When first venturing into Bloor West Koreatown's cybercafés, with their foil-covered windows, posters of Amazon warriors and film noir lighting, I was intimidated. I imagined secret societies, techno-fiends on the make. But my curiosity about these anonymous cluttered gaming dens and the hive-like intensity of their habitués was piqued.
I always wondered how the strip between Bathurst and Christie supported so many cybercafés. So I decided to investigate further.
My trek begins just after noon, travelling west from the Annex. My first stop - Double Clik Internet Café and Games (595 Bloor West, $2/hour). The outside looks promising, if a bit rundown, like a discount computer store. Inside, it's a stripped-down room filled with large monitors to which gangs of teenagers are attached, gleefully killing.
"If you don't like the noise here," the Indian owner says, "we have a back room for the elderly people."
At Gig@byte (618 Bloor West, 416-531-0030, $1.50/hour, cheaper with membership), heads swivel like I just shook my spurs in the wrong saloon. Once my eyes adjust to the dark and the glow of the screens, I notice the machines: rad silver mofos with LED monitors displaying their core temperature.
The gamers trash-talk as they play endless rounds of the counter-terrorist simulator Counter-Strike. Watching their war of attrition, I can't help but wonder, shouldn't they be in school?
Gig@byte's Korean manager, John, is also an addict, pausing his online Lineage gaming only when his duties demand it.
"In my country, especially when I was a high school student, I'd always play games with my friends. It's really crazy about games there."
According to the Korean Times, the space strategy game StarCraft beats out major league baseball as the spectator sport of choice for young people in Korea. Some of the country's newspapers have even moved video gaming from the technology to the sports section.
"You can watch games on TV," John continued, "and some people are really professional. Companies like Samsung will sponsor them to practise and play games all day to improve their skills. We call them pro gamers."
Maybe these places are a kind of school - a training camp for the future Canadian team.
Next up, Nexus Web Café (630 Bloor West, 416-538-8898, $2.50/hour), whose two-storey plastic facade has a sci-fi look, but the pastel set-up inside is actually welcoming, with comfortable, semi-private booths. Nexus is the quietest café by far. Fun is not a priority here, though; the games haven't been updated for a few years. This would be the ideal place to print up a cover letter, but it might not be here for long.
The manager shakes his head and says, "The business has really slowed down."
My final stop is the basement of Clinton's Tavern (693 Bloor West, 416-535-9541, $2/hour or $1/hour with membership). The recently refurbished room is delightfully dark, and massive painted posters for StarCraft and Warcraft fill the walls. The place is pretty calm now, but that probably won't last. I ask the manager, a young guy named Mark, about the competition.
"Are cybercafés doing well? Nah - two just went out of business," Mark laughs as he sets me up on a machine. "Everyone's got a home computer!"
I wonder if these communal arcades have been eclipsed by the ability to pretend you're an Ork barbarian while still wearing your bathrobe. But then again, the café's have something going for them that rec rooms don't.
"Yeah, I come here because some of the guys I met playing here I've known for, like, two years," Mark says. "And when we're playing these aggressive, massively multi-player games together here in teams, we're kicking the ass of anyone out there, because we're yelling at each other and sharing plans. We just dominate."
When I realize it's getting close to 3:30 pm, I cut him off. I don't want to be here when school gets out.