Walking through the concourse of Twickenham stadium, just below the seats that are usually occupied by England rugby fans, on an unremarkable Monday afternoon is a strange experience.
A near silence envelops a location renowned for its atmosphere. The bright spring sun breaks through the openings that give a glimpse of the giant, but completely empty, 82,000-seat bowl at the heart of the stadium. The bland concrete walkway that most will usually never even pay attention to en route to their seats seems never ending.
But walk through a door on the concourse that sits high above the pitch, opposite an entrance to the main bowl that offers a phenomenal view of the empty stadium, and you are transported into the brand new, top of the range, Excel HQ esports training facility. Here, the exposed concrete on the other side of the door is replaced by navy blue and white walls adorned with League of Legends artwork, a carpeted floor and a warm orange glow towards the back of the gigantic room. The difference between the two spaces is jarring.
As you walk in, a sofa and chairs that look far too relaxing to be in a sports stadium sit to the right, next to a giant TV that will soon house a Nintendo Switch for downtime. Beyond that, a series of large tables make up a hot-desking area where senior management work alongside all the other employees. A bar that no longer houses alcohol, instead offering fruit and water, offers up further workspace.
"So this was a hospitality suite," says Debbie Neilson, business development manager at Twickenham Stadium, which explains the presence of the bar. "So we used it on match days but outside of that we weren't really using it a lot. So it was the ideal space for the guys to come in and kind of make their own."
Opposite the bar in the long but quite thin facility are the two scrim rooms that Excel's League of Legends teams will use to practise as full five-player squads. As you walk in, the first thing you notice is the giant quote on the wall all the players face as they train. It is from NBA legend Phil Jackson and reads "Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the me for the we."
The desks in the scrim rooms initially do not look like anything special, somewhat resembling the cheaper models you would expect to see in IKEA. But these have been chosen for a reason: they are the exact same height and width as the desks at the LEC studio in Berlin, where Excel's first team play their matches in Europe's top LoL competition. The aim was to make the scrim rooms as close to the LEC stage as possible, to try and make players feel even more comfortable when playing big matches, but some ideas Excel had on how to do this didn't feel quite right.
"We thought about things like maybe pumping audience noise into these rooms so that they would really feel like they're working on the stage," says Excel co-founder and managing director Kieran Holmes-Darby. "But you can never recreate the adrenaline, you can never recreate [a] full stage experience in a facility. So actually we just thought that would be more of a distraction than anything else. So while you can kind of recreate the space you can never recreate the stage."
Between the two scrim rooms sits a media studio where the content team, who take up residence in the open space at the back of the facility, can create videos for fans and clients. Either side of the scrims rooms are open meeting areas, designed primarily for reviewing game tape and strategizing for the players, and a 10-person solo play room, intended to make sure the scrim rooms are only used for full 5v5 team practise, completes the facility.
"I think it's a great first step so far that we have an established facility to ensure a good working environment that enables us to differentiate work and home space in order to give our best in terms of practice," says Excel player Raymond "kaSing" Tsang. "I would suggest making the [scrim] rooms more boxed in a way that no noises can be heard or transmitted through the rooftops of the rooms. I also think having the review area as a more private and personal space to resolve issues or problems, as I think it's helpful if it is more between the players and coach rather than allowing anyone to see what the reviews will bring. But I personally like Twickenham more compared to Berlin."
It's an impressive setup, one that completely masks the space's former life as a hospitality suite and the giant stadium just outside the door. But even so, initially it seems like a strange fit.
Neither Twickenham nor England Rugby own any part of Excel, or have invested in the organisation, and there is no virtual rugby game that is played as an esport, so the benefits for the stadium seem limited. They are of course making money from Excel occupying the space, but this is a move from Twickenham that they hope will give them further insight into the world of esports, which they believe could become a key part of the business in the coming years.
"Esports came to the forefront about a year ago when we held the FACEIT [CS:GO Major] tournament over the summer and it kind of got us looking at it as something we could be doing more," says Neilson. "We're always trying to maximize our revenue outside of match days and I'm looking at new and innovative ways of using the space that we've got here. If there's another big tournament, my goodness, we'd love to host it here."
While housing the Excel HQ isn't quite the same as hosting a major esports tournament, it does open up more opportunities. Everyone involved knows that the chances of selling out the main stadium with a major event is unlikely, at least for a few years, but with Excel making Twickenham home they hope to be able to host smaller events both in their facility, or in other, slightly larger areas of the venue, which could eventually lead to 82,000 esports fans filling the main bowl.
"I'd like to sell out the stadium but you know, that's like the next dream," says Joel Holmes-Darby, co-founder and director of esports at Excel. "This was the first dream that's come true. The next dream for me is that we host an Excel esports fixture at Twickenham Stadium and we sell it out."
For now everyone is just trying to make sure the new Excel HQ is working as intended. Over the next few weeks the League of Legends players will return from the mid season break and begin preparing for the summer split, where they will train at Twickenham during the week before flying to Berlin to compete over the weekends. That is when the facility will really start to be tested, and could potentially give the team a big advantage over others that still rely on the ageing team house training facilities.
If things do work out as expected, the Excel management are very confident of expanding the facility at Twickenham. Both co-founders mention that there is an identical space directly above their current setup that they could potentially expand into in the future should they need to, and with Twickenham being very interested in increasing their esports footprint it wouldn't be a surprise to see that happen should Excel bring on more teams in other games.
Twickenham will always be the home of English rugby. But don't be surprised if, in a few years time, it also becomes home to the biggest esports events in the world, perhaps with an Excel team competing.