Hold on to your popcorn: An Imax location near you could soon be beaming live competitive video-game action onto its big screens.
Imax has inked a partnership with Vindex (vindex.gg), an esports infrastructure startup formed by Major League Gaming co-founders Mike Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni, under which Vindex will create esports events and experiences exclusively for Imax theaters worldwide.
For now, the companies aren’t providing details about what games or esports events will be featured in Imax’s big-screen venues (much less what the ticket prices may be). The parties are aiming to kick things off in the first half of 2020. Under the pact, Vindex expects to broadcast esports content and events across Imax’s worldwide network through its newly launched Vindex Studios division, which is working with esports publishers and leagues.
“Coming off our biggest year ever at the box office, it’s clear that audiences around the world see Imax as a go-to destination for fandom, community and the most immersive entertainment experiences,” Imax CEO Rich Gelfond said in announcing the Vindex deal. “We’ve long seen the opportunity to bring the explosive world of esports to our platform and we’re excited to work with proven innovators like Mike, Sundance and the Vindex team to create entirely new experiences for fans worldwide.”
More broadly, the Vindex deal is part if Imax’s ongoing experimentation with new kinds of content on its screens, with the aim of driving utilization of its theater network during non-peak periods. For example, last October, Kanye’s West “Jesus Is King” debuted in Imax theaters for a limited one-week run and took in more than $1 million on opening weekend.
Imax operates over 1,500 screens in 81 countries, and “that’s really attractive to esports in particular because it’s a booming business but still a growing business,” said Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment. “Movies are still our bread and butter but we see tons of opportunities that are interesting… Our brand is about deep fandom, and creating connection and community, and we’re excited about seeing how that extends to esports.”
There may indeed be audiences hungry to see video-game battles play out on an Imax screen. But not all of Imax’s bets on new content formats have paid off: The company shut down its virtual-reality entertainment business, closing its last VR centers in early 2019, less than two years after launching the initiative.
Sepso co-founded MLG back in 2002, and engineered its sale to Activision Blizzard in 2016. He remained with Activision Blizzard until the fall of 2018 before leaving to co-found Vindex. Sepso said he began talking two years ago with Imax’s Gelfond about the concept of bringing esports to its theaters.
“Esports has never before had access to the massive reach of the Imax platform,” said Sepso. “Companies and leagues have tried before to do theatrical distribution [of esports] but you can’t control the end experience. The difference with Imax is that it’s always the most premium experience you can get.”
Sepso added that for esports audiences, there’s an excitement to watching events in a group just as there is with traditional sports: “It’s great to watch by yourself — but it’s a way better experience to watch with hundreds of other fans.”
In October 2019, Sepso and DiGiovanni announced the formation of Vindex (which means “champion” in Latin) along with Bryan Binder and Jason Garmise, a pair of financial-tech entrepreneurs and private investors. The startup says it raised initial funding of $60 million from investors including Stonecutter Ventures; Steve Bornstein, former CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network (who worked with Sepso at Activision on the launch of its esports division); and Joel Greenblatt, founder of Gotham Asset Management.
Vindex, based in New York, has acquired two esports service providers: Columbus, Ohio-based Esports Engine, co-founded by industry veteran Adam Apicella, and esports production firm NGE, based in Burbank, Calif. Those companies have worked extensively with video-game publishers and gaming leagues, and both will be part of creating and distributing esports content to Imax theaters.