Building with Liquid: The visionaries behind the Alienware Training Facility

Building with Liquid

Like so many stories in the Netherlands, it began on a train. A Dutch architect took a seat on his way home. He was a fresh graduate, still wearing his nametag from the networking event he had just left. Marcel Schakenraad, Partnership Manager at Team Liquid, was sat across from him and noticed. Schakenraad quipped a joke which got the two to talking. As he prepared to go into the song and dance of explaining what esports was, the architect replied: “I know what esports is.” The architect knew another architect who had, the year before, completed her graduation project by designing a conceptual esports hub for Fnatic.

This other architect’s name was Dafne Wiegers. Her theoretical project, House of Legends, would be the home of Fnatic’s League of Legends team and a space for a merch store and Fnatic museum for fans to visit. “It was designed as if it were a real building in London on a plot. I ‘demolished’ two monumental buildings — which of course, could never happen,” said Wiegers.

RELATED: Team Liquid unveils esports training facility in Utrecht

Schakenraad recalled connecting with Wiegers on LinkedIn, and formal talks began between Team Liquid and AHH, the architecture firm where Wiegers now works. Team Liquid had just begun their quest to build the crown jewel of training facilities and they needed to enlist a fellowship — a troop of collaborators, each playing their part. Wiegers had joined, the city government of Utrecht had offered their support, and Dell Alienware would continue to champion the organisation. After a long search across the Netherlands, the location had been settled upon: Het Platform— an under-construction mixed-use complex towering above Utrecht Centraal Station.

An architect of over 20 years, Arjen Zaal had joined VenhoevenCS architecture+urbanism a year prior. Zaal was on the Het Platform project, designing the entire mixed-use building. Team Liquid, beside Wiegers’ firm AHH, approached VenhoevenCS with their quest: would they be interested in the designation of 1080 square metres of Het Platform for the Team Liquid facility? “Which at first, we thought would be too big, but along the way [it became clear] it was already too small,” Zaal said. Wiegers added: “There’s a lot happening on a thousand square metres.”

Zaal and VenhoevenCS accepted the challenge. Other architects from their firms worked on the project too, bringing with them their different perspectives. With the fellowship enlisted, the journey had begun.

Wiegers alluded to the group’s cohesion: “Not only between the two architecture offices, but Team Liquid was also very much involved. Their graphic design department, Mike Milanov the CBDO, and also Alienware had a huge part in the design.”

“We put together a look-and-feel booklet, a concept booklet of what the facility should look like,” Zaal said. “This was in close collaboration with Mike [Milanov] of Team Liquid, who had a very strong idea of what he wanted.” The architects would have, as they described, ‘very intense’ four- to five-hour design meetings with Team Liquid, covering everything from functionality to materials to colours to lights. It was important to Milanov that the facility was unmistakably Alienware.

To understand the vision for Het Platform — the complex set to house the Alienware Training Facility — here is an excerpt from the design booklet: “Het Platform is a new place in Utrecht for living, working, eating, hanging out and working out. The building stands on top of a new bus/tram terminal, on the East side of Utrecht Centraal Station. Het Platform is designed as a smart and sustainable MicroCity, aimed at a healthy lifestyle in an inspiring environment, with plenty of air, light and green. The Alienware Team Liquid Training Facility will be in the heart of Het Platform overlooking the Station Square.”

The look-and-feel booklet would contain samples of materials, reference images, “and not only sample images from other training facilities,” said Zaal, “but also images of ‘what a meeting room could look like.’” 3D visualisation processes began at the outset, and when combined with the look-and-feel booklet and a bit of imagination, a vision of the facility’s end result could be summoned. 

According to Zaal, architects are trained to conceptualise the end results from such booklets, but part of that training also involves crafting them in such a way that non-architects can also understand what it might look like. “I think it turned out pretty much how we had intended within the first couple of weeks,” he said. “I think the cover of our design booklet is almost one-to-one an image that we have on our website.” With no wild redesigns, delays, or wipes, the project was well on its way, conceptually.

Wiegers’ outlook, as seen on her website, is focused on the relationship between digital architecture and physical architecture, exploring what physical architects might learn from digital architects. “I think the [most innovative] thing that we did with the Team Liquid facility was to not treat it so much as a building, as an adventurous landscape that you can walk through.” The facility has, at base, an office topology, but Wiegers’ approach was to design the space more like an office layout in the theme of a video game, rather than have it merely serve its function.

The design didn’t go unnoticed by Team Liquid athletes and staff. Before the Dutch winter lockdowns, a Nerf-gun conflict erupted within the facility. “Of course, we didn’t design it to have a ‘Nerf War’, but it works like that,” Wiegers said. “There are spaces to hide behind and to pop up and shoot someone. So on one hand, it’s very functional, you have scrim rooms for the athletes to train at the highest level, but you can also use it, more or less, as a gaming landscape.”

