ESports community growing quickly in Windsor-Essex
By Justin Prince
Note: This story was first published on TheMediaPlex.com
It’s a busy October morning at a downtown hotel in London, Ont. as staff prepares to host one of the city’s fastest growing conventions.
The workers are busy cooking an assortment of food and drinks outside its 12,300 square-foot ballroom, the largest in the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. Hundreds of people are walking in and out of the main room, some of them stopping to look at a Lego Star Wars collection built in the hallway.
They aren’t there for a regular conference or wedding though. All of them are at the hotel for the second-annual Forest City Comicon and its gaming area inside the hotel.
In the ballroom, its attendees are having fun at the convention while playing games underneath the ballroom’s glass chandeliers. The convention area is divided into two game types – video games and board games.
At the back of the video games section, more than 20 Nintendo Wii U and Nintendo GameCube consoles are set up, having been pre-loaded with one of two games – Super Smash Bros. for Wii U or Super Smash Bros. Melee. Volunteers from Windsor-based company eSport Gaming Events are busy setting up a livestream station to broadcast some of the matches. Convention-goers are watching the action as they walk by while others are lining up to join the Comicon’s first ever eSports tournament.
At 11 a.m., gamers Daniel Banner and his friend Kenadeed Elmi enter the room to sign in for one of the event’s three Super Smash Bros. tournaments after making the 192-kilometre drive from Windsor. The two friends had paid $45 each to compete in the event and to attend the convention across the street. They are among seven Windsor-Essex County gamers who made the trip to London to compete for a prize pool worth about $800.
The growth of eSports over the past few years is something both Banner and Elmi say they couldn’t have ever imagined.
“I find it absolutely nuts, but in a good way.” – Banner on growth of eSports across the world
ESports are organized video game competitions which can vary in size, from small local tournaments to large-scale events that fill entire stadiums.
Their origins can be traced back to 1972, when students at Stanford University competed in a Spacewar video game tournament. The winners received a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone.
The first large-scale event wasn’t until 1980 when gaming company Atari hosted the Space Invaders Championship. More than 10,000 people played in the tournament, helping competitive gaming become a mainstream hobby.
During the 1990s, companies such as Nintendo and Blockbuster Video also held their own events.
ESports have grown rapidly in recent years. The number of tournaments held yearly has grown from 10 events in 2000 to 697 worldwide in 2012 according to E-Sports Earnings.
They’re also becoming easier to watch with the rise of Twitch.TV, a website which allows people to stream themselves playing video games. Twitch averages anywhere between more than 200,000 and more than one million viewers at any given time according to TwitchApps.com.
The amount of money invested in the competitions has grown as well.
In the early 2000s, the Cyberathlete Professional League’s events had prize pools worth $100,000 each. Since 2011, 16 events have had prize pools worth more than $1 million. In August, more than 17,000 gamers filled KeyArena in Seattle for a DOTA 2 tournament to watch teams compete for a prize pool worth more than $18 million.
Media companies such as ESPN, TBS and Cineplex Odeon Corporation have also invested money in eSports in one way or another in the past few months.
As well, some professional players make more than $100,000 a year from competing in events and from sponsorship deals, having to practice daily to stay at the top of their game.
“I find it absolutely nuts, but in a good way,” says Banner about the growth of eSports. The personal support worker moved to McGregor, Ont. from Windsor a few months ago. “I remember back when I was first introduced to StarCraft and how there was an eSports scene behind it … I was actually really bad for this in college where if the Global StarCraft 2 League was going on, I would sit there and watch videos of it (on Twitch) for hours on end and I would accidentally skip my classes because I just didn’t keep track of time.”
Growth of eSports in Windsor
The growth seen in eSports is also happening in Windsor. Over the past few years, gaming tournaments have been held at both the University of Windsor and St. Clair College which have attracted hundreds of local gamers.
ESport Gaming Events, which was started by a group of local university graduates a few years ago, now holds events across Ontario. They had first started holding events while being a part of groups such as the Lancer Alliance of Gamers. EGE president Sten Dragoti says they held tournaments for fun before starting their own company a few years ago.
