A Gamer’s Retreat Spreading Across the UK – Belong Gaming

By Shaan Khan

Public gaming always felt like a wasteland of broken-down towns that live on the fringe of the city metropolis of a sector—digital household gaming.

Potential & opportunity could be out there with the right foresight, innovation, and push from investors.

Fortunately, through several acquisitions, a fresh yet oddly nostalgic service from Belong Gaming has won over its investors and is primed for a UK national takeover to bring life…or perhaps, revolutionise public gaming?

Belong Gaming – A Town Called “Hope”

Unfortunately, the town I hail from, “Scunthorpe”, is the antithesis of hope based on the news or the local gossip you come by. You’re led to believe its name would be “drear” or “gloom” with all the businesses closing down these past several years.

Despite the word “hope” being one of the last to roll off a local’s tongue, businesses such as Sports Direct saw an opportunity to experiment with a niche service for the growing market of Gaming—a strategic move that has instilled town members like myself with hope.

Belong Gaming & GAME operate on the top floor of Sports Direct in the Scunthorpe Town Centre.

So yeah, it’s kind of a trip exploring Sports Direct that hosts multiple companies under one building.

In fact, this is visualised stepping into the store. I expected just to find a range of sports gear like boxing gloves or golf clubs, but there was so much more; an endless array of shoe & clothing brands to browse, from designer, to smart or casual and sporty. You might as well call this place a mini shopping mall!

Then you reach the Gaming corner and notice all the tech & toys being sold by GAME that is eye candy to your average nerd thanks to the variety of cultural memorabilia on display. Still, the real eye-catcher here is the subtle yet oddly intensified, dim-lit gateway of the Belong Gaming entrance and its glowing LED lights resonating off floors, desktops, keyboards and more.

Apart from the alluring dark lighting with its contrasting effect of vibrant glows, the entrance of Belong Gaming also is comprised of an eye-opening selection of snacks as broad as the brand collection in Sports Direct! It’s all about variety with them. Oh, & I can’t forget the slushy machine!

I was made to feel like I’m about to enter a cinema, to purchase my snacks and head into my screening! Well, close. You can purchase your snacks & ticket and head to somewhere dark and secluded, but as any detective in a conspicuous place would say—what really is going on here?

The “Somewhat Hidden” Operation

According to Belong Gaming’s website, they host & operate a social space for gamers to play video games on equipment all provided by Belong Gaming at no extra cost of the £3 ticket price for one hour of use (£5 at peak hours, typically on weekends). They call these spaces “gaming arenas”.

In my opinion, it’s way more than what the title of the spaces suggests. Yes, the branding shouts “arena” since multiplayer competitive gaming is at the core of Belong Gaming’s image in order to attract the popular esports crowd. But features for the overlooked audiences are what I find the most striking—compelling me to write about them in the first place!

The Past

My perception of public gaming centres these past two decades is simple; unhygienic, distracting, noisy, clammy, and for the second time with a tad more emphasis—unapologetically unhygienic.

They never quite reached the peaks of mainstream popularity like arcade gaming in the 80s which albeit was mandatory for most people who didn’t have access to consoles or PCs back then.

But once the hardware became more accessible, people rightfully wanted to game from home in their own pits of mess & uncleanliness! Well, each to their own, right?

Gaming has always been hands-on unlike the cinemas & live theatres, which are culturally iconic in public entertainment.

Now, what if I told you the gaming arena’s from Belong Gaming put Cineworld & ODEON cinemas to shame in terms of cleanliness, immersive experience & quality of service?

Especially at a time of a global pandemic, you’d expect such an idea to be buried deeper into the shadows of COVID-19 compared to any shops & theatres. But the polarising virus did the opposite; it motivated Belong Gaming to provide a service with impeccable cleanliness at its centre of business.

The cultural stigmatism of public gaming is being dismantled & potentially earning the service of Belong Gaming with the honorary title of “clean gaming” for all the care gifted to the gaming spaces—rivalling a Sunday Household Cleaning Spree from the whole family!

Well, from my experience, the gaming arena in Scunthorpe certainly does just that—smashing my pre-conceptions of public gaming centres like Bruce Lee obliterating a Wing Chun dummy.