In the past, an architect might receive a brief with requirements of ‘X square metres of file cabinets’ and ‘Y number of desks with Z dimensions’ to fit typewriters or other office equipment. “But now,” Wiegers continued, “our worlds of work are very much fluid. The athletes can train in the facility, but they can also train all over the world. Team Liquid staff can work on the train, they can sit on pillows — you just don’t have such a purely functional brief anymore.” The facility was to capture a fluidity that would enable Team Liquid to live up to its name.

Traditional architects are not always well trained to work this way, but for game designers, this is the way. Wiegers shared: “Game designers never start with a brief like, ‘we need so many square metres with this and that’. They start with sketching out designs or a storyboard — they design a space to tell a story and I think that we also tried to do that with the facility. So when you enter the facility you don’t immediately see how the space works or where it ends. Behind every corner, you discover something new, materials change behind every corner, so it’s like walking through a landscape, more or less.”

Open-world design concepts from MMORPGs helped inspire the thinking behind use of space and pleasure in discovery. This digital/physical architecture mindset where Wiegers has been swimming comfortably for years was new territory for Zaal, who has worked on everything from bridges to apartments.

“When Team Liquid told us what they were looking for, it was actually quite contradictory,” Zaal said. The org was seeking a high-tech aesthetic to complement Alienware’s visual language while expressing the warmth and cosiness of a living room. They wanted it to embody high-end sophistication, but not feel like a museum. These contradictions became yin and yang during design conception.

To enter into the Team Liquid Alienware Training Facility should have a ‘zoning-in’ feeling. It should breathe a harmonious grace. Zaal shared that Liquid’s Mike Milanov had repeatedly referenced the Chinese principles of feng shui during their meetings. The Japanese principle of Ma, the difficult-to-translate concept of empty space in traditional Japanese art and culture, was also passed around liberally in the facility’s design group chat.

This balance is more than just a concept Team Liquid is trying to show the world, but a maturity — showcasing not only the development of the organisation but also the level of craftsmanship in esports. The athletes and staff are taken care of, they take care of each other, and they take care of the organisation — there’s a harmony involved that comes with time, with age, with practice. More than just a realisation of Wiegers’ theoretical esports-facility graduation project, and more than a European headquarters for the org: the AWTF in Utrecht is a statement among facilities that only the highest-tier organisations can dream of.

None of this would have happened without Milanov, said Zaal. His clear vision and American way of getting things done propelled the pace toward completion. “I think from first sketch to realisation, it was about a year. Which is really, really fast,” said Zaal. As the magnum opus of esports training facilities was nearing its completion, the architects would then translate the resulting project into a design manual for Team Liquid. This would serve less as a blueprint for future facilities, but more as a guide to maintain the level of quality they had achieved in Utrecht for future projects.

On September 15th, 2020, the exemplary facility was revealed to the world: an optimal and holistic environment for digital work, befitting the org it serves. Wiegers felt that esports-facility design could serve as a blueprint for other serious workplaces meant for digital work. ”Esports, from the onset, is a digital job,” Wiegers said. “It has always been digital. And most of our work, unless you’re building a house or something like that, is digital. You do it behind your computer screen. You can work from anywhere in the world.”

She found that what works for esports organisations can work for the rest of the digital-working world. “These athletes are like a model for the rest of us. And I think their facilities are like a model for the rest of architecture.” 

What they set out to create was the next great esports facility, a worthy home for the winningest organisation in esports, and a tribute in the shape of a HQ for the global organisation’s Dutch roots. What they got was perhaps a new model for the hybridisation of a healthy work/life build.

Team Liquid has a litany of accomplishments to be proud of: universe-spanning collaborations from Japanese streetwear brand tokidoki to Naruto Shippuden and Marvel, dominant esports rosters and multi-faceted staff, an innovative fan-engagement platform, and now perhaps the most ideal workplace in the world — all built from the ground up. But there’s more where that came from.

With the quest completed, the fellowship has already accepted its next journey. At the end of the interview, both Zaal and Wiegers alluded to a top-secret expansion within the facility. A Team Liquid representative could only confirm a planned multi-use area with a portion dedicated to the community, with support from a high-tech partner. More news to be expected before summer 2021.

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RELATED: Team Liquid extends long-term partnership with Alienware

At the moment, only Team Liquid athletes are able to frequently use the facility. This is a necessary sacrifice to ensure the safety of players and staff. As though it’s in their nature, Bruce Lee’s timeless advice of being like water runs through the organisation: adapting to surroundings and creating sanctuaries. For the architects, it’s another day at the office.

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