Opinion Piece

Checking Out Engage Gaming In Aberdeen, A Social Space For Gamers, And Interviewing The People Behind It

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Located a block away from Aberdeen’s main street and roughly a ten-minute walk from the train station Engage isn’t quite something you’d stumble across by accident as its slightly tucked away on a back street. That’s a shame because while its boring grey facade might not grab your attention venturing upstairs reveals an open-plan room dedicated to gaming. Here you can walk in, sit down and start playing videogames with a bunch of other folk. It’s almost like gamers are actually social or something. Sheesh.

First impressions as you ascend the stairs are good. As you enter the spacious room there’s a raised platform filled with seats to the left where people can just hang out and chat, while the rear hosts the venue’s cafe and to the right is a bank of 22 computers complete with comfy chairs and headphones. The place has a modern vibe to it that’s slightly cold, something which is countered by some subtle lighting and the sizable row of windows that let in a lot of natural light, or at least as much light as we ever get in Scotland. Any other concerns about coldness were solved instantly by a group of  boardgamers who have setup shop in the corner. As I enter they’re laughing at a particularly bad dice roll, and they immediately make the venue feel welcoming. Somebody needs to hire these guys to just sit and play boardgames all day. In fact, give me a ring. I could do with the extra cash.

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The staff are a friendly bunch too, owner Andrew clearly having managed to find people who enjoy games themselves and want to work in a place where people come to indulge in their chosen hobby. Mind you, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t like games applying for a job in a place like Engage. It’s meant to be a haven for us gamers, after all.

Let’s talk about the nitty gritty of how the business operates: you come in and cough up cash for the right to claim one of computers, racing cockpits or consoles for a set amount of time, or you can pay a bit extra for some VR time if you fancy, which is apparently the most popular option. The most basic level is £5 for an hour of gaming, but for each hour after that the price becomes cheaper with two hours costing £9, three hours being £13 and a whole day or evening pass coming in at £25. Given that a cinema ticket is roughly £10 the pricing seems pretty fair for the time you get.

In terms of games available to play it’s a solid list composed of Overwatch, CS: GO, Overwatch, DOTA 2, Star Wars: Battlefront, Tekken 7, Halo 5, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Fifa 17, Street Fighter V, League of Legends, Super Smash Bros, Clash Royale, Hearthstone, Player Unknown: Battleground and Rocket League. As for the computers you’re playing on they’ve been provided by Cube and boast 15 7400, a GTX 1060 6GB and 16GB of RAM packaged into a Cooler Master MasterBox Lite 5 case. These aren’t exactly stunning specs but for the games Engage are offering they’re perfectly fine.

I’ve also got my eye on the two cockpit systems set up toward the middle of the room. I’d love to get some time in with an F1 game since sadly a good wheel is one of those things I can’t quite justify fitting in my house along with the piles of other stuff I’ve managed to acquire.

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Of course, if you think that paying someone else to play games when you’ve probably got a perfectly good console or PC is insane, then you’ve got a bit of a point. It does seem like an odd thing to do, but then again you pay to go watch a movie at the cinema, too, despite having the ability to watch them at home. Now, in a cinema you’re obviously paying to see a movie before it arrives on blu-ray, DVD or Netflix, but you’re also paying for the experience. It’s the same with Engage; you aren’t just paying to play a game, you’re paying to go hang out with other gamers and to meet new people. You can do that online, but gamers have long had an untrue stigma surrounding them about being unsociable so it’s nice to have a physical place dedicated to hanging out with other people who have the same hobby.

With that said it’d be easy to make a snap judgment when you first step into the room and see a bunch of people sitting in chairs with headphones on, locked into their own little worlds. But between matches and rounds those same people are chatting among themselves, talking about tactics or helping each other out, plus there’s LAN gaming so even if they look like they’re in their own world they’re still hanging out.

The cafe provides the best opportunity to meet folk. There’s a gaming-themed menu, so I took the chance to try a Super Mario Dawg which comes with pepperoni, pesto, cooked tomatoes, and cheese. At £9 it’s not the cheapest dawg around but it’s pretty damn good, and the portion size is solid, especially with a pile of chips on the side. I can’t exactly claim the meal resembles Super Mario, although I suppose the red and green colors work, but it tastes good. Apparently, there’s still some work to be done to the menu yet and indeed at the time of writing suggestions are being taken for new items.

