The space is also the home of a live-audience and live-streamed gaming show, Gaming Under the Influence. Every Friday evening, a crowd gathers here for a night of free entertainment, free gaming and free beer.
In a creaky, old warehouse on a quiet industrial edge of Lincoln Park lies a vibrant and creatively constructed studio, bar and gaming space.
That’s right, Ale Syndicate provides free craft beer for everyone attending the show. Three contestants battle it out in a series of alcohol fueled competitive computer game rounds on the cage-match gaming stage, surrounded by a live audience and a virtual audience watching the livestream on the GUI show’s website. Audiences watching online can interact with the show by using the Hotbox polling tool on the website to suggest ideas and vote for contestants to do extra challenges, such as gaming blindfolded, extra drinks or gaming with nerf guns, to up the ante. The show has three five-minute non-stop rounds, with each round using a different game. The three contestants go head to head, and each round begins with a beer chug. The most exciting part of the show is when piles of ping pong balls unexpectedly cascade down from the ceiling on top of the contestants’ heads and then spill out in front of the audience. You can show your preference for a contestant by hurling these little balls at their opponent.
The show is presented by a dynamic duo: Jared Hoffa as show host and Kevin Fair as the show’s charismatic play-by-play commentator. Hoffa also works as a producer and editor on Channel 7’s Windy City Live and has 10 years of experience working in the television industry. Although this pioneering, multi-media, interactive livestream drinking and gaming show is a totally different beast than traditional television shows, the knowledge and experience is what enables Hoffa to manage and produce the GUI show to such a high and professional quality.
CUSP Magazine met with Hoffa to learn more about the story behind the show and the changes seen throughout both the market and culture surrounding gaming worldwide.
Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Gaming under the influence
CUSP Magazine: Can you begin by giving us a quick description of what Gaming Under the Influence is? What does the show offer to current and potential audiences and contestants?
Jared Hoffa: It’s a take on eSports, but for the mass audience. The idea is: let’s introduce a whole bunch of people to the idea of playing video games competitively but fun, and on top of that, to allow the audience online to interact with that show. It’s something that’s never been done to this capacity and with the production quality of what we’re doing. There’s a lot of other people who broadcast games online and on YouTube, etc., but they’re typically sitting in a computer chair streaming a game and people message. This is full TV production quality, and we broadcast live so people interact. I like to call us the middleman between someone who knows nothing about gaming and the full-blown eSports of South Korea.
CM: What inspired the idea for the show? How did the idea develop and come together after the initial inspiration?
JH: Firstly, the irony being that I worked in TV for so long, I hate television. The way television is rated, I hate the technology behind it. It’s archaic. It’s a mainframe computer in a world where we have smart phones. They’re not budging with what’s happening in the world. You and I, we’re on our phones, we know what we like, computers know what we like, the sites know what we like. TV is kind of like this old grandpa sitting in a chair. I originally built the idea of a live-streaming, interactive show just on the concept of, “Well, I can do better than what TV does.” I wanted to take all of that and what I believed in and mesh it into one show. That’s the original birth of GUI. Secondly, about three years ago I went to South Korea, and I got to hang out at one of their eSports broadcasts. In South Korea, it’s the absolute largest thing on TV. I remember that they’d broadcast a game like Mario Kart on two major networks, so more people probably watch that than people watch any TV in this country. I was fascinated by what they were doing, but I knew that wasn’t going to fly in this country. People would just laugh it off. I needed a way to make it fun and interactive, and if you think games are for losers, to make it accessible. So that’s when I merged the gaming, the improv and the beer.
CM: What are the other ways in which you developed this South Korean inspired game show idea into a form that would work with American culture, as well as appeal to American audiences?
JH: American culture focuses a lot of its time on [traditional] athletes, music and movies. Even talking about gaming up until very recently was kind of taboo. It was really like, “What are you, unemployed and living in your parents’ basement?” If you look at the facts, gaming is the largest market of all of those markets combined. The average age of the game player is 31 years old. Women are the fastest growing game players, even more so than under-18s. So now there’s this huge economy that’s growing underneath the United States, and they’re laughing it off like it’s a joke. When I saw those numbers, I realized that if I don’t do this, someone’s going to, and they’re going to profit really well. So like you said, I needed a way to adapt it so that Americans could deal with it. That’s why I made the show, so people would see that you don’t have to be a gamer to understand how the show is working. You can see the score, just like you can in football. There’s a really interesting momentum happening in Chicago, which I refer to as closet gamers. In Emporium and Headquarters, they took a bar, made craft beers and allowed arcade systems. It’s interesting, because what’s happening is it’s becoming a couples night out. People after a nine-to-five, 40-hour week are going and playing these games. These aren’t what society in America would call gamers. These are people who have really good incomes, stockbrokers, people in business … but they’re all going to Headquarters, because it’s a non-intimidating environment. They can play games without being labeled a gamer. That’s how we have to do it here, because unfortunately that label still has such a stipulation.
