Contender has one gaming lounge open in Mount Pleasant, with another coming in North Charleston | Photos provided

Charleston-area residents can soon get a taste of the worldwide phenomenon of competitive video gaming at one of two new local game centers. Gamers who stream their play on platforms like Twitch and YouTube draw millions of viewers every day, and the best players in the world put millions of dollars on the line at major events. If you’ve ever dreamed of being an elite gamer, there’s now a perfect training ground for you to hone your skills and find your team.

Contender eSports Gaming Center has just opened in Mount Pleasant, with another location coming to North Charleston soon. Nestled into Market Center, Contender is a gaming lounge. For a fee, customers can sit down at a gaming station and play online games. There are also memberships and competitions. It’s the full gaming package.

Building community is one of the biggest things Contender is hoping to do with their new locations. Franchise owner Chris Barnes was clear about the biggest issues facing a gaming lounge. “The question is ‘how do you get people to come in?’” Barnes said. “People see esports and think it’s just about competition. We want everyone to come in and play.”

Entering Contender can be a little overwhelming at first. There are dozens of PCs lining the walls and covering the floor, each outfitted with high-end headsets and loaded with some of the most popular games in the multiplayer market. Contender eSports Gaming Center has 47 gaming PCs, five Xbox Series Xs, eight Nintendo Switches and a collection of PlayStation 4s throughout the space.

All the notables are present: Rocket League, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty, Battlefield and of course, Minecraft. Contender will even add games as they are requested. You and your friends want to get something else on the roster, like Dragon Ball FighterZ? (Hint hint, wink wink, please add.) Just bring it up to the staff. 

“If people want something, we’ll get a license for it,” said store manager Kennedy Zubek. The store already has games like FIFA ready to go on the consoles and plans to grab the newest iteration of Madden NFL as soon as it launches, Zubek said.

Customers purchase gaming time in one-, three- and six-hour packs. There are also all-day rates for those looking to put in a marathon session. Available recurring memberships net discounted drop-in rates, as well as a host of other perks like VIP events, free attendance hours each month and exclusive merch. Gamers’ store profiles are kept for easy login on subsequent visits, and individual Steam logins can be used to maintain gaming progress, saves and leveling.

Contender keeps a family-friendly atmosphere, so it has rules against bad sportsmanship and profanity. There are TV screens all over the shop, playing Twitch streamers or popular anime. Barnes encourages people to come in and hang out, even if they aren’t paying for anything. Contender sells drinks, snacks and light food offerings, so you could spend the entire day there between games. There are also party packages available, allowing you to rent out Contender for parties. These party packages include food, drinks, gaming time and decorations.

Contender hosted a soft opening in July before officially opening Friday. Since opening its doors, the team has welcomed players of all age. Veteran hardcore gamers walk the floor, as do teenagers looking for a cool place to hang out. Contender is open to gamers as young as 6 (with parent accompaniment), but gamers 12 and up can come in and spend the day as they’d like. The staff are also great at introducing gamers who are into the same kinds of games, fostering community and friendship. Connecting people of different backgrounds is one of the best things about the video game community, and it’s nice to see it put into practice offline.

Of course, Contender is an esports center, and esports do take place. Tournaments and events are scheduled throughout the months, with different one-off events always coming up. A weekly Smash Bros. tournament is held on Mondays, with players buying in to compete for a pot and prizes. Upcoming events include a Guilty Gear Strive event Aug. 18, Madden release day Aug. 20 and Fortnite Friday Aug. 27. The store’s official Facebook keeps a calendar of events. 

Now, your results might vary. You may sit down and compete, rather poorly, in your first-ever match in Smash Bros. Ultimate on Nintendo Switch (hypothetically, of course). But you’ll have a blast. Competitors will be jovial and welcoming, and the atmosphere will be very chill. Opponents may even take the time to teach aspects of the game before utterly trouncing you.

If you’ve ever wondered about competitive gaming and wanted to get involved — or need a place to try out your skills against some of the best gamers in town — Contender eSports Gaming Center has you covered.