Videogame Airport: Gameway’s inclusive, experiential vision a surprise hit
(Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series on Gameway)
Everybody loves videogames — well, 79% of American adults, anyway. Far from a niche hobby for kids, it’s a huge global industry that attracts a lot of dollars; gamers make up one in three people globally (with a reported 41% of gamers being female), while the U.S. industry is estimated at around $100 billion. Indeed, the Smithsonian famously dedicated an exhibit to videogames as an art form.
But for passionate gamer, entrepreneur and military veteran Jordan Walbridge, who has always loved videogames as art, entertainment and therapy, they have also become his daily bread and a powerful way to help people as the co-founder of Gameway, which operates videogame lounges in airports.
With previous experience including eight years in the U.S. Army, including deployment to Afghanistan during which his group was attached to the U.S. Army Special Operations Group, Walbridge also owned and operated Jezi Wear, a collegiate apparel company, for six years before owning and operating University Wrap, which provided officially licensed gift wrap, gift bags and ribbons for over 35 colleges throughout the U.S., until 2017.
It’s been a long journey that has led Gameway to grow from humble startup in 2016, despite the pandemic’s challenges to six locations nationwide (and growing) — winning a 2022 Business Performance Small Operator Award from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport along the way. Digital Signage Today first reported on Gameway in January, and reached out to Jordan Walbridge and Darryl Kuder, president at Red Dot Digital Media Inc., to learn more.
Gameway co-founders Jordan and Emma Walbridge pose with DC’s Batman and Harley Quinn along with the Master Chief from Halo.
Gameway — a disruptive model
Partnering with specialist integrators Red Dot Digital Media for digital signage and with BrightSign, a digital signage software firm, for CMS software, Gameway aims to leverage and repurpose empty retail spaces as airport retail sales continue to struggle in the post-pandemic lockdown landscape. Gameway’s videogame lounges measure in at 650- to 1,300-square-feet and feature up to 24 user stations with a mix of PC- and console-based game options.
To boost engagement with its unusual business model, Gameway designed lounges with outward-facing digital signage, including digital front-facing signage from Sony, Samsung and LG (depending on location) which in turn leverage BrightSign XT1144 media player devices to display live videogame feeds and information about the lounge; software includes the Wallboard CMS along with Brightsign BSN.Cloud software. Lounges also feature snack and drink options for the gamers.
Participating airports include William P. Hobby Airport (Houston, Texas); Charlotte Douglas International Airport Terminal E (Charlotte, North Carolina); Los Angeles International Airport Terminal 3 and Terminal 6 (Los Angeles) and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Terminal 3 and Terminal 6 (near Fort Worth, Texas).
The journey begins
The journey began when Walbridge and his wife, Emma, first saw a busy mall-based videogame venue at the mall one day.
“We came back later on to check it out,” Walbridge said. “And it was totally empty. Like the Rapture happened. All the kids were gone.” Intrigued, Walbridge and his wife began doing research, and discovered that the mall-based gaming venue concept was struggling to attract customers outside of the weekend crowd. When co-founder Emma Walbridge had the idea of airports, it was a “lightning in a bottle moment,” Walbridge remembers.
“We became completely obsessed with the idea of bringing entertainment into the airport and did a lot of research. Nobody had ever done anything like this before — not in the way that we’re doing it,” Walbridge said. “We pitched it to a whole bunch of airports, and it was Dallas Fort Worth — they had to be the first in the country to do it.”
Launching two locations at DFW in 2018, they refined the concept — beginning with consoles, starting with Xbox and later making a deal with PlayStation, they added PCs to include more gamers. Things were going smoothly — until the pandemic happened.
Making a gutsy decision to try to expand in the face of adversity, they added locations in Houston and Charlotte along with two in Los Angeles. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to be the first people in the country to do something like this, and then really expand this thing, not just domestically but potentially globally,” Walbridge said.
So, what’s the secret here? How, of all things, did videogames pave the way when countless traditional businesses struggled or folded?
True to themes from many recent interviews, the answer involves aesthetics, inclusion and a strong focus on the human element of customer experience, from the digital signage centerpieces at the entrances designed to entice new users to the comfort of the interior design, down to ergonomics of chairs and controllers and the food and beverages sold within.
Gameway has leveraged digital signage from the start to help define the brand aesthetic and intrigue passersby in airports across the nation with a blend of live gameplay streaming and branded content. The brand is considering adding programmatic advertising in future.
Making an entrance
With an estimated 10 million people walking past Gameway’s L.A. locations alone in 2023, drawing in newcomers to experience this community is key, so the Gameway team knew they needed a storefront that pops for potential customers. “We call it ‘the moonwalk,’ where they’re walking along (and) they see the gateway and they just kind of like stop… and they’re taking pictures.”
The digital signage out front plays gaming reels and can stream live gamers from within or from the online gaming community. With so much foot traffic, is digital-out-of-home a potential secondary revenue stream? It’s an interesting question for Walbridge, who did not wish to share too many details on current research. “I think that, in the very near future, you’re going to see a lot of large companies seeing the value of what we’re able to do, and how we interact with our customers, and the demographics that we reach and say, ‘Hey, this makes a lot of sense. Let’s have a conversation with them,'” he said.
For now, the storefront signage helps boost brand awareness, drawing customers inside while providing entertainment value even for passersby. “We also have TVs inside of our lounge,” Walbridge added.
