Everyone from the The Weeknd to TV broadcasters and major league sports are getting in on esports
Row upon row of laptops and monitors are filled with fans shooting virtual threes and hitting each other with Street Fighter hadoukens. On a big screen at the front of the room, esports team Raptors Uprising play a casual match against musicians and contest winners. Fans cheer like they’re at Jurassic Park. Around Stackt Market, passersby wander in to play Pac-Man on retro arcade machines and grip virtual steering wheels to race each other.
Those aren’t the first things you picture when you think of NXNE, Toronto’s 26-year-old music festival, but Game Land has been a growing element since its launch in 2016, and last year’s event was the most successful yet. Still, it’s had a hard time establishing itself apart from the the music fest that defined it for so long, which includes concerts at Yonge-Dundas Square and venues around the city.
But for the first time in two and a half decades, NXNE is now a gaming festival.
There will still be music. But with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down in-person live events and concerts, those events will happen online, primarily as after-parties. Instead, Game Land, the competitive gaming festival-within-a-festival, will take the spotlight. From August 14-16, the virtual event will present three high-stakes tournaments: Valorant, League Of Legends and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate. All three are free to enter with a prize pool totalling $9,000 between them.
“NXNE is an eclectic festival,” explains Ari Xenarios, senior developer at Waveform, which produces Game Land. “It’s more than just music. It’s fashion, it’s culture, it’s the city. Gaming and esports are just another cultural community to tap into.”
It’s an interesting moment for Toronto’s gaming community. Esports and video games have exploded. Major local tournaments like GOML and conferences like EGLX, which usually fill the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and Better Living Centre, are going global. There’s a healthy game development scene that reaches from indie success stories like Cuphead to juggernaut companies like Ubisoft. The city’s esports teams have levelled up too, and are reaching beyond a niche market into a bigger pop culture realm. The Weeknd is an esports owner.
The pandemic has opened a new audience to competitive gaming. Traditional sports fans dabbled in esports while the major leagues were on pause. Casual gamers rediscovered their consoles and live platforms like Twitch have skyrocketed in streams.
Of all sectors that pivoted online, gaming is the most natural. Most of the action happens there anyway, while the community congregates on online message boards and chats.
But in-person events and tournaments were a place to gather in real life. Without them, it’s hard for new players to figure out where exactly to tune in. To someone who isn’t already enmeshed, the gaming world can feel insular and impenetrable – a passionate young community speaking what feels like its own language.
Before the pandemic, you could often see Marissa Roberto on stage hosting live esports events. The longtime gamer consults and produces for TSN (as well as hosting Digital SportsCentre on Instagram Live). A big part of her job is introducing esports to a sports audience that might not be familiar with it, which is sometimes challenging.
“You’ll hear about something happening on Twitch or somebody’s in trouble because of a scandal,” the charismatic host says over the phone. “But if you don’t have a grasp on that world, it’s hard to contextualize everything.”
Part of the problem is that there is no one competitive gaming scene in Toronto. Fans of sports games aren’t necessarily fans of first-person shooters, who in turn aren’t likely to be playing and watching fighting games. Each game has its own community, with their own Discord servers, their own streamers (who can get huge audiences and become celebrities within their worlds) and their own events and tournaments.
“Sometimes they cross over, but not often,” says Roberto. “Even mainstream gaming and esports are two totally different things.”
Ironically, the rising popularity of esports is another obstacle to its crossover appeal. Audience stats can be huge, which means big sponsors and investors come calling. But the “fancy numbers” can be inflated based on the platform. Are the streaming views concurrent? Are they carrying day over day? Are big clickthroughs based on an agreement where one channel gets promoted on another bigger channel? It’s often hard to tell.
“There are a lot of snake oil salesmen,” she warns. “Sponsors are interested because of the eyeballs and streamers with huge followings. In any industry, when they see dollar signs, the sharks will always circle. And because of that, it’s hard to navigate who’s for real and who’s just trying to get those sponsor dollars.”
When it comes to competitive gaming, there’s a spectrum. There are small LAN parties (groups of multiplayer gamers on a local internet network) and higher-level community tournaments that anyone can enter (but that often attract higher-tier gamers known on the circuit). Then there are the professional esports leagues.
The term “esports” can trip up people who are used to thinking “sports” equals baseball or basketball rather than video games like Overwatch or League Of Legends. But, until professional sports returned from pandemic pause, many sports-starved fans turned to esports to fill cravings for live competition. TSN and Sportsnet have even started airing esports content, though it doesn’t get nearly the same viewership numbers as online.
Esports leagues do function similarly to pro sports leagues with teams going against other teams in “seasons” followed by playoffs and championships. There can be drafts and trades, and, until COVID hit, in-person games with big crowds.
Toronto’s franchise in the NBA2K league, Raptors Uprising, is officially affiliated with the Toronto Raptors and owned by the same company, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which also owns the Maple Leafs and Toronto FC. Like the players on those teams, few of the esports players actually hail from Toronto. The team, undefeated and playoff-bound, don’t play as real-life NBA counterparts but rather a roster of custom-made players. Major League Soccer has a pro esports league too, eMLS, with Toronto FC represented in solo play by Philip “PhilB94” Balke, who’s sometimes billed as “Canada’s best FIFA player.”