The Word-for-Word Experience

Me & my accompanying mother were mesmerised by the enticing display of the entrance. Then our attentions were pleasantly hooked onto the information screens & message notes that read clear & informatively. There too, was a personable leader board listing gamers & teams that take part in competitions at the arena, highlighting the premise of fun and exuberance that exists within this space.

Yet, it wasn’t enough to strike my confidence that the arena was a space for a non-competitive gamer like myself. Thankfully, through impressively accommodating customer service from a staff member, I was given a warm welcoming and a detailed breakdown of the place and what it offers to a gamer like myself.

The staff member truly took me by surprise when he told me that all video games at the GAME store are available to play at the arena at no extra cost of the ticket price. Whether it’s the latest releases or indie games that can be downloaded online; Belong Gaming & GAME have you covered. No gaming centre I visited growing up comes close to such a varied selection. Back then, it would be the same old rotation of Halo or some arena shooter like Unreal Tournament.

The conversation was perfectly catered around my preferences to which he probed from me; it’s akin to conversing with a salesperson at a Mercedes garage, and this staff member knew all too well about his modern gaming! As would the car salesperson know everything about them brilliant AMGs.

Then came the exceptional standards of service presented to me. I was given a tour of the arena, saw all the high-end hardware & peripherals established at all 24 stations. A gamer can have a station entirely to themself; they even have the latest next-gen consoles available at most of them!

Everything looked brand-spanking new with not a gristle of litter or grime to bestow upon my eyes. The tame atmosphere on an off-peak weekday played into my angst to try out a PS5 for the first time as I had no distractions to take my eyes away from its spaceship-looking design—a console immensely difficult to get your hands on thanks to the whole scalper debacle & limited production supply.

To attempt me further was the screens displaying the latest & arguably first, true next-gen title that came out on the same week, exclusively on the PS5—Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.

Before I could even speak a word of my desire, the staff member knew all too well what was going on in my mind and had the perfect, pre-meditated business solution to capitalise upon the scenario.

I had been invited to a 30 min play session of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart on one of their stations in the arena, right there & then!

I gave my mum the “look” to say, I’m not passing up on this opportunity and thankfully—she was fully on board! Well, thanks to a convenient optician appointment she had to attend at the same time.

Clean Cinematic Gaming

It’s not often I sense that childlike thrill from new experiences but being firmly seated at my station on a gaming-means-business sort of leather seat called the GT Omega Chair, with glowing gadgets all around in this dark setting—one can’t help feel locked & loaded in their own cockpit of an F/A-18 Fighter Jet.

The staff member-turned-steward guided me through the process in a chill manner like how a decent friend would, opposed to an instructor with convoluted demands.

At this point, my fears of the equipment’s standards & conditions had been permeating through my mind. I was handed an over-ear headset that I thought would be low quality, greasy and belonged in an incinerator like all the others I’ve tried in my life. But oh no, these were something else; they were luxury & offered actual comfortability throughout my game time.

Then came my first hold of the DualSense controller & then I was zapped into the high-performance monitor with all its dense pixels & popping colours that do the PS5 superb justice. You could tell a lot of thought from passionate like-minded gamers went into orchestrating & picking the parts for the gaming arenas.

Once eased into the whole station, I had now entered sensory overload. I got a taste of next-gen gaming; the ray-tracing, no load screens & the haptic feedback from the DualSense.

Exclusivity was a notion felt throughout my time; that I’m playing on a system not many people own! Adding this realisation into the mix of luxury & immersion offered to me at the station—this place became more than just an arena; it was a luxury VIP lounge that costs £3 an hour to be in.

Zapping out of the screen at the end of my playtime thanks to no distractions in sight, I couldn’t help but let out the cheesiest of grins *fortunately hidden behind my mask*, but my gleaming eyes were on full display that I believed caught the staff member by surprise. But really, I think it was me responding to him a little too loud & enthusiastically than what he expected due to the noise-deafening headset I had on with the in-game menu song blaring out of them.

As I headed out of the arena, I signed up for a free GAME reward card that was topped up with £2.50 for the demo I took part in and would nicely go towards my next session at the gaming arena that I’m highly anticipating just writing this!

The Breakdown

On my way home, my mind was racing with ideas on how Belong Gaming arenas can benefit all gamers. Here they are:

Access to rare next-gen consoles

Whether you’re struggling to find the latest consoles or want to try one out yourself, then the gaming arena is where you ought to be!