Gameway started with a vision, but it required a lot of hardware and software knowhow, including the digital signage and networking elements. Finding a reliable, knowledgeable provider to provide the nuts and bolts of the vision was essential.
“BrightSign and Red Dot had a really great solution for us,” Walbridge said, explaining that designing the digital signage side, which was outside the Gameway team’s experience, required finding digital signage providers and integrators who could speak their language, understand their goals and provide an easy installation and launch, with dedicated customer service led by Red Dot president Darryl Kuder.
“Darryl is a great guy so it’s easy to work with him and his team on this stuff,” Walbridge said. “We are so happy with the whole process and looking forward to doing a whole lot more with them as we continue to expand.”
The aesthetics of inclusion
“There’s an old saying you’ve seen one airport you’ve only seen one airport — because they’re so different,” Walbridge said. This extends to each unique retail space up for rent, requiring a custom layout for each new location from the Gameway design team, led by Emma Walbridge. “But one thing that we do have that’s always the same is: the game stations are the same. The walls are always the same, the aesthetic is always the same. And then more importantly than anything else, your experience has to always be the same everywhere you go.”
Emma Walbridge was instrumental in designing the brand aesthetic, and from the start, the goal was to be inviting and inclusive of all gamers. As one example, while research indicated male customers generally showed less interest in aesthetics, it also indicated female customers tended to value aesthetics highly.
“Emma being a female gamer, she wanted Apple Store meets e-sports — and e-sports can sometimes be a dark place, right? And so, combining these two together so it’s inviting to everyone to bring in and you see the space. It’s gorgeous.”
As gamers, the co-founders knew to discard common misconceptions, such as those around age. “About 75% of our customers are 18 to 45 years old,” Walbridge said. “The business travelers now are Millennials and these are the same folks who still play video games.”
The brand also wants to invite gamers of all levels — from hardcore gamers to beginners. They even have found success converting non-gamers and anti-gamers by simply showing how much fun (and community) is to be enjoyed.
Gameway features snacks and drinks to help encourage gamers to stay as long as they wish, whether they’re signing into the cloud to boost their stats in a favorite game, or simply fueling up while they use the WiFi to answer emails.
Community, togetherness, family
Another misconception Walbridge hopes to shatter is the idea that videogames disrupt or discourage togetherness, especially within families. Walbridge says that as a gamer in his 40s, videogames form an essential way to bond with his teenage daughter.
“As a parent you want to meet them where they are,” he said. “So, sometimes it’s playing videogames. We’re linked up on the mic, and we have a great time. You’ll see a lot of this in our lounge,” he continued, arguing that the same is true in millions of other American families, in which videogames, far from disrupting or discouraging togetherness, are actually catalyzing it.
That theme of togetherness runs throughout the Gameway experience, whether it’s store design or creating spaces where gamers of all demographics and walks of life gather to enjoy a shared passion, transforming a dull wait for a flight into a moment of joy, refreshment and community — and a growing cornerstone of digital signage and marketing, creating experiences.
“We’re seeing this giant wave of people who grew up playing video games is just starting to hit and they’re looking for experience rather than a product right? What are you going to give me that’s going to heighten my experience while I’m trapped in an airport for an hour or two hours or longer. You know, no longer is it just a bar scene.”
Human touch, profits — two sides, one coin
This is all more than aesthetic hand-waving; there are serious profits when customers feel comfortable and happy.
“The typical customer spends just over an hour in Gameway — it’s about 1.1 hours,” Walbridge said. “They absolutely buy snacks and drinks while they’re in here. I would say the average ticket size is in the mid 30s that people pay, on average, when they come into Gameway. It’s a great model — people are always traveling and it’s always busy. So, it’s been a real blessing for us.”
Still, it always comes back to a respect for videogames and the way they bring people together, which Walbridge has seen through his whole life. “When you look at video games today, it’s more social than it ever has been,” he said. “Whether you’re playing somebody next to you or playing somebody on the other side of the world. You want to make sure that they feel welcomed in that community.”
“I spent eight years in the Army, and we were in Afghanistan,” he added. “What we would do is we’d link up all of our Xbox’s and play Halo, and that’s our way of having to decompress, connect and really kind of put what just happened behind us.”
People in airports feel the same need for community. “The airport is the one place, in my opinion, in the world where you can have somebody who’s having the best day of their lives… They’re so excited for the future. And then the other hand, somebody right next to them, who’s literally living their worst nightmare — somebody that they love the most has died, and they’re going to a funeral or something of that nature, right? You can only imagine what’s going on.
“So when you’re in an airport environment, it’s really touching the people to say, ‘Hey, I choose to spend my time here. I choose to unwind here. I choose to have a great time here.’ And really, when they’re able to do that, you’ll see a lot of people say: ‘Man, I’ve never had an hour slide by that fast. Thank you so much!’
“And one thing I always tell the airports is: ‘Hey, the feeling that they’re going to get when they leave Gameway — they’re going to remember it was at that airport. And that feeling is so important for people when they’re going to be making their next decision on where they’re going to fly, what layovers they’re going to have, etc.”
Part two will explore the Gameway technology in greater detail.
Photos provided by Gameway.
Co-founder Emma Walbridge designed the brand aesthetic to reflect a perfect blend between “Apple Store” and e-sports vibes.