Esports mean big bucks: inside the rich, new world of video games

Daily Brew
General view of the PC gaming area at Enthusiast Gaming Live (Farah Syed)

Looking down from the second floor of the International Centre in Mississauga, the noise is overwhelming. People are cheering, laughing, and it’s drowning out the subtler sounds of games beeping and keyboards clattering. Suddenly, it crescendos and the power goes out. As the organizers of Enthusiast Gaming Live (EGL) whip out their phones and begin calling around to find the source of the problem, the crowd gathered below is illuminated by the televisions being run by back-up generators and they begin chanting “MVG! MVG! MVG!”

The same thing happened this past April in Arizona at MVG Sandstorm and since the esports world is so closely knit, the people here at EGL know all about it. There’s more laughter and chanting, but everyone stays put. After all, they’re here to support the first esports tournament of this scale in Canada, and they plan to be here to the end.

Meet the new face of gaming. Historically, gaming has been seen as the domain of teenage boys, playing at home in their basements by themselves or with a couple of buddies. However, huge events like this demonstrate the tremendous sense of community and sociability that gaming now has, as well as the potential dollars at stake in esports events.

Esports, short for electronic sports, is the broad name given to a range of competitive games played in a tournament setting. Games include fighting-style video games like Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter, first-person shooters like Call of Duty and, probably the most popular and lucrative category, multiplayer battle arena games like League of Legends and Dota 2. To give a rough idea of just how popular, the last League of Legends tournament at Riot World Championships, the most watched esport event of 2014, was viewed by 27 million people worldwide. By comparison, the average number of viewers of each World Series game over the last three years was 13.2 million.

Enthusiast Gaming Live, in mid-May, saw over 1,700 people came out in Mississauga to watch the industry’s top competitors duke it out in tournaments, test new games from independent developers and, perhaps most importantly, socialize with people just as passionate about the gaming scene as they are.

Bernard 'RaynEX' Mafei, Super Smash Bros. player

“It’s really grassroots and it’s really beautiful,” says Bernard Mafei, a competitive Super Smash Bros. player from the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Mafei, who goes by the handle RaynEX online and in tournaments, is backed by Let’s Play, an esports organization that runs tournaments in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. While some sponsorships are extremely lucrative and enough for players to turn gaming into their full-time career, Mafei’s partnership is enough to cover his tournament fees, travel and accommodations for the tournament.

“When I started playing, I was 15, 16 years old,” said Mafei. “Like many teenagers I was unsure of myself, I didn’t want to voice my opinion, I had a lot of maturing to do. Without realizing it, just by coming to these events and meeting other likeminded people, I was really able to come out of my shell. And I’ve seen a lot of other people like that, too, people who are afraid of other aspects of their life, but they feel at home here.

“[I also found] all these skills I didn’t know I had. Like, in a tournament setting, I’d be in a very high-pressure situation, and I’m 16, 17 years old, how do you deal with that? I had to learn over time how to control my emotions. That gave me emotional maturity when I went outside of the scene, when things would happen to me, I would deal with it better in a more mature way.”

Super Smash Bros. is a fighting game from Nintendo, where two-to-four players battle each other as characters from various Nintendo games including Mario, Kirby and Link. There are four console editions of Smash, including the two you’ll most commonly see at tournaments, Super Smash Bros. Wii U and Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube. The mechanics of the game are simple, but with 49 playable characters available in the latest version of Smash, it’s not a game that can be easily mastered, which explains at least in part why it’s had such a huge, dedicated following since the series’ debut in 1999.

General view of Enthusiast Gaming Live (Tori Floyd)

Graduating to the big leagues

While most players start out when they’re teens, a lot of players hit their stride in their early 20’s, when many are heading to university and college. And that’s where many players find each other. Joseph ‘Toronto Joe’ Cribari did just that when he got to York University in Toronto, and saw that it was more than just him and a couple of his friends who were interested in playing Super Smash Bros.

Joseph 'Toronto Joe' Cribari, Super Smash Bros. player

“It’s really cool to see that growth because when I first started in 2008, [weekly meetups] had maybe 15, 10 people,” Cribari told Yahoo Canada. “And you played as hard as you could, even if there was just 15 people there, because those 100 person tournaments never happened. Even back then, we all just wanted to play the game because we loved it.