Experience clean cinematic gaming

The gaming arenas are a breath of fresh air compared to most people’s home setups. There’s a whole service catered to you, and a level of excitement is felt there, akin to watching a movie at a cinema rather than your living room.

Cost-Effective

Considering next-gen, Triple-A titles like Ratchet & Clank are set to cost £70 or more; 23 hours at the gaming arena would equate to the base cost of these premium games.

With a simple Google search on video games that you want to play, you can discover how long those video games take to complete—determining if it’s cheaper to play at a Belong Gaming arena or purchase the video game itself.

In my experience, most modern games are rarely more than 20 hours long. For instance, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is estimated to take 11 hours to complete the main story—costing me £33 in total if I played the whole game at the Belong Gaming arena instead of buying the game flat-out for £70.

UPDATE: You can acquire a Belong Gaming membership that costs £5 a month & gives you a 10% discount on food as well as £1 off your hour sessions at the arena. So, my full play-through of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart within one month of sessions, would go from £33 to £27 in total with a Belong Gaming membership.

Extensive catalogue of games on a variety of platforms

New & old; indie or triple-A; The Belong Gaming arena is perfect for anyone that wants to try out an exclusive game on a console they don’t own, like for instance, in my case, Bethesda’s Starfield on the Xbox Series X out in 2022. Screw platform exclusivity.

Right now, many gamers are not even ready to take the plunge and get a next-gen console for the fact being there isn’t enough games out there to justify the over £400 cost point. So, Belong Gaming is an avenue for those type of gamers to try out one of the few & new games on the PS5 or Xbox Series X.

Points toward GAME purchases

The beauty of the Belong Gaming & GAME partnership is your time & money spent at both places will secure you reward points that go towards your next purchase at GAME or Belong Gaming.

Competitive players can win many reward points or item prizes from GAME out of their product line-up if they compete in challenges & tournaments. The whole system is reminiscent of collecting tickets from an arcade that can acquire you prizes from the reward shop, such as a stuffed animal or a slinky! Ah, the good times…are BACK!

A reason to step outside & socialise

Yes, this unironically is a point I wish to include. It’s especially important for teens impacted by being away from school throughout the pandemic who have missed out on crucial friendship building. Belong Gaming have an esports team they want gamers to trial for, so there is an emphasis to have townsfolk come along to mix, yell at each other over bad plays and all-in-all bond with like-minded folk.

A place for all gamers & ages

After writing entirely about a segment of audience that the company doesn’t highlight enough in its branding as their focus; I think it’s safe to say that the arenas can be treated as a lounge for every gamer apart from the retro ones who require ancient consoles, CRTs, or emulators. Kids are even allowed here as long as they are accompanied by an adult guardian & don’t steal people’s credit cards to input onto Fortnite for the latest skins.

To kill time

Whether you’re with a partner or a family member who want to shop for god knows how many hours at the town centre and you don’t want to mindlessly tag along, then watch the time fly-by at a gaming arena instead!

Friendly staff, snacks & slushies

…Enough said!

Now & Beyond at Belong Gaming

Ever since my trip to a Belong Gaming arena, I have the craving to go back. I envision it as a new go-to spot, somewhere I wish existed when I was a teen, to head there with my friends after school, pull into some stations, and bang out some controllers.

But from the grown-up, casual gamer perspective with adult responsibilities, my time at the arena could be summed up as therapeutic. Every aspect of the experience was catered towards my escapism; one moment, I was surrounded by shopaholics & the next, I was somewhere far away in a virtual world—the immersion & lack of distraction are ultimate selling points.

I look forward to pocketing my aesthetically pleasing black card from GAME to take with me next time and accumulate some points for quality gizmos and goods with long-term useability, unlike the gimmicky toys from arcade reward shops. The arcade DNA is well & truly alive at the arena and pulls at my nostalgia in this strange new world of cinematic gaming in the public sphere.

Will it reach the heights of arcade gaming in the 80s? How long until hygiene is no longer a priority? Or mischievous groups end up ruining the fun for everyone else? Great questions to ask & some that Belong Gaming needs to be ready to respond to.

Personally, I hope it has the success it deserves for the effort & formula they’ve got operating and gifting my town some well-needed hope. For a gamer like myself in a post-covid world plagued with scalpers, the Belong Gaming arena was a refreshment that has stayed with me throughout the week & for that, I look forward to visiting again and seeing what’s in store for gaming centres in the future.

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