The Agua Caliente Casinos have long leaned into esports to attract Millennials and new customers to their properties and its Rancho Mirage resort will host the Casino Esport Conference March 19-21.
The 2024 CEC Live, founded by brothers Ben and Ari Fox, integrates esports, virtual and augmented reality, table games, and new forms of entertainment. It will feature keynote speakers from the worlds of esports, casino gaming, and technology. There will also be a variety of workshops, panels, and networking opportunities.
The selection of Agua Caliente Casinos as the host shows the role that esports can play in generating more customers and revenue for properties.
“At Caliente, we know that we can’t be closed-minded to new things when they come. When we had the opportunity to host weekly esports, we jumped on it,” said David Heath, senior vice president and assistant general manager for Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage. “The Millennials should be our target group going forward, because they’re young gamers. Gamers turn into slot players and slot players turn into casino players. It just makes sense.”
Prior to the pandemic, Agua Caliente Casinos hosted esports events at Rancho Mirage before taking a break when gatherings were limited. As restrictions waned, they moved the weekly tournaments to Cathedral City, Caliente’s newest property, to again bring in the younger demographic, said Pearl Aguinaldo, senior director of marketing for Agua Caliente Casinos.
Agua Caliente holds weekly esports tournaments in its 360 Sports restaurant and bar, with its giant wraparound screens. When the evening restaurant crowd disperses, esports players register at 8 p.m. for the 9 p.m. tournaments.
The casino holds different bracket tournaments with Super Smash Bros, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter. Those eliminated during the main brackets can participate in side tournaments, as a way to keep them on property and make their trip worthwhile, Aguinaldo said.
Agua Caliente executives attended and participated in the CEC when it was hosted in Las Vegas, with COO Saverio Scheri serving as a keynote speaker in 2022.
“When Ben and Ari brought to us the opportunity to host CEC Live and be their West Coast partner this year, we jumped at the chance, because we have been a big supporter of the esports community,” Aguinaldo said. “Organically growing that demographic by being part of the community and being authentic with the different programming that we do, we thought it would be great.”
On March 20, the conference will take a field trip to Agua Caliente Cathedral City where attendees can see and participate in an esports tournament it. The three properties are 15-minute drives from one another.
Heath said the hosting of esports tournaments is a great way to introduce Millennials to tribal casinos.
The weekly tournaments attract between 80 and 120 players. Prior to the pandemic, Agua Caliente was attracting more than 200 to its weekly tournaments.
“We’re getting that clientele back week by week,” Heath said. “The pandemic took the momentum, but like everything else, we’re rebuilding. It’s still a good turnout, especially with the prizes we give away, but it’s definitely building.”
Aguinaldo said hosting the tournaments have increased spending on food and beverage and esports players return to the property casino games as well.
“We’re introducing a new way to engage with esports tournaments through our free-to-play platform,” Aguinaldo said. “We wanted to create a promotion that tracks the esports community and allows them to guess who’ll win for the night and take the championship. Prizes are based on the number of correct guesses. To redeem the prizes — retail gift cards, food and beverage gift certificates, or free play — they have to become a club member. Then we have a way to track all their play and we can assess return on investment and growth of the participants at the event as well as on the casino floor.”
As for what other tribes are doing, Aguinaldo said Agua Caliente is leading the way. Some tribes take part in panels, but within their competitive landscape, they haven’t seen anyone take on this level of commitment with esports, she said.
“We definitely look at it as an investment in our future,” Heath said. “Esports isn’t going away. So we definitely want to get the word out that we’re here and have attendees learn more about our Native American casinos,” Health added. “We just opened a huge museum in the Palm Springs area. If they come in for the conference, maybe they’ll check out our museum and spa.”
Ben Fox is excited to showcase Agua Caliente’s progressive approach to this emerging market at his brother and his event.
The CEC aims to revolutionize the traditional casino experience by catering to the expectations and desires of the Millennial and Gen Z generations, Fox said. “Recognizing the evolving demographics and technological advancements, CEC Live and its partners are creating extraordinary environments that entice customers to step away from the comfort of their homes.”
The event offers attendees the opportunity to engage with cutting-edge experiences and showcases the fusion of esports and casino entertainment. Esports continues to grow; the audience of more than 500 million fans worldwide is expected to grow 20% by the end of this year. Fox estimates 2.8 billion casual gamers worldwide.
CEC speakers and panelists include Victor Rocha, chairman of the Indian Gaming Association annual tradeshow and conference; Ken Rohman, chief marketing officer at Wind Creek Hospitality; Sebastian Ross, senior policy counsel at the Nevada Gaming Control Board; Seth Schorr, chairman of the Downtown Grand in Las Vegas and CEO of Fifth Street Gaming; Sherine Ebadi, a former FBI special agent and managing director of forensic investigations and intelligence practice at Kroll; Mike Darley, CEO of Next Gaming; Jan Jones Blackhurst, executive director of the UNLV Blackfire Leadership Initiative and member of the Caesars Entertainment board of directors; Alex Igelman, CEO of Esports Entertainment Group; and Skilliz CEO Andrew Paradise.
The agenda will consist of such topics as be discussing the current and future states of land-based tribal and commercial casinos; integrating esports into gaming venues; tribal views on igaming and sports wagering; how esports can help tribal and other casinos; how casinos integrate artificial intelligence; when virtual and augmented reality technology will be more prevalent in the gambling industry; elevating casino cyber security; what metaverse holds for the future; blockchain technology; simulations to launch in casinos; immersive experiences as a revenue stream for casinos; what Millennials and Gen Z think about casinos; influencers and social media in casinos; the future of esports; and skill-based gaming’s place in casinos.