At a modern LAN cafe in downtown Manhattan, a teenager with floppy brown hair zones out to a Kingdom Come: Deliverance Twitch stream. He’s lounging with a Mountain Dew and an empty cup of coffee. Behind him, 30 PCs glow with light from rounds of League of Legends and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Waypoint Cafe, which opened in New York’s Lower East Side last September, charges $5 per hour to play competitive online games on its computers. In the private streaming room, it costs $40 to broadcast games on its $3,500 top-of-the-line rig for a couple hours.
After a decade-long hibernation, LAN centers, also referred to over the years as cyber cafes or LAN dens, have returned en masse. Waypoint Cafe brands itself as an “esports arena,” but its business model, like others’, is old school: pay a small, per-hour fee to play online PC games, potentially against your buddy on the next computer over (LAN=local area network, of course). The seediness of ‘00s LAN centers is what hasn’t survived the test of time. Gone are the gritty $20 keyboards and the hulking Office Depot chairs. Gone are the patrons who come in just to respond to e-mails, browse the net or grind for 12 hours on a game their home computer can’t run. Gone, for the most part, are the unkempt, sketchball storefronts that turn parents’ stomachs to look at. The cash injection that came with the mainstreamification of esports has finally filtered down to LAN cafes, which now are offering a luxury service: gaming with buddies on high-end PCs, with an ambiance to fit.
“I’ve definitely seen a resurgence of LAN centers,” said Bryan Rasbury, 27, who opened Boston LAN center Balance Patch last summer. Citing new cafes in his state, Massachusetts, and all along the East Coast, Rasbury explained, “I’ve noticed more opening up. There are more people interested in this.”
Waypoint Cafe owner Gino Gigante says LAN cafes have been making their big comeback over the last four years. “As esports started to generate more income, more people started realizing that there needs to be a spot for it,” said Gigante, who wore a Dota 2 tournament t-shirt when we met. “The LAN cafe evolved from being a place where people do their work to a place they go for pleasure—to play games after work and cut loose before going home,” Gigante said. On a busy January Saturday, dozens of patrons crowded the cafe to watch New York’s Overwatch team compete in the Overwatch League Finals.
Gigante, who is 27, didn’t patronize LAN cafes growing up. To game with friends, he’d hook up a handful of computers at home and load up Doom. Last year, his buddy who works at a board game cafe suggested that Gigante, a former game reviewer who was helping with his family’s real estate company, take the board game cafe business model and apply it to online competitive games. Last year, he purchased 30 $1,100 PCs for $700 each. It’s not a LAN center; it’s an esports arena, he says—although, I was hard-pressed to find anyone except business owners calling it that. Gigante’s cafe is casting a wide net by catering to serious game-players who follow esports and aspire to play at a high skill level as well as to cafe-goers who enjoy the general ambiance ofs of gaming.
LAN Centers are a stable, widespread business across developed Asian countries like South Korea and Japan. In the U.S., that hasn’t been the case since most Americans owned flip phones and used dial-up. Lots of gamers have ‘00s war stories about Friday night Counter-Strike Source tournaments at greasy cyber cafes, but as high-end tech reached market saturation, these stores were forced to close or modernize.
Michael Winger owns Taylorsville, Utah’s very 2007-sounding The Gamerz Funk. In the mid-aughts, Winger’s LAN center boasted dingy white walls and basically no decor. “We just threw up counter space and computers and let people go at it,” he said. “We had nice leather chairs in the mid-2000s. Now, they want the esports chairs. It’s about the mechanical keyboards. Before, we got away with cheap membrane keyboards. I’ve got to spend more money on computers, on chairs and peripherals. No one’s gonna pay to play on a 60 Hz monitor.”
Winger says the whole experience of the LAN center has changed. It’s not a necessity anymore. Everybody has laptops and phones with internet. LAN centers are a luxury and a social hub, a cheaper place to socialize than a bar. “It’s really switching from a need basis to an experience,” Winger told me, citing his esports events and Overwatch meet-ups. Although his customers on average spend less time at The Gamerz Funk, he said, they’re coming back with more people. A lot of the time, their home computers can run top-of-the-line games; Winger’s says that The Gamerz Funk, at its core, is “going for the social gaming aspect.”
At these cafes, patrons pay anywhere from $3 to $8 an hour to play games like Overwatch, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Dota 2 on their own accounts. It’s the same model as a cyber cafe, but now, there are perks. With friends, I frequented a modern LAN center in Northern Virginia called Cave, which opened in 2015 and suits its name—dark, hip, studded with glowing lights. Cave’s high-backed, conspicuous gaming chairs initially made me giggle, but settling into one, I melted. On the monitor, I could push a button and order a Monster energy drink, a bag of Skittles, a Hot Pocket—whatever—that an employee would deliver to me. I could also order more time on the PCs, which are available 24/7/52. This combination of factors once led to an ill-advised and stomach-achey Overwatch binge late one Christmas evening.
Cave, Waypoint and hundreds of other LAN centers globally rely on brand new, still-in-beta LAN center software called ggLeap. The people behind it say they’ve got more than 367 centers on board. The program is a Windows shell software that pulls a list of games from computers’ storage, and to play, customers just click on a game’s official art and log into their own account. After their time’s up, the client kicks them off. Zack Johnson, its creator, has owned a LAN center in Indiana for 14 years where he ran Halo and Counter-Strike tournaments against other LAN centers in the mid 2000s. “Five, six, seven years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do this because the tech wasn’t there,” Johnson said, citing game CDs and janky digital downloads.
Organizing Johnson’s tournaments was often logistically burdensome. To smooth out the lumps, Johnson started wondering whether he could help write software to operate these regional events. In 2013, his colleagues started designing software around League of Legends esports, pulling data from publisher Riot’s API to broadcast stats. Within three months of pushing that out, over a hundred LAN centers across the world were using it, he said. Two years later, Johnson’s software—completely re-written and accommodating dozens of games—is in high demand. He says game developers are showering him with game demo keys to share with ggLeap clients across the world.
Boston’s brand new LAN cafe, Balance Patch, operates ggLeap on their 60 sleek Alienware Aurora R6 rigs. Co-founder Bryan Rasbury says it’s one of the things that’s making his LAN Center accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike. Balance Patch projects streams onto two big screens all day and, up front, serves milkshakes and sandwiches to cafe patrons. Rasbury thinks the uptick in LAN centers is because the aficionado crowd who grinded on Counter-Strike Source in 2004’s cyber cafes has expanded to include all kinds of people.
“There’s a general category of gamers,” Rasbury told me over the phone. “Gamers are people who know about gaming. That category is growing and growing. . . Gaming has gotten away from the stigma of ‘You’re at home, you might be in a basement, you don’t get out.’ Gamers are very social. They’re looking for that community aspect. LAN cafes are giving them that.”