First-person shooters Call Of Duty and Overwatch have two of the biggest and most popular esports leagues in the world. Maintained by the game developers, the leagues are billion-dollar enterprises that got a big boost during the pandemic.
Toronto Ultra and Toronto Defiant, the city’s pro teams in the respective leagues, are becoming entrenched in the city’s entertainment and pro-sports infrastructure. The owner of both teams, OverActive Media, is loaded with MLSE alumni, along with part owners Abel Tesfaye (aka Scarborough-born pop icon the Weeknd) and young Leafs’ hockey star Mitch Marner. Though both teams kept playing online during the pandemic, they’ll soon have a brick-and-mortar home at a new 7,000-10,000 seat arena OverActive is building near the CNE.
Having an official venue lends legitimacy and visibility, even if 10,000 seats are a fraction of the audience that tunes in online. Presenting live esports is a surprisingly difficult endeavour. You need the right combo of spectacle and competitive gameplay to keep people interested in essentially watching a screen and gamers with controllers.
The production also has to be flawless. “Any technical difficulty that happens, people are going to destroy you in Twitch chat,” Roberto says with a laugh. “Absolutely roasted.”
Having physical real estate in Toronto can make a big difference, and the arena will give the city another concert venue at a time when the music scene is very precarious.
“[It can] show the world, this exists, this is a thing, you can’t just keep ignoring it,” Roberto says. “It might be a niche to the outside world, but for us living in it, it’s massive.”
Over the last decade, Canada has become the third largest hub for video game development. In Toronto, major studios like Ubisoft have offices that develop games in behemoth franchises like Assassin’s Creed while cult classics like Cuphead have also come out of the GTA. The University of Toronto offers an esports scholarship while Ubisoft has launched a North American collegiate Rainbow Six Siege league that has a number of local participants.
Though the many gaming scenes are often quite separate, the one “everything for everyone” event is EGLX. Run by Enthusiast Gaming, which aims to “build the world’s largest network of communities for gamers and esports fans,” it’s a major event that regularly takes over the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for three days in October. Like Fan Expo but for video games, it includes a game developer conference, music conference and esports competitions – all shifting online this year.
Enthusiast owns Luminosity Gaming, a major esports company with teams in Vancouver and Seattle. It also works with athletes and influencers playing Counter Strike, Fortnite and more. The company recently acquired mobile gaming company Pocket Gamer and the Los Angeles-based Omnia Media, making it the largest gaming media platform in North America.
Enthusiast president and founder Menashe Kestenbaum says going online is an opportunity to reach beyond the city.
“It allows us to do things globally,” he says. “[The pandemic] accelerated people’s behaviours. People are getting their entertainment online, they’re making friends online, and if they can’t meet in person they’re still able to talk to each other online. Gaming has become a very social type of entertainment. You can build a real global community, with or without in-person events.”
Gaming was ready for the pandemic. That’s why you’ve seen so many online gaming events like NXNE and the CNE Gaming Garage, which is hosting Fortnite, Valorant and Rocket League tournaments that normally happen at Exhibition Place online from August 21-23. Tournaments like these have a low barrier to entry for casual gamers (at least for a round or two, before they’re inevitably knocked out by pros or semi-pros), and they’re an important way to keep the community engaged.
Super Smash Bros., the battle royale game filled with beloved Nintendo characters, has one of the most hardcore communities, and it benefits from the hooting and hollering of a live crowd. (It’s beyond the scope of this story, but you also can’t ignore the recent #MeToo reckoning as many in the Smash community have been called out for alleged abuse.) The scene is staying active during the pandemic – EGLX and NXNE both have Smash tournaments, while the city’s biggest Smash competition, GOML, recently shifted online from the Better Living Centre.
The two-weekend tournament’s acronym usually stands for Get On My Level but this year stands for Get On My Line. The first weekend was a tournament for Super Smash Bros. Melee, while the second was Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Both were still huge events, with brackets of more than 1,300 and 2,000 players, respectively.
Melee is a 19-year-old game, but it still has such a dedicated following that it’s not unusual to see gamers hauling around Nintendo GameCube (a console that’s two generations old) and sometimes low-def TVs to play it. It hasn’t thrived online like other games have for that reason, but a new system called Slippi recently launched to facilitate smoother online play.
“It can be harder to build community and capture the energy of tournaments when making the transition to online,” says GOML founder/organizer Joe Cribari. “The hype of the crowd and stakes of major tournament wins/losses are hard to replace… [But] we felt strongly that we should try to do a project that brings players together while we’re all stuck at home. It’s a challenging time in and outside of the community and I think it’s important to put on events like this to get people excited.”
Cribari hopes that players will get involved in their local scene again once live events resume. Even if the majority of competitive gaming happens online, in-person events give the Toronto scene an identity and give people a chance to play face-to-face.
For NXNE, live events create overlap between gaming and music – something that remains a challenge while Game Land grows. This year, the two will come together in a series of NXNE After Dark events, which will immediately follow the tournaments. There will also be show matches and events for casual gamers.
“NXNE is totally adaptable,” says Xenarios. “Hopefully we can expand our audience this year. People are looking for something to do, and gaming is the perfect thing to do right now.”