GrandLAN Provides Downtown Alternative

October 15, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — During his interview with the Business Journal, GrandLAN Gaming Center proprietor Erik Bauer came to an abrupt realization.

“The biggest challenge we have is getting people to know what a LAN center is,” he said. “The more of us that exist the better it is for the industry … I can’t believe I just called this an industry.”

Bauer launched GrandLAN a year ago last month in a 4,000-foot former cybercafé in the Keeler Building at 56 North Division Ave. While the venture struggled through its first year, the second has started out with a bang. Students from Grand Rapids Community College, Kendall College of Art & Design at Ferris State University and Ferris State University-Grand Rapids have filled the gaming center since the start of the new school year.

“I did my two years at CC, and I spent all my time between classes in the cafeteria playing euchre,” said Bauer. “This would have been 100 times better.”

Although he’s not proud of it, Bauer is certain he has been responsible for a number of kids skipping class at the three colleges adjacent to the gaming center.

Bauer was initially introduced to the concept through LAN, or local area network, parties. Somewhat of a rave for the video-game set, LAN parties rotate flocks of computers between hotels, warehouses, basements, churches and whatever spaces are available for one-day or weekend video-game events. These usually feature a tournament for a specific game, or several. On Nov. 17 and 18, MADLan 2007 will host 300 gamers at the Royal Scot Golf Course & Banquet Center in Lansing for four tournaments.

“These things sell out regularly, and that’s not unusual,” said Bauer. “There are quite a few of these across the country. We thought there was an opportunity to make one that just stayed in one place.”

Bauer visited LAN centers in Florida and Arizona, and through the gaming center trade group iGames researched the growth of the industry internationally, particularly in Asia, where the average gaming center has no less than 100 stations.

“It’s still a relatively new industry,” Bauer said. “The old-timers have only been doing this for five or six years, but there is definitely a market for it.”

Bauer, an alum of the defunct CyberNET Group and today general manager of Mackenzie’s Animal Sanctuary in Lake Odessa, his day job, invested roughly $30,000 in computers and renovations into last year’s launch. Another local LAN, the two-year old Ultimate LAN Experience in the former YMCA building on Leonard Street, assisted in the opening.

There are at least two more permanent gaming centers in the West Michigan region, eDEN Gaming on Plainfield Avenue at Northland Drive and the LAN Lounge at 980 W. Broadway Ave. in Muskegon. There is little competition among the centers, with occasional collaboration and co-sponsored events.

“We serve different clientele,” Bauer said, referring specifically to Ultimate LAN Experience, located within five minutes of his venture. “They’re younger, and their busiest time is between 6 (p.m.) and 12 (a.m.). Our busiest time is during the day: When we opened, they couldn’t believe we were going to open at 10 (a.m.).”

For the older crowd, which is less likely to be seeking a home-away-from-home, Bauer has found a distinct demographic: “These are people with enough disposable income to spend a few bucks to play some video games, but not enough to go buy a computer.”

The existence of LAN parties and gaming centers flaunts the mainstream perception of gamers, particularly those involved in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games such as Worlds of Warcraft and Second Life.

“You hear huge jokes about it,” Bauer said. “Some guys get eaten up in there. But this is totally different from what most people think. If something good happens during a game, you can yell to the guy next to you or high-five your teammates. Guys come in as groups. It becomes a social environment.”

GrandLAN recently added a bank of stand-alone video game consoles. The Xbox 360 has been a hit, and Bauer is uncertain whether to expand with more PCs or consoles. Of special concern, the PCs require constant upkeep, not unlike any 20-station corporate network.

“The plan is to expand,” Bauer said. “I don’t know if it will be here or with another location, but we’re going to grow.”

Although he has no interest in doing so, Bauer expressed a belief that the Keeler building, vacant except for GrandLAN, could be converted into a “geek” entertainment hub for downtown Grand Rapids. Despite the large number of students attending downtown colleges, there are extremely limited options for teens and young adults to entertain themselves downtown, Bauer noted, with no bowling alleys, laser tag or movie theaters.    

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