“When I first started doing these kind of events and stuff with the Lancer Alliance of Gamers, I didn’t realize eSports was a thing,” says Shaun Byrne, the CEO of EGE. “It was through that experience and learning from other people who were coming to our events that we’ve realized this is a growing industry and that it can only go up from here.”
Originally, they had a goal to break even with each event it held. Dragoti and Byrne wouldn’t provide details on how much revenue events generate today because they said it varies with each event.
“The change has been significant in some areas and minimal in others,” says Dragoti, who is one of four full-time employees at EGE. “We’re still a grassroots company … Even to this day from when we started until now, we still rely on the community a lot. We still try to keep our feet on the ground and stay in touch with what the community wants and what games are popular at the time.”
In August, the company opened the Kappa Gaming Lounge on Tecumseh Road East. It was created to give local gamers somewhere to play Super Smash Bros. competitively. More than 20 people play at the lounge on some nights. The facility also hosts monthly competitions which can have up to 64 competitors.
Before opening, EGE had difficulties making money because of the cost to rent a venue. Byrne says the lounge was opened partially to help the company generate revenue in the long run, but also because there was a need for it.
“We knew that there was all kinds of these … Smash players, but they had nowhere to play and the community was kind of struggling because of that. They didn’t have a unifying centre where they could all get together and compete on a weekly basis,” says Byrne. “Kappa was built so that those players can come together and improve together. Now, a lot of those players are starting to look outwardly and are travelling since they’re realizing that they’re starting to get better at the games. It’s definitely working out like we had planned.”
The lounge is also expanding what it offers. It has started holding tournaments for other games such as Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. As well, Banner, who volunteers with EGE a few days a week, came up with the idea of Arcadian Week, which created to help encourage Kappa’s top players to teach other people how to improve their play styles.
“It’s been pretty crazy over the last year. If you told me we would have had our own little building to play Smash in and dedicated weeklies and monthlies, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” says Elmi, who is known as Kobe at KGL. “New people are coming every week and hopefully later on we attract Michigan players and out-of-town players because that’s how Windsor’s going to get better.”
But there are a lot of challenges people can face with running an eSports tournament. Dragoti says EGE has changed its game structure completely from when it first started. For example, he says many people played StarCraft 2 during its first events. Today, he says people are more interested in games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Dragoti says EGE also tries to attract both the casual and competitive gaming communities with its events.
The company has also been increasing the scale of its events. For example, the company co-hosted Enthusiast Gaming Live in Toronto with Even Matchup Gaming, a player-led professional video game organization from the city. That tournament had a prize pool worth about $12,000 according to Dragoti.
EGE is also preparing to host another tournament in the Greater Toronto Area called Good Game Con next May with EMG and Toronto-based company ESports Network. Good Game Con currently has a projected prize pool worth $13,000.
“Obviously as you scale up in your events, the level of difficulty of running these events becomes greater and there’s more complexities involved,” says Dragoti. “Obviously the fixed costs also rise, but at the same time, you can reach out to a much larger community and a much more competitive community than you would with a small-time local area network tournament.”
Not everyone likes eSports
Despite eSports becoming more popular each day, some people still don’t like how in some cases video game tournaments have become comparable to sporting events.
One of those people is sports media personality Colin Cowherd.
During his show The Herd, Cowherd has done a few segments where he speaks negatively about eSports. In one segment, he compared watching video games to “putting a gun in (his) mouth.” In September, after Cowherd did a segment called “eSports is for booger eaters”, he received heavy criticism a wide range of people, from casual listeners to athletes like NBA forward Gordon Hayward to sports media outlets.
“Those kind of debates have been going on for a while, even going back to poker for example,” says Byrne, who considers the debate petty. “When poker first started becoming a thing, people were complaining like ‘Why is this on ESPN? Poker isn’t a sport.’ Meanwhile, poker has stuck around and it’s a really big deal. I don’t see why that if poker can be a sport, why eSports can’t. I would argue that eSports takes more physical activity than poker does.”
Who is Banner?
Back in London, the three tournaments are underway. A crowd of people has filled the eight rows of chairs placed in the middle of the competition area. Most of them are watching a direct feed of EGE’s Twitch broadcast on a large projector screen.
