Iowa City is getting its first gaming cafe

Esport Iowa City will open in late June. — photo courtesy of Blake Nie

The fact electronic sports, or esports, have a real shot of making it into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a good indicator of the rising popularity and prestige of the competitive video gaming community.

That community will soon have a home in Iowa City as the area gets its first esports cafe, a type of business ubiquitous in other parts of the world, but growing slowly stateside. Esport Iowa City will open later this month at 123 E Washington St (the location previously occupied by The Den). There will a soft opening next week, during which people can try the gaming equipment for free.

The cafe is the first business venture of owner Blake Nie, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 2017. Originally from China, Nie is more than familiar with the gaming market, and is eager to bring a cafe to his new home.

“Esports business[es] are very popular in Asia, especially in China and Korea,” Nie said in an email to Little Village. “In my hometown Ningbo, there are hundreds of internet gaming cafes … Chicago is much larger than Ningbo, but there are only two internet gaming cafes in Chicago.”

“As a person who has been living in Iowa for five years, I think this city needs an internet gaming cafe, and people who love to play electronic sports but don’t have computers at home need a place to practice their skills.”

Esport Iowa City will provide high-end gaming equipment for customers who pay by the hour. — photo courtesy of Blake Nie

Nie said his business will be equipped with 50 or more high-end computers with GeForce GTX 1060 graphic cards and 144hz curved monitors — equipment many gamers cannot afford to purchase themselves. He will also have two PlayStation 4 consoles with 25-plus games, as well as two arcade game machines with more than 800 “classic games.” High-speed internet service will fuel the heavy gameplay.

Pricing is based on a “play more, save more” model: $6 for an hour in the cafe, $20 for four hours, $32 for eight hours and $50 for a full day. The cafe will be open from 1 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Esport Iowa City will not only give gamers an alternative to purchasing equipment, Nie said, but will also be a much more social experience than home gaming.

“The difference is people can share their happiness, share their victory with friends,” he said. “Play[ing] alone is not a good experience for me. I wanna show my skills to my friends. Also, for some games like PUBG [PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds], people really need teamwork. Playing together in the same place [is] good for communication.”

Games such as League of Legends, Overwatch, Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, NBA and FIFA games and Super Smash Bros. Melee are popular in both global egaming tournaments and among casual players, such as the UI’s esports club. Nie said he has been in contact with the club, which is always looking for equipment and space in which to gather. Esport Iowa City will also host tournaments.

“The competition spirit of esports is exactly the same as other traditional athletic [contests],” Nie said. “If players want to be professional, they also need [to] train a lot.”

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Expanding on the cafe concept, Nie plans to sell American and Chinese snacks and drinks, partnering with local bubble tea shops and restaurants. Guests may “simply click what they want on the computer,” Nie said, and their orders will be delivered to their table.

The first local business owner to cater directly to the gaming market, Nie is taking a gamble with Esport Iowa City. But Nie said he is happy to be a pioneer.

“I don’t expect to earn much money from this,” he said. “I open this shop because of my interests … My goal is to help the esports business in Iowa City. I hope they can find fun in my place.”