“Now that people are engaged by the game and want to know more about the community, it makes it even better. There’s new talent that’s showing up that’s finding out about the community and there’s also spectators, which is awesome to see. Before, there were no crowds. When you played, it was just you and the person next to you. Now it’s an experience.”

Cribari was inspired to start the club at York University after a trip to the U.S., when he saw the huge growth that was happening there on the esports scene. Next year, Cribari and his teammates will be heading on a North American collegiate circuit. And chances are good they’ll encounter other Canadian teams on their trek, too.

“The University of British Columbia, they have a really strong esports community,” said Cribari.

That may be a bit of an understatement; UBC has one of the best League of Legends teams on the continent. Their five-manteam won the North American Collegiate Championship (NACC) (which Ubyssey describes as “NCAA basketball but for esports”) earlier in May, in a tournament of over 1,600 teams, earning the UBC students $180,000 in scholarships.

Despite being recognized as the best team in North America, the team says they weren’t allowed to use the actual school name, logo or mascot at the event, as they don’t have official standing at UBC as a competitive team. But they’re optimistic the win will help them secure recognition from the school in the future.

Two players engage in a friendly bout of Street Fighter (Farah Syed)

Things look promising elsewhere in North America for esports competitors looking for school recognition, however. In fact, there are now two schools that award scholarships to top-tier esports athletes, Robert Morris University in Chicago and The University of Pikeville in Kentucky. RMU runs a varsity program through its sports department, and awards up to $19,000 per student in scholarships (up to 50 per cent of tuition, and 50 per cent of room and board).

In Canada, Cribari says inroads are being made with the universities in Canada, albeit there are no scholarships for esports athletes being handed out just yet. He says that the U.S. esports scene is still far more substantial than the Canadian one, but a growing base in Toronto, Vancouver and other parts of the country is promising.

“My ultimate goal is to see a York University-sponsored Smash team,” Cribari said. “That’s the direction this is moving.”

Keeping the love alive

Despite the surge of popularity esports has seen in the last five years, there still appears to be a natural drop-off in interest in gaming once men and women graduate university and enter the workforce. Even that demographic, however, is now being catered to.

A bar in Paris, France launched with a radical concept in 2012: Instead of holding viewings of traditional sports, why not open an esports bar, where fans of esports could enjoy a pint while watching the game?

Visitors to Meltdown can order a cocktail from the bar, then watch one of the big-screen televisions showing some of the most popular tournament games, like League of Legends and Dota 2, and cheer on their team as other sports bar patrons would cheer during a basketball or football game.

Meltdown is now a franchise growing worldwide, with about a dozen locations across the globe and six more locations opening this year. Vijay Menon and Jimmy Patel hope to be the first to open Meltdown in North America, with their Toronto Meltdown location scheduled to open later this year.

“People are actually putting in time to view esports,” said Patel. “And that’s what our bar is about, you can come in and watch the game… and not only in Toronto, but anywhere in the world, it’s a good time to start up an esports bar. “

Menon and Patel told Yahoo Canada that as little as five, ten years ago, the normal practice for people was to play games in college or university, but many would drop the hobby once they entered the workforce, in part because they no longer had a place to go and share with likeminded individuals.

The pair says that while they’re taking a huge risk being the first to open a bar of this kind in Canada (there are other gaming bars, but no dedicated esports bar, they say), they have faith that the exponential growth of the community will support their business and ultimately make them successful.

“We all love esports so much as well, so we’re taking a risk,” Patel said.

General view of console gaming area at Enthuisast Gaming Live (Tori Floyd)

Esports in Canada offer a lot of promise

While the esports tournament scene in Canada is still in its infancy, events like Enthusiast Gaming Live show there’s definitely an appetite for it. The appeal of spending a weekend with hundreds of people who share your passion and having them cheer you on to victory is palpable at the event, and bodes well for Enthusiast Gaming’s plans to hold another Toronto event in the fall.

But for players like Mafei, big events like these are just the icing on the cake, when it comes to connecting with each other through esports.

“There’s just so much more than what you’re seeing,” Mafei said.

The crowd cheers on two Mortal Kombat X competitors (Farah Syed)