By Josh McConnell
The smell of deep fried food fills the air, beers are quickly downed and loud rap music cuts through the chatter as people gather around dozens of screens in a large crowded downtown Toronto sports bar on a Sunday night. The in-progress Toronto Raptors game is being played on a projection screen, but that’s not why dozens of sports enthusiasts are here. Instead, it’s an eSports tournament being put on by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) and Cineplex Inc.’s WorldGaming division that has their attention.
Competitive video game events and tournaments, or eSports, has created an industry that’s quickly growing with an attractive younger demographic many companies want to reach. Worldwide eSports revenues hit nearly US$493 million in 2016 and will grow to US$1.48 billion by 2020, according to researcher Statista, and brands want a piece of the action. Your parents may have said playing video games was a waste of time — you may even be telling your kids that now — but there are millions of dollars to be won. For example, the International 2017: Dota 2 Championships tournament had a prize pool of US$24.7 million and the winning team took home almost US$10.9 million. (Dota 2 is a multiplayer online battle arena game developed by Valve Corp.)
“ESports really has a target for millennials and Gen Zs, which make up the bulk of not only the players, but fans as well,” says Wim Stocks, WorldGaming’s general manager. “Traditional sports teams, leagues and owners are trying to gain an infinity for their own sports with this very difficult [demographic] and eSports has become one of the primary means to do it.”
As other forms of entertainment and brands, such as movie and TV studios, compete for the coveted demographic’s interest, eSports is filling stadiums and moving beyond the typical shooting games to feature more traditional sports titles.
At this particular event in Toronto, competitive gamers are playing NBA 2K18 for a chance at $10,000 in cash prizes and a spot to practise with MLSE’s eSports team Raptors Uprising GC, which is one of 17 inaugural teams in the NBA 2K League. Most of those in attendance appear to be in their 20s or 30s and they are just as obsessive about watching others perform as playing themselves.
“Expect everything and anything. There are some guys who are very passionate and emotional with an occasional talking back and forth, but it’s very peaceful most of the time,” says Feroz Khan, who goes by the handle of Mr. Ferozious, a competitive gamer in his 30s who won the Madden NFL 18 Canadian Challenge in November. “It’s fun and very positive. Very energetic.”
Just like athletes in traditional sports, Khan says competitive gamers train to become the best through repetition, as well as by analyzing game play trends online and live streams of other players. “I want to win, I want to be No. 1,” he says. “Money and perks are extra. They are great, but they are extra.”
Traditional sports genres may not yet have the same swagger and prestige as their shooter siblings, Khan says, but they will become more accessible as more people become aware that there are competitive gaming tournaments for basketball, football and the like.
Mainstream brands certainly see the potential, and are sponsoring events put on by companies such as WorldGaming. “In the early days, it was a lot of endemic brands getting involved such as Intel, Asus or Alienware, but the progress we have made is really now in the non-endemic space,” Stocks says. “They have seen the opportunity to get closer to the millennial and Gen Z audiences through affiliation to our events.”
For MLSE, eSports is seen as a way to reach younger and new sports fans, as well as a way to introduce traditional sports fans to gaming, says Shane Talbot, the company’s eSports manager, who joined in January. “There are people who are fans of eSports but have never been to a Maple Leafs or Raptors game and that’s an opportunity for us to expand our audience,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity for us to introduce our existing fans to a new form of entertainment which has clearly caught on.”
The Raptors Uprising GC team is drafting competitive gamers to compete in the NBA 2K league against 16 other teams owned by NBA franchises. The season’s tip-off is in May and it will run through until August.
“There’s no question that the eSports industry is exciting and the parallels between eSports entertainment and traditional sports entertainment are there,” Talbot says. “This is us going to market to learn about the eSports industry and to find the right path for MLSE going forward to make sure we don’t miss the boat on something.”
What’s the next big eSports title? Not even those working in the industry know since the depth of both the playing genres and fans is rapidly expanding, and the community of gamers often makes the final call. “This is a whole realm that has developed from the ground up. There is no top-down entity that is dictating how eSports will play out,” Stocks says. “It’s a very, very vibrant space and continues to grow in significant ways.”