Jon Satterley on Fortress Australia’s Melbourne esports venue

Plenty of eyes are on Fortress Australia. An affiliate of the Allied Esports Property Network, the company is due to open “Australia’s home for gamers” in Melbourne this March.

The multi-purpose esports and gaming venue features a 200-seat esports arena, a gaming space with consoles and 120 PCs, two bars, a medieval-style tavern with space for board, and tabletop games and more. 

Jon Satterley, CEO of Founder of Fortress Australia, spoke with Esports Insider to discuss how the company got started, working with Allied Esports, and everything that has gone into the new Melbourne arena.

CEO-Jon-Satterley-Fortress-Australia
Photo Credit: Fortress Australia

Esports Insider: For those unfamiliar, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got going with Fortress?

Jon Satterley: I’ve been quite involved in the entertainment industry, I was in the music industry for over 20 years and went overseas for part of that. When I got back I joined Village Roadshow in 2012 and spent five and a half years there. In the tail end of the last year of my time there as head of digital I’d been thinking a lot about games and the role that games and video game entertainment should be playing in the external experiences of people. Not so much home entertainment but getting out of the home and that lead me to thinking about esports. 

The two things in life that have motivated me and my career have been heavy metal and video games. I was lucky that 20 or so of my years was focused on one of my passions and now I was able to fuse some of my personal interests with work again through games. I’ve been a fanatical video game player since I was a kid in the ’80s and I’m just excited by the idea of doing something that’s connected to video games.

So I started to frame an idea up when I was at Village in about 2016, 2017 which was very much about esports. Especially two or three years ago there was that moment in time when esports was on everybody’s lips. I was fascinated by that because it really was one of the main ways that video games were being seen as a social, external event. That lead to me crafting quite a big plan for Village.

In a bit of bad timing really, they chose not to pursue the idea. I was lucky enough to exit the company because I wanted to pursue it myself and they were happy with that so not long after I founded Fortress in mid-2018 with a couple of fellas, experienced veterans of Australian entrepreneurial business. They knew all the ways forward as far as setting up a business from scratch. We incorporated Fortress and went out into the wild to try and raise the money and find a venue and all of that. And here we are today, close to opening.

Fortress-Australia-Basement-Entrance
Image credit: Fortress Australia

RELATED: Allied Esports selects HOK to design retail esports venues

ESI: Fortress joined the Allied Esports Property Network in late 2018. How was that partnership developed, and how has it helped the development of Fortress Australia?

JS: From the very earliest days back at Village, exploring the concepts and working out how to do this I quickly realised that the best way forward was to bring in people with the expertise and who paved the way. So really I just did a scan of the globe and struck on Allied Esports and saw what they were building in Las Vegas. 

I actually happened to be in Las Vegas when CES was on and I managed to weasel my way into a hard-hat event prior to opening, so it was a construction tour. Shows the power of LinkedIn – I just hunted down the CEO of Allied and hit him up and introduced myself cold and said: “Look I’m doing this thing in Australia I’d love to talk to you.” He was gracious enough to say “Yeah you know we’re in Las Vegas, come to this thing.” I met him there and we got talking.

It was all really about saying you know if we’re to do something in Australia there’s so much complexity involved in building this thing. It wasn’t a conversation around investment but a conversation about know-how and having a partner who can provide playbooks and blueprints was seen as very valuable.

As well as looking to raise capital, having that association when we were starting from scratch with no money, no nothing, we had to build our own story up. Getting that affiliation with Allied was one of the early pieces of the jigsaw and then that just helped us as one little additional nugget of credibility. So when we’re trying to get the next milestone under our belt, like sign a lease or something, we could say “hey we’ve got this partnership with these guys and they’ve done it before.” 

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Image Credit: Fortress Australia

It was also a case of three fellas who’ve got a great idea. How can we build up our story and credibility? It was really important for that. Obviously there was a lot of powerful, strategic rationales behind Allied, but it’s really been the practical application of knowledge.

They furnished us with a heap of under the hood knowledge and playbooks and endless phone calls and web conferences where we’re looking at details of how you put on an esports event. Everything all the way to how you do your customer service with drinks and food. So they’ve provided a really nice sounding board and expert panel for us to get our s*** together basically. 

“We found the way to survive and thrive was having a broader participatory offering, rather than just this idea of hosting pro esports events.”

ESI: The Melbourne facility looks really ambitious. Were there any major challenges to the construction and building process and having so many different things on offer?

JS: A really important insight we got early as we were planning was that we wouldn’t survive simply as an esports arena. As we were doing our deep-dive business model construction, we found the way to survive and thrive was having a broader participatory offering, rather than just this idea of hosting pro esports events. That’s when Fortress kind of turned into a much bigger idea, which is that we’re a home for gamers. Which means every sort of video game, board game, tabletop game and RPG. 

It was also fitting for us because we were able to secure such a big space at the Emporium that we could build it as we saw it. We could do so much more. “So if this is a home for gamers then what do they want?” That’s why we think we’ve got this nice mix of an esports arena, but it doesn’t even need to be about pro gaming. We can push the grandstand back, put 50 PCs on the floor and now you’ve got yourself an incredible network on that arena floor. We knew we needed to push food and [alcohol] really hard so we’ve got two bars and the huge tavern downstairs. 

Fortress-Australia-Tavern
Image credit: Fortress Australia

That basement tavern has been completely configured to look like a medieval tavern, really sympathetic to RPG and fantasy culture. I wrote the stories for six original characters and we now have them all designed in 2D and 3D. We’ve got statues, portraits and stuff all through the venue of these characters. That idea was realising that, similarly that we couldn’t rely on pro esports to save the day, we also couldn’t rely on publishers and sponsors to just reach into their pockets and give us money to make this work.

Obviously we’ve been looking over our shoulder as we’re travelling on our journey, the likes of Gfinity and others, and seeing how even teams were struggling to raise dollars through sponsorship models. There’s just not enough money and not enough interest. We really extended the idea of a net cafe and lounge, all those board games, plus, of course, ticketed events.

We’ve got a stack of events coming through, some of those are just ‘turn up for Friday night frags’ or trying your luck as an amateur team in a Fortnite comp. Or of course working with the ESL’s and others to bring big events in, to say, run semifinals. Not to say we’ve locked that in or anything, but we’re providing that neutral, awesome, mid-tier venue that doesn’t exist anywhere in Australia. 

“The goal is to have the place open in early March and then a really big launch that we’re calling Fortress Fest in late March”

ESI: Word is that launch is scheduled for March, is that the goal at the moment?

JS: The goal is to have the place open in early March and then a really big launch that we’re calling Fortress Fest in late March, no dates have been chiseled in stone but they’re feeling pretty good. We’ll be open before we launch, so we’re trading, testing things and making sure we’ve ironed out a lot of the bugs. Then we have a really big two-day festival, taking up the whole laneway, really pumping it up for that big Fortress Fest.

ESI: Obviously you’ll have to see how Melbourne goes, but are there plans for other cities or locations you’re considering next?

JS: Yeah, integral to our business model, investors and business plans are that Melbourne is the first. We run Melbourne for a few months just to make sure we can prove the model and get it going. Then the ambition is to start punching out more flagships around the country. We’re talking to landlords in Sydney, we’re thinking about Perth and Brisbane. We’re thinking about New Zealand, there are lots of options. We’re also thinking about smaller versions that might be out in the suburbs, so lots of ideas we’re cooking up at the moment. 

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