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Esports center to open in October, facilitate in-person gaming

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The Bakersfield eSports Center is taking over the former Bear Ag location on Golden State Highway near the airport.

An unassuming beige building sits on the side of Golden State Highway with a cavernous warehouse looming behind it. The building still features the signage of its previous owner, the farm equipment store Bear Ag.

But Jason Maples has it well on its way to becoming the newest gathering spot for Bakersfield’s competitive gaming community.

Maples, proprietor of a local Papa John’s Pizza, hopes to unveil the Bakersfield eSports Center at 7104 Golden State Highway on Oct. 1. He plans for the facility to contain about 40 desks with computers to facilitate video gaming, multiple virtual reality setups, tables for analog board and card games, and an “events center” in the warehouse with a stage for large-scale competition. The website is already touting weekly tournaments for Valorant and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

“There’s a need in this town for something big,” he said.

Maples, who said he’s been a manager since he was 18 or 19 years old, previously operated a local video game store and has a passion for the community: “I like the industry, I like the people that play the video games because that whole generation just keeps you young.”

Since the warehouse seats up to 250 people, the leaders of the center hope to make it available for hosting small events even beyond esports — though their main focus is on taking the primarily remote pastime of gaming and turning it into in-person entertainment.

“It’s about taking what’s usually like a stigmatized activity,” said Spencer Lawhon, who’s doing marketing for the center, “and kind of putting it in more of a structured, positive environment.”

Lawhon, who coaches esports at West High School, has led the effort to secure partnerships for the center. Maples said he’s trying to make a deal with Pepsi to provide drinks for the facility, to complement his gamer-inspired food offerings like Hot Pockets and Cup Noodles. The layout of the warehouse is also designed with sponsorship in mind, with space on either side of the stage for vendor booths — or, if the center can persuade a dealership to sponsor a Rocket League tournament, cars.

The center is also looking into charitable partnerships, such as with the Boys & Girls Clubs or CASA.

“We’re looking to partner with children’s charities, we’re looking to partner with anybody here in town that does right by the community and makes a good fit,” Lawhon said, “but then also that gives traditional businesses the opportunity to get involved in those events.”

One priority is catering to kids and teens. Even though Maples points out that a majority of the esports audience is 18-34 years old (“They might be a little offended if you called them little kids,” he said), he said safety for children has been at the forefront of his mind — for example, he sought out a foolproof lockdown program to prevent unsanctioned use of the computers at the center.

Max Bluemel, a teacher and esports coach (and former girls soccer coach) at Frontier High School, said his team members could make use of such a facility.

“We only run seasons for half the year, so the other half of the year, these kids want to still hone their skills and work on their gameplay,” he said. “So having an esports community in Bakersfield provides them the opportunity to work (year-round) on their sport, just like basketball, just like baseball, just like any other sport.”

The energy of in-person gatherings, Bluemel said, helps teams collaborate and strategize.

“When we can meet in person and do that,” he said, “it has a little bit more weight and gravity to it than just playing from home.”

The center is hoping its internet will be fully installed in time for the planned Oct. 1 opening. As soon as the first location is open, Maples said he’s going to start looking into establishing other, smaller centers, one in January or February and the other in June. The idea is to have a network of gathering places around Bakersfield with their own leagues, feeding into major programming at the Golden State Highway events center.

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.