When the pandemic began, 29-year-old entrepreneur Chanakya Ramdev felt cut off from his parents and family in the United States and India, and his fellow startup founders and friends around his home in Waterloo, Ont.
Prior to the outbreak, Mr. Ramdev says he was afraid to purchase a video game console or get too attached to mobile phone games out of fear that it would consume too much of his time. That quickly changed in early 2020, when games like Fortnite and Among Us offered what he refers to as “a social lifeline.”
“I’ve always found the strongest connections I have with people is when we have a shared activity,” he says. “I never felt lonely during the pandemic, because even though we were all in our own houses, it felt like we were sitting next to each other.”
Video games have long held the distinction of being the most lucrative entertainment medium around the globe, but their popularity reached new heights over the last 18 months. According to a recent study conducted by Newzoo, a gaming and e-sports analytics and market research company, mobile, console and PC games are expected to generate a combined US$175.8-billion in 2021, far surpassing all movie box office sales in 2019, which totalled US$42.5-billion, and the entire music industry, which generated US$21.6-billion in 2020.
In 2020, global videogame sales jumped 23.1 per cent, before backsliding a modest 1.1 per cent in 2021, as many, including Mr. Ramdev, found gaming an effective way to connect with others while in lockdown. As of this year, the videogame industry is bigger than the film and North American sports industries combined.
“When everybody got locked down, they started playing videogames,” says Jay Powell, chief executive officer and founder of The Powell Group, a videogame industry consultancy. “It grew to the point that people are now standing around waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it to come crashing down, but it hasn’t shown any signs of crashing.”
The explosion in gaming is great news for the Canadian economy, which punches well above its weight class in the global gaming industry. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada says video game companies contributed $4.5-billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 (the most recent data available), with a majority of employment concentrated in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario. According to Mr. Powell, Canada’s prominence in the industry is largely thanks to generous tax incentives, a relatively low cost of labour, and a robust talent pool.
“Most publishers don’t do their own development, so when they need a new game created, they go out and basically shop it around, the same way you would shop around a contract if you wanted someone to paint your house,” he says. “Because of the tax credits and the value of the Canadian dollar compared to the U.S. dollar and the British pound, Canada is always a first stop for these companies.”
Federal programs like the Canadian Media Fund – a public-private partnership created to support the development of Canadian content – coupled with provincial funding programs have made Canada an attractive market for video game development.
“In Ontario there’s Ontario Creates, and they have interactive digital media funding for commercial projects,” says Ericka Evans, head of production for Phantom Compass, a Toronto and Niagara-based game development studio. “There’s also marketing funding available, and export funding available, which is how we’ve gained that reputation.”
While such funding vehicles were instrumental in building a foundation for Canada’s videogame industry, Ms. Evans says it now has the momentum, and the reputation, to cement its place as a go-to destination for video game projects.
“When a publisher or other game studios want to make a product, they’re going to try to mitigate the risk by going with a company that has proven expertise in that genre, or in the specific technology that they want to use,” she says. “After investing for many years, the entire industry in Canada is reaping the rewards.”
While many industries suffered a disruption as a result of the pandemic, the video game industry was well positioned to maintain its operations. Studios like Phantom Compass have been operating on a remote basis since its founding in 2008, and the industry has long been moving toward a digital download model that allowed for easy consumption during lockdown. Instead of purchasing physical games from a store, consumers can now buy and download games directly to their phones, computers or gaming consoles.
The pandemic also changed the public’s perceptions of video games more broadly. Once the subject of concern regarding violence, addiction, and screen time, the past 18 months have shown the public the more positive, productive and collaborative side of video game culture.
Despite creating video games for a living, Ms. Evans says she had always regulated screen time for her 12-year-old son Wren and 13-year-old daughter Hannah. Like many other parents, Ms. Evans says she now only regulates the type of games her children play and encourages them to spend more time playing video games that can help them learn, build skills, or collaborate with others.
“I limited my children quite severely prior to the pandemic, but gaming became their primary way for socialization,” she says. “The pandemic in general has opened people’s eyes to the full spectrum of games that have always been available, that they aren’t all just violent action shooters with gore, but that there are many types of games out there to be enjoyed.”