Jamie Craven’s first eSports tournament was held in a pub in his hometown of Leeds, in Northern England. Now the eSports competitor known as “Insight” – a nickname Mr. Craven assigned himself as a teenager after searching the dictionary for “the coolest word” he could find – represents Toronto on the global stage.
The 22-year-old gamer says he’s spent much of his professional video gaming career living out of a suitcase, but now the Call of Duty player is getting ready to compete in his adopted hometown. In late 2021, the City of Toronto approved the construction of a new entertainment venue that will be purpose-built to host eSports competitions, giving Mr. Craven’s team – the Toronto Ultra – a permanent home, while solidifying the city and country’s place within the global eSports community.
“It’s going to give the Canadians a hub where they can make it their home; they can go there to see the best teams go at it,” he says, adding, “eSports is just getting bigger and bigger in Canada.”
The new venue, which is being built by Toronto-based OverActive Media, will represent a turning point for video game competitors in the country once its construction is completed, which is scheduled for 2025. Until then, the industry will be forced to continue retrofitting venues that were built for concerts and traditional sports, long before video game competitions were held in venues larger than a pub.
“I remember my first event at the Bell Centre, they set up the audio [as if it were a] rock concert, with speakers on the stage – but you can’t do that, because now the players can hear the audio of the game and the commentators, and they can cheat, because they know where the other teams are,” explains Carl-Edwin Michel, the chief executive officer of Northern Arena Productions, which has organized eSports tournaments in Canada since 2015. “Little things like that make a big difference, which is why having a venue that is dedicated to eSports is ideal.”
Mr. Michel explains that the audio setup is just one of many factors that is unique to eSports venues. Facilities for eSports – such as those that currently exist in Europe, Asia, and throughout the United States – are often built for interactivity, providing fans the opportunity to engage directly with the competitors on stage, compete against each other on the sidelines, and stream live content. They also typically spare no expense when it comes to audio and video quality, providing fans with a highly immersive digital spectator experience.
“In the U.S. there are a few, and in Europe and Asia – those are the markets where eSports has grown for decades,” says Mr. Michel. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing like that in Canada, for now.”
That will change once the doors open on the OverActive facility. In fact, even the announcement of the new venue improved the country’s reputation within the eSports community, Mr. Michel adds. “When that arena was announced it wasn’t just in Canada where people were excited, it was in the States, it was around the world; it blew up.”
Where Canada does have a long history and a strong reputation in the gaming industry is in the production and development of games themselves. In fact, Canada is the third-largest producer of video games on earth, behind only Japan and the United States, with the industry contributing $5.5-billion to the country’s GDP in 2021.
“Based on the latest research there are already 5.7 million declared eSport fans in this country, and there are just about 10 million declared NBA [National Basketball Association] fans,” says OverActive Media’s CEO Chris Overholt.
Prior to founding the live entertainment brand in 2018, Mr. Overholt helped market the launch of the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) in 1998 and served as the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
“Building out the Raptors brand was 25 years’ worth of work,” he continues. “To have declared eSports fans in this country already [number] more than half of what the NBA audience is, that says to me that we’ve already got a running start.”
Mr. Overholt adds that the new venue isn’t just intended to put Toronto on pace with other cities, but “to set a new standard for the industry.”
The 7,000-seat facility in Toronto’s Liberty Village and in the heart of Exhibition Place will serve as the home of OverActive Media’s two Toronto-based eSports teams – the Toronto Ultra and Toronto Defiant – and serve as an intimate venue for all kinds of live entertainment events. It is also being built future-ready, says Mr. Overholt.
“The way you enjoy a hockey game today or a basketball game – or even the way you might enjoy an eSports experience today – all of that stands to be changed very dramatically,” he says. “Technology is going to be defining those fan experiences in the next decade.”
Mr. Overholt explains that emerging technologies like Blockchain, 5G mobile connectivity, virtual reality and the metaverse, among others, stand to redefine live entertainment in the years ahead.
“What we are building is a sports media and entertainment company for today’s generation of fans; a generation of Canadians that thinks differently about sports and media and entertainment,” he says.
“We’re going to build a home for that generation in the same way that the Air Canada Centre – now the Scotiabank Arena – has been a home for all of us who love the Leafs and the Raptors over the last 25 years.”