Minutes prior, Banner and the 26 other gamers in the Sm4sh competition had received instructions on how to play their games during the pool round and a sheet of paper to record their wins and losses. The top players from each pool would then move onto the bracket round. A few of the players are young enough to be in Grade 5.
Growing up, Banner didn’t realize how big a role eSports would have in his life.
Banner, also known in the local eSports community as Danners, had first played video games when he was five years old. He played a variety of games, from Putt Putt’s Adventures to the Pokémon franchise. His parents had also bought him a modded PlayStation 1, allowing him to download any game available for the system. Like many young gamers, he played for fun.
When StarCraft 2 was released in 2010, he decided to dedicate a lot of time into playing the game. The decision came after playing mostly fan-made modes in its previous edition. Soon afterwards, he was asked if he wanted to play in a tournament by Dragoti, who he had known since he was nine years old. It was the first time he had ever played competitively.
"I got wrecked to say it bluntly," says Banner, now 23 years old. "But through defeat you learn and it kind of opened my eyes at 'Wow. Some people are really good at this game.'"
The tournament was Banner's first look into the world of eSports and streaming and he was immediately hooked. A few months later, Dragoti invited him to come to a much larger tournament – the Major League Gaming Pro Circuit in Orlando, Fla.
"I knew I would get completely destroyed, but I figured I could actually see the players I’m watching on streams and I can go play against them, so I went for it," says Banner, who was in high school at the time. "It was a pretty interesting experience. I got to go on a plane for the first time and was in another country without my parents or any real like knowledge for the first time ever."
The two friends would both eventually play each other in the second round of the event. Dragoti, who was playing in his first major eSports tournament, was heavily favoured to win the match.
“We’ve played before and Daniel knew I was the heavily-favoured to win that match, so we just kind of had a fun time during the match,” says Dragoti. “I wanted to make the game interesting and I didn’t want to have a bad experience with him … It was unfortunate that we met that early, but it was unavoidable.”
Dragoti would go on to beat Banner in a 2-0 sweep according to StarCraft 2 competition wiki site Liquipedia. Despite the loss, Banner still considers his experience at MLG Orlando to be his best moment in eSports.
"It wasn’t until afterwards that I was sitting in the MLG arena and watching the finals being played when I just realized, 'This is actually just really awesome. I hope I can keep doing this,'" says Banner. "The fact that Windsor is slowly starting to grow with the EGE guys and the college (St. Clair College) and all the people trying to help it grow, I can’t thank them enough."
“Gaming has been a big part of my life for so long that I have a hard time picturing life without it whatsoever.” – Banner on how much longer he plans to play video games
Although Banner has never won a tournament, he says he’s come close to winning a few times, the closest being an eighth place finish at a StarCraft 2 tournament in 2013. He considers that finish to be his benchmark for future competitions.
“It was actually the first time I actually got a prize,” says Banner. “I don’t remember if it was just a t-shirt or what, but it was like ‘Hey, I actually won something from a tournament.’ I actually felt rather happy with that eighth place finish and I’ve been trying to beat that ever since.”
Today, Banner mainly plays in Super Smash Bros. tournaments at Kappa. He sets aside about one hour each day to practice. He estimates he spends about 15 hours a week between playing in competitions and volunteering with EGE.
“At this point gaming has been a big part of my life for so long that I have a hard time picturing life without it whatsoever. I realized it’s going to have to get cut down eventually,” says Banner. “I have a girlfriend. I plan on marrying her one day and I know I’m not going to be able to sit down for 20 hours a week playing games. But, I hope to have it still be a part of my casual break time for as long as I can until my hands stop working like they used to."
By 6 p.m., the Forest City Comicon is drawing to a close. Some of the convention’s volunteers are busy packing up one of the gaming booths. But the final matches for the gaming tournament are still underway, with the large crowds who were watching the event hours prior shrinking down to a group of 10 spectators.
Among the people still watching is Banner, who had been eliminated by narrow margin in the pool stage of the tournament. He’s busy cheering on Elmi, who is competing in the Sm4sh finals against a player from Toronto.
Although Banner was eliminated early in the event, he’s still in a positive mood. He’s happy because someone from Windsor’s growing eSports scene has the chance to win a tournament in a city 192 kilometres away from home.