Regardless, with in-house food, comfy chairs and games everywhere it’s pretty clear the owners want it to be somewhere you can spend a happy day in. In fact just I was finishing writing this Engage was granted an alcohol license, so I’m looking forward to some drunken Rocket League tournaments. I mean c’mon, beer and some LAN gaming are the perfect marriage.

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Speaking of which a big part of the community-building effort that Engage is doing stems from the in-house tournaments and competitions that are regularly held and that seem to draw in a lot of people looking to prove their skills or just have a laugh. The venue’s tournaments are almost always filled with eager gamers. There’s dedicated Fifa and Street Fighter nights every week, and bonus tournaments being held consistently. And if you want some monetary incentive to kick digital ass then prizes are awarded based on the total of entry fee costs.

In the end I spent several hours just hanging out at Engage, chatting to the staff and the various people who came in to play and had a brilliant time. It’s so nice to have a physical place to meet other gamers, a place that defies the media’s constant insistence that gamers are anti-social. Turns out, like most humans, we do appreciate some company from time to time, and when you can fulfill that desire for company while playing games, drinking some beer and having a good meal…well, that’s just a bonus. Engage aren’t the first to do something like this, but they are the forefront of this new trend and are eager to build a thriving community around our glorious gaming hobby. And if they keep doing what they’re doing, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t succeed.

Below you’ll find an interview with the owner of Engage (Andrew) and his right-hand-partner-in-crime, Matt (Pictured)

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We’ll start nice and simple. Names?
Matt Sandon: My name is Matt Sandon

What do you do here?
Matt Sandon: I’m between marketing and a bit of events I guess as well.

A bit of everything?
Matt Sandon: Yes, we’ll go with digital marketing, that’s probably the official title.

And yourself?
Andrew Buchan: Andrew Buchan, I’m the owner of Engage.

Awesome. So to start off I assume you two are gamers?
Matt Sandon: Yes.

Tell us a bit about your history then, what are you playing at the moment?
Matt Sandon: Rocket League is my game of choice.

Good choice. I haven’t picked up that in a while after getting whooped at it.
Matt Sandon: I would get whooped at it as well but I really enjoy it. It’s good fun. It’s a fun game to hold on to.

I take it you’re a bit of a Rocket League fan, too, Andrew?
Andrew Buchan: A little bit, I  mean Call of Duty was my preference, a bit of FIFA as well.

If you can generally summarise what this place is, what would you say?
Andrew Buchan: For me, this is a computer gaming and e-sports entertainment venue. We’re trying to do it a bit different from just being purely gaming, e-sports but more about entertainment for all. Essentially catering for the gamers but also for our mainstream audience, families, young children as well coming through into gaming and we offer the food and drink as well. So trying to cater to the hospitality side of the market as well.

Awesome. How did this place come to be? How did you get started with this?
Andrew Buchan: I can probably start with that one. So I had an idea about a venue for e-sports, I’ve been playing with my kids a lot and just playing with other people and it was just there seemed to be a lack in the market for somewhere you can go and essentially socialise and do the gaming as well. I worked with Elevator UK, it’s an entrepreneurial social enterprise to form the plan and work with them and find the venue and then work with Matt and these guys to create the space and get it up and running.

Excellent. I take it you just managed to get roped in along the way, did you? (gesturing to Matt)
Matt Sandon: Yes, so I was in a presentation of RGU and Klameda from Elevator UK heard Andrew’s work and she was there, she kind of put us together.

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How have you been doing so far in terms of response, been busy?
Andrew Buchan: Yes, the feedback has been really, really good. I mean, it’s early doors, we’re only a couple of weeks in but everyone is loving the space. The set up, the cafe, that sort of thing. VR is really popular as well.

I can imagine.
Andrew Buchan: Families enjoying, I guess, the console gaming that they can do together and then we started doing the events now, so FIFA, Rocket League competitions. We’ve done really well, we had good attendance at those.

Can you tell us a bit in terms of the set up you’ve actually got here, consoles, PC specs, that sort of things, the geeky stuff?
Matt Sandon: So we’ve got at the moment four PS4s, two of which are hooked into racing cockpits provided from our sponsor. Some [GTM Mega 00:03:35] guys. We’ve got three XBOX 1s as well, so that’s the console kit up at the moment. Our HTC Vive is what we use for our VR stuff in high and it’s in demand at the moment, a lot of guys want to get their hands on that. So lots of people come in there and use it. Then with our PCs we’ve got 22 at the moment, most of which are i5s, 600 gig RAM and provided from Box UK and also those guys custom build some together for us.

