted our core customer, as well as 20 per cent who have never shopped with us before."
Martyn Gibbs, GAME
Being in London is also good for marketing, and collaborating with publishers on lock-ins and other promotional events.
I completely agree, but that's not really the thinking,” Gibbs explains.
The thinking here is that we want to build a really great, massive community of gamers. By doing that, should we be a great place for publishers to work with us on new titles, old titles, eSports titles, we'd love that. But it has to be under the premise of the community we are building here. We have a name for the community we are building, which is London Lionhearts. Each one of our arenas and Belong areas will have their own identity. That's very important for us.”
Yet it isn't the only Belong location that GAME has opened, the central London store appears a sign of confidence from the retailer. Though its recent financial reports have not made for easy reading, these new stores are an indication of where GAME sees itself as a business – and where it sees its business heading in the next few years.
We're going through a transformation at the moment,” Gibbs says.
That means we have to trade the GAME business really hard, but what we can't do is take our eye off where we need to get to. We already have the proof points, in the three arenas we have already opened, of why this makes sense. There is no vanity play for us at all.
"Being in London is great, because we think it's going to work here. We still don't have loss making stores in the UK, so this isn't a 'let's go in the centre of London' thing – this is us building a really sensible business model around what we believe what GAME is going to be in two or three years time.”
Belong isn't the only major retail announcement from GAME recently. Just last month, the company teamed up with WHSmiths to open a series of GAME concessions.
This seemed like a way for the High Street chain to reach a more mass market audience, while Belong would appear to eye the absolute one per cent of core gamers – the highly dedicated audience that cares about the likes of eSports.
Though Gibbs agrees with the former, he says that Belong's audience is much wider than just the absolute core.
We don't see it as that at all. You're right with WHSmiths – the WHSmiths concessions are great because they're a collaboration with a great High Street retailer,” he says.
WHSmiths is a great High Street presence, it's a great brand and it's allowed us to go into locations where we are not present. We weren't on Birmingham Fort, we weren't in Oxford, so this allows us to go in on that. The management of our property portfolio will continue in that way. It's how we make sure we give our customers the best experience possible that has the right business model underneath it.
Now in terms of Belong, we absolutely do not believe that this is for a one percentile at all. In what we have seen with Manchester Trafford, Bristol Cribb's Causeway and Portsmouth, the spectrum of gamers that we are attracting is huge. We have a lot of children participating in the likes of Minecraft, we've got the League of Legends fraternity, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Forza, all the great Sony first-party titles... we don't see this as a one percentile, we see it as all of those that we know want to compete, but don't because they don't think they're good enough.
"We're creating the environment for multiple millions of people. The last number we ran was 4.6m that we believe would participate in eSports.”
Indeed, Gibbs goes on to say that the audience that Belong stores is attracting versus that of its ‘traditional' locations is different in many ways.
What we have seen with the Belong arenas to date is that they have attracted our core customer, so our most valuable customers have really engaged with the proposition, but also 20 per cent have never shopped with us before,” he explains.
20 per cent are new to GAME Reward Card, and that's really exciting for us because that basically means that everyone who loves GAME the most loves us a little bit more, but those that have not understood the relevance and credibility to them before now are. Over and above all the stats we have coming out of the arenas, those are the most i