The together factor30 March 2023
/ Leisure taps into our need for social connections: the rise of competitive socializing /
After years of lockdowns and social distancing, people feel more than ever the need for social contact – but not the social of social media: this is socializing in its older meaning, interacting face to face in a physical environment and creating those interpersonal connections that are the foundation of society. It is not surprising that the leisure industry is seeing a growing trend in activities that respond to this need: from miniature golf to axe-throwing, from board games to escape rooms, a swathe of offerings that bring people together and give them the right environment for socializing.
This trend has been called “social entertainment,” “socialized gaming,” or “competitive gaming,” but the most widely used term is “competitive socializing.” Some experts have tried to use these different labels to better define different sub-trends (for example, “socialized gaming” could include a food & beverage component, whereas “competitive gaming” would be more focused on the game itself); but in our view, competitive socializing can be used as an umbrella term for a variety of offers that all try and assuage the same need for socialization with some form of entertainment.
So what is competitive socializing? It is competitive entertainment with a strong social component. It is played in groups and with a slow rhythm, allowing people to talk and bond together during the game. In most cases, players take turns, allowing team members and opponents to watch and comment on the game, and this “validation” from other players is just as relevant as the results themselves. It mostly does include food, because the ability to socialize over food is one of the things that make us human.
Two other factors are worth mentioning. For one, these venues do not forget that social media exist and is relevant in our world, so there is a strong push towards good design and instagrammable spaces, to encourage people to share their picture-perfect moments on their socials. The other factor is food: as we said, food is an essential component of human socializing, but competitive socializing venues very often add more value in offering top-notch, gourmet food. What’s more, they make sure that food ordering and eating does not distract or take away people: for example they take orders through QR codes and similar platforms and deliver food directly to the game station, so that no one misses anything.
According to data by UK research company Kam Media, competitive socializing is especially appreciated by younger generations (47% of Gen Z and 60% of Millennials would like to go), but its success is widespread among friends of all ages, as it’s a popular option for spending time together in an interactive way, and ideal for families and corporate team building. Over the next few pages we’ll look in more depth at a few examples (especially the most unusual) that have popped up in London, currently one of the most ardent hotbeds of competitive socializing.
People bond over soccer since time immemorial – but how many can play? Inside the famous O2 Arena in London, TOCA Social offers what has been called “the world’s first social football entertainment concept,” which allows everyone to have fun with the game, whether they can kick a ball or not.
The venue boasts 17 immersive pitches, 3 world-class bars, 2 selfie booths, and more. But it’s the gameplay that makes the difference and makes TOCA Social into a place where everyone can get involved in the action, not just the hardcore football fans. BAFTA-winning game studio Preloaded developed a series of low-pressure football games that are fun and intuitive: players can compete at splitting atoms, knocking high-value targets away, or smashing a ball at their friend’s face.
On the food side, TOCA Social has gone all out, with a Michelin-trained chef, a dedicated dessert room, football-themed cocktails, and QR-code ordering. “Obviously with a competitive socializing experience, people are in the box playing games and it’s not always easy to order,” said Stephen Plumer, Director of Marketing at TOCA Social. “Taking that pain point away will hopefully increase our F&B revenue and make ordering as easy as possible for our guests.”
Recent years have seen more and more sports replicated in virtual, immersive fashion. Now Clays has done the same with the Olympic sport of clay target shooting.
With 2 locations in London, Clays puts together a high-level cocktail and dining experience, with the shooting simulators developed by Trigger Group, which let players take their turn to blast virtual clay pigeons from the air while wielding re-creations of shotguns. Playing groups have semi-private spaces equipped with realistic guns, mammoth screens, and two smaller interactive screens that can be used to setup the games and to order food. The simulator also includes a multitude of different games, from a basic one that helps you get the hang of the gun and the system, to a series of different ones that you can play solo or in a team to gain points.
“The experience makes clay pigeon shooting accessible to all in a fun social environment,” said a reviewer on Thrill Nation. “I was pleasantly surprised by the choice of games which really kept it fresh. It really allowed for our competitive sides to come out!”
Combining simulator racing and socializing? The idea may seem bizarre, but that’s exactly what the F1 Arcade brand has done, with considerable success. Their first venue, opened in the heart of London in November 2022, offers 60 simulators where customers can race on the Silverstone, Monza, Bahrain and Spa tracks.
F1 Arcade was developed by competitive socializing pioneer Adam Breeden (co-founder of Puttshack, Flight Club and Bounce), and thanks to his know-how it has plenty of appeal both for F1 (or simulator racing) fans, and for newcomers. The simulators are fully-immersive, with motion and audio-visual effects, and the gaming system allows a range of possibilities, with personal driver profiles, special competition entries, individual, team-based and all-venue racing formats, and different modes for all ages and abilities. And should the driving be too much, there’s plenty to enjoy as a spectator, too.
“The spectator experience is so profound that when you’re not racing, there’s a reason to be interested and engaged,” said Breeden in an interview with The Independent. And he added: “There’s something about racing which trumps anything I’ve done yet – it speaks to a core human instinct of competitiveness to be the fastest.”
Opened on Canary Wharf in October 2022, Fairgame brings something new to competitive socializing: an immersive funfair concept.
The massive space, marked by a giant yellow rubber duck, offers a series of reinvented funfair games (like Phoney Island, which is a new take on shooting ducks, and Circus Freak, where contestants try to accurately aim a water gun to raise a clown’s head faster than their opponents), all hooked up to innovative RFID wristband tech and linked to an app to track gamers’ scores. The venue is a trip down nostalgia lane, combined with a chance to face-off against friends, family or coworkers, for prizes (including huge teddies) and bragging rights. The food here includes London’s best street food vendors, as well as some funfair-themed offerings, such as prosecco-infused candyfloss, boozy sweets and toffee apples.
“When I was a little kid, I used to love going to the funfair. The games were magical,” said Richard Hilton, CEO of the venue. “When you transition to being a parent yourself […] there’s still something magical about the games – you can’t help but love playing them and that’s what I want people to feel, here in Canary Wharf.” And he added: “We’ve genuinely reinvented [the games]. Every game has tech in it so people will be playing really slick games and competing. We incentivise people with the bears, but really it’s the joy of beating the people you’re with that you’re playing for.”
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