Generally speaking what’s been the biggest challenge of getting something like this actually set up and working?
Andrew Buchan: Yes, I suppose obviously just finding the space and getting that ready and then we’re now up and running, it’s just working with the city and getting the message out there that the venue is around and getting really good feedback from people when they come in here but we just need to get the message out there. Get into the schools and the families and that sort of thing. We’re looking to do a coding clubs, specific coding clubs around making computer games, not just coding. Then engaging with other charities and that, maybe special needs, autistic or kids with autism and that sort of thing. They all love gaming and get them involved as well. We just want to get this place known. Aberdeen is somewhere you can come and really enjoy your gaming or if you want to get into gaming to come along and get started.

Obviously, you’ve got a good position just off Union Street as well.
Matt Sandon: Because we’re so central and we’re also really close to three of the big schools in Aberdeen, the school market is something we’re going to try and tap into. Through the summer holidays it’s been good to see them coming in but also when they go back to school, between 4:00 and 6:00 would be our afterschool club.

Matt Sandon: Yes, so the guys can come in here after school and meet up with their pals.

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Absolutely makes sense to target them, yes. Next one, a bit of a money one, this one, how did you guys come up with pricing, because obviously it must have been difficult to convince money to pay money to come and play somewhere else? Was it quite difficult to settle on a price?
Andrew Buchan: I think the price is what the market will pay for the entertainment. We’re still cheaper than cinema, we’re cheaper than any other, cheaper than one drink, to come in and half an hour of entertainment.

I can confirm that I was actually just at the cinema before I came here, it’s pricey these days.
Andrew Buchan: Where we’re pitching ourselves is as other entertainment venues, other alternatives. We’ve got membership options as well which you can help you reduce the price as well. If you come in a lot we’ve got discounts on food and that sort of thing and the more hours you buy the cheaper it gets, that sort of thing as well.

Excellent.
Matt Sandon: I think feedback on price so far by most people has been really positive.Yes, especially with VR set up and race consoles, those guys are happy. We didn’t charge per person on the consoles which has been really good. So you get a group of, like, three or four guys coming in and they want to play FIFA together, it’s the same price as if one of them came in. So you can split the cost between a group of you and it’s even more attractive.

How are you planning to lure people out of their homes, because it’s got to be tempting to sit at home and use your own console instead of coming somewhere?
Andrew Buchan: I think the competitions, the events are the key for the more hard core gamers. We’ve had a really good response from FIFA and the Rocket League and we’re going to grow that as well. Then I think as well as doing single competitions we’ve been trying to run some leagues in certain games.  So we’ll start by just having the events and getting people, singles in and then we’ll see if we can start to build up teams that can then create teams and maybe like a league set up, come in and play one game every week against a different team. Then three or four would go into, sort of, a league final and that sort of thing.

Matt Sandon: Again just dropping back to the school side of things, so some of the guys who were in here the other week, I was speaking to about doing interschool competitions. So pitching, like, a grammar school team versus another school team and that was really popular, that idea.
I like that idea, it sounds quite good. On that topic are you guys hoping to make some home-grown talent that’s going to be heading out competing or are we going to see a branded team maybe down the line?
Matt Sandon: Further down the line for sure.

Thinking about it?
Andrew Buchan: Yes, that would be part of the bigger plan, that would be a fantastic opportunity but we’ll just start at the grassroots. I think that’s where we want to start. I think you’ve got your professional e-sports teams and then you’ve got people at home. I think to fill the gap so there’s somewhere to go for Sunday league football esque gamers. They’ve got some space to play socially.

Generally speaking, despite how mainstream gaming is now, there is still a stigma about us being very antisocial, with places like this do you think it helps to get people together to prove that no, gamers can actually be social people?
Matt Sandon: Yes, that’s the foundation of the idea really is to get people out more, instead of staying at home playing games and in here speaking to one another and watching life streams up on the TV that we’ve got here as well. Guys coming in and watching the [Audio glitch] or those internationals. So yes, getting people integrating within their own communities and not necessarily online, but face to face.
Interviewer: Again, that’s where the competitions and tournaments, of course, come in there.

