Whack-A-Mate! A fairground style photo-op outside of Canary Wharf's Fairgame.


From adrenaline-pumping axe-throwing at Whistle Punks, to retro arcade games at Four Thieves, ‘competitive socialising’ is riding a new wave of popularity.

These pioneering venues combine cutting-edge tech with traditional gaming elements to create a truly unique experience. Many of these experiential bars have broadened their offering in recent years, incorporating everything from premium cocktails to fairground prizes into their arsenal in an attempt to draw consumers away from traditional venues.

The success of game bars makes combatting universally falling footfall appear deceptively simple: How do you drive people to a physical venue? Offer them something that can’t be experienced at home!

The Right Ingredients

High-quality food, comfortable dining and show-stopping cocktails; game bars are making themselves (and their menu) an unmissable destination. This ethos is exemplified by social hotspot Penny Lane, which is not just famous for its huge collection of retro funfair games, but its indoor carnival deli/diner fusion menu and outlandish confectionary-inspired cocktails.

Getting an adrenaline-pumping experience for the same price as a trip to the pub seems a good enough offer alone, but visitors to Bongo’s Bingo are promised to take home more than just a hangover, as the notorious game offers everything from a European holiday to a cardboard cut-out Bruce Forsyth.

Last summer, we enjoyed the nostalgic funfair games and experimental cocktails at Canary Wharf’s Fair Game. Priced at £15 per person for 1.5 hours of intense gameplay, it was a great deal. What impressed us most was the diverse food selection, offering everything from double-fermented dough pizzas to locally sourced tacos, elevating street food favorites. In a time of rising costs, customers seek added value from their outings. Fair Game provides a well-rounded experience, leaving patrons feeling fulfilled. Prizes and freebies add excitement and generate social media buzz.

Fairgame, Canary Wharf, London. Competitive Socialising venue.

Topping the Leader Board

In recent years the nightlife sector has been struggling, with consumers spending less on a night out post-Covid. Could bringing together elements of traditional nightlife with immersive gaming tech offer a solution? Some of the most exciting new concepts utilise the very latest technological advances to bring classic games to a new level.

Top-class booze, authentic cuisine…and indoor clay pigeon shooting? Gun-toting fun is not something that immediately springs to mind when thinking about a night out- but London’s Clays have proven that VR can bring even the most outdoorsy activities into the city. At Clays, players can enjoy the venue’s ‘Night Mode’ option, which brings together VR shooting on mammoth 4K screens, live DJs and themed signature cocktails for an all-round inimitable experience.

Aside from the games themselves, pioneering venues are bringing AI and robotics into the bar experience. Sandbox VR boast the UK’s first robotic bartender (Toni). Built to mix signature cocktails, Toni acts as something akin to dinner theatre – a spectacle unique to Sandbox. Immersive ‘multi-sensory’ pioneers, Hijingo, have created a ground-breaking new format for bingo halls. With advanced motion graphics, immersive shows, and Asian-fusion street food, they are a certainly not your nan’s bingo.

These tech innovations are more than a novelty; competitive socialising venues are experimental and quirky by nature, each approaching a classic game in a daring new way.

Competitive Socialising is one of the UK's fastest growing hospitality trends in 2024

Playing the Field

Game bars are usually focused on adults (being primarily bars after all), but Toca Social are going after a new demographic- footie fans, young and old. Usually experienced onscreen in your local, Toca offer a new way to experience everything football: from immersive VR challenges designed to test your penalty shoot-out skills, to retro pub games like table football. Based on play, interactive venues like Toca are simply fun.

The venue’s success lies in its adaptability. Daytime sees the venue cater to families and groups of teens; a children’s menu, a strong non-alcoholic drink offering, Wonka-esque dessert room, and games designed to tire your children out make this perfect for football-obsessed families. Evening sees a dynamic shift towards an adults-only event space with a modern Americana-inspired menu and killer cocktails.

Toca Social can easily adapt between its two main demographics; By creating a strong food and drink offering, they have built a solid foundation to attract a wider range of consumers, and to ensure that all visitors have a memorable experience, whether visiting at 10am or 10pm.

Support Your Local

A testament to their ongoing popularity, competitive socialising venues are continually popping up all over the country. Experiential bars draw people back into city centres; Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, and London all boast a massive list- and it’s ever-growing. Birmingham alone saw 14 venues pop up in the past five years, with more planned to open in the Bullring and Grand Central areas in 2024.

Mini Golf venues, of which scouse frontrunners Big Fang Collective have fast become one the most identifiable brands, have seen a 96% uptick in recent years, largely focused in on the north of England. Perhaps due to a younger market and a lower cost of living, growth is higher in here than in the capital.

It’s no surprise that these new-form competitive socialising venues have taken over the UK and show no signs of slowing down. Nail-biting competition and mouth-watering food have long proven to be an unbeatable combination; The idea of gathering around a common interest of activity is a British staple- from the humble pub quiz to boardgame cafes.

Even towns are experimenting with this formula. Playhouse in Northampton suitably rivals the trailblazing F1 Arcade in London with its combination of retro arcade and racing games. Spaces like Playhouse, Boom Battle Bar, and Lane7 that offer a combination of attractions have seen a 455% increase since 2018, suggesting that what consumers really want is flexibility and choice.

With many of these bars being household names already, the announcement of GameChangers’ inaugural competitive socialising awards (due to take place in May 2024) will bring recognition to up-and-comers and cement their place as a staple of UK nightlife, perhaps offering encouragement to smaller venues who are considering expanding their offering.

Vending Times have reported that social entertainment drives growth across high street hospitality and brings people back into town centres; the movement is more than just a trend and seems to be driving lasting change in how hospitality operates, with an increasing number of local pubs offering shuffleboard, board games, even horseshoes!

Competitive Socialising is one of the UK's fastest growing hospitality trends in 2024

Final Serve

What will change in 2024 and beyond? One of the fastest growing trends in the industry is quirky uses for tech. 501 Fun, infrastructure providers to many of these venues, have found that use of technology has moved beyond simply gaming. Brands are using tech in every aspect of their F&B experience, from robot bartenders to touch-screen ordering.

At its core, the main draw of competitive socialising venues is the community feeling and unique experiences that they offer. In fact, while futuristic and tech-heavy locations may draw crowds, simple, more familiar concepts are proving to be the most scalable and robust; Swingers, Big Fang Collective and Electric Shuffle have all had an excellent 2023, with expansions planned for 2024- the more easily replicable the concept, the more it will thrive.

As the industry matures in 2024 (and nationwide competition increases!) we may see more of an emphasis on sustainability as venues look to connect with local communities, create a more distinct narrative and expand internationally.

Demand for these venues is high. Consumers want more for their money, and at a time when pub insolvencies are at an all-time high, it seems that bars and late-night venues must offer customers more than just a comfortable place to meet for a drink. The sheer number of game bars thriving in a cost-of-living crisis suggests that if you build it, they will come.

Bio: Rachel Walsh – Digital & New Business Executive

With a degree in History, and a passion for eating adventurous foods, Rachel loves to use her time to research emerging trends and, of course, eat.