Jared – “I like to call us the middleman between someone who knows nothing about gaming and the full-blown eSports of South Korea.”
CM: The studio in not a typical TV show setup with a stage and rows of chairs. It looks more like the basement of a bar. How does this affect the show’s dynamic and the experience of the audience members present?
JH: The funny thing is, I designed this whole studio in virtual reality before I ever designed it in real life. I work in a show everyday where people sit in the audience, and people clap when they’re told to clap. It’s very mommy-friendly and on at 11 a.m., and that’s great, but that’s not what this is. This is a place where you come and you are absorbed in it. You’re interacting, like at a bar. There’s game systems and TVs set up. You’re going to get drinks at the bar, you’re going to be excited about being here. It’s its own environment. I built this because this is something I wanted, and no one was doing it. We have a DJ playing music. You come in and you’ll see it, people are in the moment. That’s what I was going for. I wasn’t going for a traditional TV show. We wanted to create an urban look. The graffiti art you see on the walls here was done by local Chicago artists.
CM: Tell us about how you and Kevin Fair met and how your partnership working together on this show came about?
JH: One of the first events I did, I was working on something else with live stream and gaming, and he was at the event five years ago. He had seen that we were live streaming stuff, and he gave me a call, or emailed me, and said, “Hey, if you’re interested in working together let me know, I run this event called I Play Games. I’d love to work with you, because you seem to really know what’s going on.” This was 2010, so PewDiePie is no one, he doesn’t even exist yet. So we talked and I ended up hosting one of his events, livestreaming it. I think as a joke, but he started commentating about his buddies playing a game in a bar, and I was broadcasting it live for him. And I thought,” Wow, this guy has a really interesting voice. He’s really good at doing this play-by-play.” We stayed in touch and did the first GUI at one of the bars, not here. I reached out to him. I said, “I know you have this gift with this play-by-play. Are you interested at all in doing this play-by-play for GUI?” He said, “Absolutely.” That’s how it started. He’s been stuck with me ever since. What I call him is “a golden voice.” He really has a talent. He’s lucky, because he has it naturally. He has had no training. He’s very witty, we have a really good chemistry on the show. He’s been a blessing and a huge supporter of the show. I really need him for something like this.
CM: Have you thought about any further collaborations with other groups, companies or high profile individuals?
JH: Yeah, we’ve flown some Twitch and YouTube celebrities in before. Some of those people have really big followings, and this is a cool platform for them. We hosted other gaming groups, including the one Kevin runs. We’re very open to bringing other people and groups here. We’re really big on independent games and independent developers. One of the games you’ll see here tonight is made by a kid from DePaul, which is down the street. The other game is by Iron Galaxy, which is a Chicago-based company. We’re really big on highlighting those people, the people that need that rather than just, “Oh, it’s Halo. Great, they have 100 million dollars.” We want to showcase people who have games that no one’s ever heard of before.
CM: What is the particular brand for this show that you seek to communicate?
JH: We attract the audiences that advertisers want, that TV can’t get. So millennials, late 20s to early 30s group, male and female. You’ll also see this in the diversity of our contestants. Statistically, people our age don’t watch TV, so that’s the group that we’re attracting.
CM: To you, what is the most unique aspect of the show?
JH: I think being able to do all these things that we spoke about: the technology, the production and the interactivity. Doing it at such a low cost and effectively with less than a handful of people in the showcase. Showing that it’s not just a theory or a prototype, but it works, and in a way that I have yet to see anyone else do or even try.
CM: How well does Chicago and this neighborhood work as the location and community for your show?
JH: The location of Chicago is awesome to begin with. Here we sit between the two beercades, Emporium and Headquarters, both just a half mile away. And less than a half mile down is DePaul University. I’ve looked at a lot of places and picked the one to be ideal because of location. It absolutely plays a role.
If you’re itching to compete, get in there and experience the night from center stage, or center cage rather. Contact GUI before the show and volunteer. Come with a group of friends and arrive early to have a drink and settle in before the live competition begins. Stand right in front of gaming battle cage and feel free to be boisterous. Throw loose ping pong balls at the contestants to mix things up and keep them on their toes. Be sure to stay and hang out post-show to mingle, play and dance to the rhythm of the GUI DJ. There’s plenty of old school games and newer favorites like Mario Kart lining the walls of the room that you can play to your hearts content before and after the show.
The success of the GUI show is in its accessibility. It offers an opportunity to play competitively without needing gaming experience. It’s not at all niche or elitist. Men and women, avid enthusiasts and gaming virgins alike, can equally enjoy the night at this vibrant warehouse studio. There’s something here for everyone. Hoffa, Fair and their team do a great job in creating a relaxed and social urban environment for party and play. Free tickets for the show each Friday can be found through the GUI site. So, are you game?
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