Andrew Buchan: So we got our set up over there with the two screens. So we want our customers to come in and then start streaming through our own Twitch channel with streaming. If they’re coming in just to play and we’re like do you want to stream it as well and we’ll let them stream. So any customer that wants to come in and wants to stream it can get up and running and stream through our channel so that’s what we’re looking to do.

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How has the response to that been so far? You found a lot of people interested in doing it?
Andrew Buchan: Yes, that’s been good, but we haven’t properly launched for our customers yet, so watch this space for that, we tend to essentially stream all day if we can with our customers.
It’s a good idea, I quite like that.
Matt Sandon: There are also guys out there who are probably playing games right now and watch a lot of streams, but don’t necessarily know how to set up their own one or they want to get on to Twitch but they’re not sure how to do it. So if we can provide a little bit of a platform for them to springboard their way on to Twitch to start off with and then get a little bit of a following on our one. Then kind of go from there.
Smart thinking.  We’ll change up a bit because I can’t help but notice the lovely café back there. Was food something you guys were always thinking about doing right from the start?
Andrew Buchan: Yes, I think when you’re in a venue like this for a long period of time you want to make sure you’ve got food and drink as well. I think looking at family entertainment and that sort of thing you need to be able to offer that s well. We kind of theme the menu around the gaming.
I did notice that.
Andrew Buchan: I think we still got some work to do there but I think it’s a great menu. Everyone is like loving the portions, loving the ideas and the different choices and that sort of thing. Food works really well and I think it works well with the rest of the offering here.

You can’t go wrong with gaming and food, you really can’t. Speaking of it actually, did you guys ever consider turning this into a bar at the same time or was that not something you’re interested in trying to do? (Note: since this interview Engage has gotten a licsense to serve alcohol.)
Andrew Buchan: Yes, sure, essentially we will have a license. We’ll get that around the end of the month. We’re not serving drinks, the venue does have a license but we’re not serving drinks at the moment because they’re changing use and we need to work with the license board and make sure that we’re ticking all the boxes. So essentially we will have a license by the end of the month.

I’m really looking forward to some drunk streaming which will be hilarious. I assume at this point you obviously are just going to be focusing on establishing yourselves but what are your future plans?
Andrew Buchan: I think we want to cement ourselves in Aberdeen with the community. I think it really is about community engagement that we’re looking to create this space. I think this space is not just a gaming venue, it’s that social community aspect that we’re really looking. There’s socialising out with playing, talking about the playing, that’s really where we’re pitching ourselves when we establish ourselves as key venue in Aberdeen and we’ll see if we can make the model work here and then yes, maybe we can go elsewhere.

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Anything you’d like to add to that, Matt? Do you think you’ve covered most of that?
Matt Sandon: Yes, Andrew covered most of it there. I think we want to be able to allow guys to be creative whilst they’re here as well. So content creation is quite important for us. We want to be sharing our own members and our own customers. We want them to be creating content and that then goes on to our own website and on to our YouTube channel pages. Not only do we get a local following from the Aberdeen community but we also then reach that online community with support from them.

The last one, this is a bit of a personal one, I’m also a bit of a board game fiend, I can see some gaming going on over there, board games is it going to happen, any thoughts?
Andrew Buchan: We want it to happen. We want it to be part of the offering, we got the space here. I think the whole gaming stuff needs something to encourage this space.

I am going to hold you to this.
Matt Sandon: The group that are in just now they come in and they’ve been in every Sunday for the past three weeks, so they’ve just cement themselves as regulars. They just come in, but doing it more of a structure is on the cards.

That sounds great because there’s it’s coming right off the round again lately. It’s been huge. I think we covered most of it. Is there anything you’d like to talk about before we finish up?
Andrew Buchan: I think part of our plan is that we want to do some retail here as well, since we have the space. I’m not quite sure what that is, maybe high end gaming kit that you can buy online but obviously you get the chance to come in and try it. We got Zowie coming in at the end of the month to show us some of their latest gear, so that’s part of what we would like to do some retail side as well.

That looks like a big step for the future. Anything you’d like to add there, Matt?
Matt Sandon: I think game launches are going to become quite important for us. We had a games developer, just an indie games development company, in the other week talking about being able to do a bit of testing here and a launch night. So if they were to release a new game they want to get some feedback from our customers as well first of all.

I assume you’ll be aiming to maybe talk to some of the larger developers in time as well about getting possibly advanced copies?
Andrew Buchan: For sure.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, guys.

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